PR TECHNIQUE: Questioning the firms that ask the questions

Knowing when to perform market research is a good starting point. From then on, however, there are myriad questions to ask a potential provider.

Knowing when to perform market research is a good starting point. From then on, however, there are myriad questions to ask a potential provider.

In August, PRWeek undertook a survey to which more than half of all respondents said their organization spent at least $10,000 annually on market research. Sixty-six percent said market research was of above-average importance to the success of their best PR campaigns. Given the apparent value placed on this tactic, what steps should communicators take to ensure they select the right provider? Of primary importance is having a clear understanding of what your needs are. Market-research firms range from large entities with global capabilities, such as Research International, to mom-and-pop shops that focus solely on niche markets. There are firms with well-known names, such as Roper, Gallop, Jupiter, or Harris, and others with brands that are less established. Some specialize in particular industries or methodologies, while others are known as generalists. Maximizing the effectiveness of hiring a market-research firm is incumbent on selecting a company that is well suited to servicing your individual intentions. Several PR agencies and in-house communications teams hire market-research firms for publicity purposes, which oftentimes involves commissioning a survey. "Market research can be a great way to get press for a client," says David Rockland, SVP, global director of research for Ketchum's internal research division. "Look at Sarbanes-Oxley. The best way to raise publicity about that was to perform a survey of accountants." In cases where studies are commissioned for publicity purposes, paying a sometimes slightly higher fee to hire a firm with a reputable brand name makes sense. "If the results are going to be made publicly available, the name of a market-research company matters a lot," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer for Burson-Marsteller. When the need to publicize research arises, finding a firm that "really understands PR" is as important as the company's name, adds Gaines-Ross. "You can't work with a firm that is going to put you through a difficult and long process every time you need to send a press release about the survey out. They must understand a PR person's need for timeliness." The need for market-research companies to thoroughly understand PR is a main reason proponents give for developing in-house research divisions at agencies. PRWeek's survey revealed that 59% of respondents do some form of in-house research, but a handful of agencies have gone so far as to formalize internal research divisions with their own bottom lines. "Market research and campaign development are not two separate trains of thought," says Jennifer Scott, GM for Strategy One, Edelman's in-house shop. "There is an informal component of collaboration that you find internally. Being affiliated with Edelman, we are ingrained in a PR culture, so we're always thinking, 'What does this mean?' That is an advantage, even to clients that might be working with a different AOR." Ketchum's Rockland agrees, and says the firm's immersion in PR has been a perk to all clients. He points to the example of Washington Mutual, which was working with two agencies other than Ketchum to implement its PR plans, but hired the firm's Global Research Network to perform preliminary market research. "Because we are a PR firm, we are just in the habit of telling people what they should do with results," explains Rockland. "The difference between an internal and external market-research company is that little bit of counsel. We're able to answer the 'So what?' question." Some feel, however, that external research companies bring an element of objectivity that internal groups can't deliver when working for their own client. "A PR agency assessing its own performance can create a conflict of interest," says Hugh Clifton, VP for Carma. "Hiring an external company frees up the PR firm to focus on what it does best - developing communications strategies." Other conflicts of interest that those seeking a market-research provider should look out for are ones between a firm's existing client bases. While working with a company that has expertise in your particular industry can be crucial, it also means there is an increased likelihood that they have some involvement with your competition. Healthcare, for example, "is a world of its own," says Gaines-Ross. "You need to find a market-research company that understands how to reach out to physicians. At the same time, you must look at how closely aligned that firm is with competitors." In addition to being industry specific, many market-research companies have expertise with particular methodologies, which again, depending on what your goal is, can range from minimally to extremely important. Surveys conducted by phone, for example, cost more than ones performed online. Interviewees that are considered more difficult to reach, such as CEOs, can raise the price of market research as well. Bob Novick, president of Impulse Research, explains, "It's a lot easier to gather feedback from the general population than it is to interview 40 to 60 men who are experiencing erectile dysfunction." It is imperative to do your own research to find out which firms have the methodological capabilities you need to avoid overpaying, or worse, not capturing the right audience. It's also good to investigate the fielding vendor that a prospective research company uses to field its surveys. If a firm is skimping on its vendor in hopes that clients won't know the difference, it's a probable indicator of the overall quality that company is likely to deliver. Strategy One's Scott calls asking a market-research firm about its fielding vendor "the ultimate behind-the-scenes work." She adds, "You will look like a savvy client if you ask them that." ----- Technique tips Do speak with clients that have previously worked with the prospective market-research company Do find out the level of seniority of the people from the firm that are going to be working on your research Do investigate what methodologies a prospective provider uses when conducting research Don't hire a market-research company that is too closely associated with a competitor Don't spend extra money on a big-name firm unless it's necessary for what you're looking to accomplish Don't hire a market-research company that has no experience with the industry that you're interested in learning about

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