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Making the most of research

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My love affair with research began more than 20 years ago. At the time, I was publisher of Dairy Foods magazine, my first publisher assignment at Gorman Publishing Co. in Chicago. Bill Gorman and John Gorman were one of the most forward-thinking duos of their day. They knew how to build big advertising programs. They knew how to keep the business. And they weren't afraid to invest. Research was one of their keys.

Like other leading publishers of the day, each Gorman publication had the research necessary to establish the market, its size and composition, and the buying power of its audience. One of our secret weapons, though, was using proprietary research to keep large advertising programs.

Having been both an editor and circulator prior to becoming a publisher, I was sure that it was the editorial environment and the circulation focus that sold the business. But I quickly learned that while editorial and circulation built the brands, it was the research we did for our advertising clients that kept them wedded to us.

We conducted individual, proprietary research studies at no charge for these advertisers as long as we had a significant ad commitment from them. The research told each advertiser how their products and their competitors' products were perceived by their customers and prospects on multiple attributes, such as price, service, customer and technical support, product development counsel and other potential points of differentiation.

Each summer we would conduct the studies and provide year-over-year comparisons to see how, and if, each company's marketing and advertising campaigns had changed perceptions and actions. The findings were always directional and actionable, and provided the basis for our clients' communications messages for the coming year.

My next publisher assignment was to turn around a 2-year-old magazine that was bleeding seven digits. I knew I needed research! Focus groups helped us define a unique position in the market. An audience profile and purchasing study proved the position. A clear, customizable presentation articulated the position in the words of the buyer. It made sense and was grounded in solid research. We drove the top line, while right-sizing the expense budget, and black ink began to appear on the bottom line within 24 months.

Research. ... I knew it wouldn't let me down!

Fast-forward to the current business environment. Advertising is under siege, the mantra is ROI and subscriptions are in decline. At the same time, media companies need to make investments in products that are not dependent on print advertising revenue.

Research, the thing we used to give away in order to sell advertising, now needs its own business model and a price tag.

In her "Documenting the Value of Business Media Through Research," Jane Rogers, president of Preston/Rogers Associates, a research consultancy, identifies several critical components of the research mix.

Research to know. What are the trends in the industries we serve, what markets do we invest in, what are our audience's needs, what products do we launch, how are we perceived?

Research to support sales. How big is the market, how many players, who are they? Who are our readers, visitors, attendees? Who do they work for and what do they purchase? How do they interact with us, why and how often? What do they want from industry suppliers and what do they think of them? How do we stack up with other media serving the industry?

Research to keep the customer sold. Do your prospects know who you are? What do your customers and prospects think about you and your products? What do they plan to buy and when? Who do they prefer to do business with? Who is interested in learning more about your products? How can we help you find and communicate with potential customers?

Research to generate revenue. What do professionals in the market need and want to know? Trends, projections, forecasts, rankings, purchasing data, salaries-all of the above and more, syndicated or customized.

Research defines who we are and what we do. It differentiates us from those who purport to do what we do. It proves the value of what we bring to the market. It makes us smarter and makes our customers smarter. It enables us to go well beyond an ROI challenge. It solidifies relationships. And as an industry, we need to do more of it.

Peggy Walker is president of Vance Publishing Corp. She can be reached at pwalker@vancepublishing.com.

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