Answer this question: Do you use online research to better understand your customers or your markets?
If you answered no, you are in ranks that are thinning. According to Inside Research, 43% of survey research last year was conducted online.
While most quantitative research now done online is consumer-focused, b-to-b companies “are going the same way,'' said Brad M. Bortner, an analyst at Forrester Research. Bortner estimated that the online research market has reached the hundreds of millions of dollars, and between 20% to 30% of that belongs to b-to-b companies.
Online research has lagged at b-to-b organizations in part because these companies have much smaller audiences—read “potential survey takers''—than their b-to-c brethren; and there have been concerns that business decisions based on small samples won't yield useful results.
But online surveys (by far the most popular form of online market research), as well as search and site analytics, are taking hold at b-to-b companies. And they are being joined by a burgeoning use of online communities to conduct qualitative research.
Matthew Harrison, director of business development and finance at B2B International, said about 15% of the company's overall research happens online. He added that online research is almost always a complement to traditional research methods, and that quantitative online research is limited by the availability of qualified contact lists. However, when those lists are available, it is indeed a fast way to gather data, he added.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. began using online surveys about a decade ago, when customers started asking to take customer satisfaction surveys online, said Neil E. Marcus, director of marketing research at MetLife's Institutional Business division. He said MetLife now uses online surveys for product development, communications, to test ads and for its employee benefits trends study, a crucial piece of research, he added.
The bottom line is that online surveys work out well for both MetLife and its customers. “We give them what they want and we get our costs down and, also, produce and report much more quickly,'' Marcus said.
MetLife also combines online tools with phone calls to do product development, sending information on potential financial services products, which tend to be complex, then walking through the documents on the phone. “They give us good answers we wouldn't have gotten if we did the whole thing online,'' Marcus said.
Qualitative online tools are now emerging, including what Forrester's Bortner called “market research online communities'' (MROCs). MROCs can take the form of online panels—which are offered by companies such as e-Rewards Inc. and LinkedIn—or fully fledged online communities.
These should be powerful tools for b-to-b marketers, said Ralph Oliva, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business. “In a virtual community, [a b-to-b company] can have a census, almost a whole marketplace in one place,'' Oliva said
One early adopter of online communities for b-to-b research is Xerox Corp. In March, the company rolled out its first such community, Dreaming in Color, in conjunction with the AIIM/-On-Demand conference.
George Gibson, program manager-advanced inkjet platforms at Xerox, said the company created the community so both attendees and those who could not attend the show could share their thoughts on Xerox products. To encourage participation, the company offered a chance to win a Xerox 990 printer to people who sign up and use the community.
Gibson said Xerox tested the concept with an advisory council of customers and found that it promoted better customer dialogue than did traditional research methods. “This is the marketing equivalent of the Vulcan mind-meld,” he said. Xerox will run the community for a week after the show has closed, then shut it down. Gibson said it's too early to know how well it worked, but Xerox will use the tool again.
There are downsides to online research. Tools such as SurveyMonkey.com are now so familiar and easy to use that many marketers now bypass company researchers to gather data—which can lead to poorly structured surveys that yield poor data, or worse, create survey exhaustion on the part of customers.
Online research also does not allow for the kind of open-ended probing that telephone research does, said MetLife's Marcus. He added that, for surveys, response rates tend to fall into the 40% range, as opposed to 60% for the telephone.
Online research that offers incentives like Xerox's printer also attracts “professional respondents,'' which can skew results. Methods to counter this problem include using trap questions to flush out these particular people or computer-based fingerprinting technologies from such companies as Peanut Labs and MarketTools Inc..
Doing b-to-b research online does mean “you have to be very careful,'' said Forrester's Bortner. But it has big pluses as a medium, especially around cost-savings and the speed of data-gathering. Lastly, the potential to use online communities to build deep relationships with customers gives b-to-b marketers another reason to take a look online.
Originally published April 6, 2009