And while there are some drawbacks to online research, most companies find it helps them plan for new Web campaigns and overall marketing strategies.
Online market research gained attention earlier this month when four leading market research companies partnered with Digital Marketing Services, Dallas, to conduct custom research on AOL.
The companies are ASI Market Research, Custom Research Inc., M/A/R/C Research and Roper Starch Worldwide.
Meanwhile, many marketers are conducting their own research online.
"If Internet users are our target population, this makes a great way to reach them," said Deborah Nicklaus, business research analyst at Eastman Kodak Co.
Kodak does its own online focus groups, product and customer satisfaction surveys, in addition to using outside market research companies including ASI and NFO Interactive.
Ms. Nicklaus said that for developing online products and services, such as the Kodak Picture Network (www.kodak.com), testing online campaigns, and getting feedback from customers, the Web is a valuable research tool.
It's cost-effective, allows the marketer to get thousands of responses to a given survey, and in many cases allows Kodak to reach its target audience, she said.
However, added Ms. Nicklaus, "If you're targeting U.S. households, using an interactive panel is not representative."
Other researchers note some drawbacks to online research.
Marianne Foley, VP-interactive at ASI, Stamford, Conn., said Internet panelists often want anonymity and are reluctant to give out their e-mail addresses, making it tough to recruit them.
Another problem is working with content sites that don't want visits interrupted, she added.
However, she said that through the DMS partnership, the researchers will be able to solve some of these issues.
POINTS FOR PRIZES
DMS, which is 70% owned by AOL and 30% owned by M/A/R/C, will conduct online surveys in AOL's Opinion Place area, with an average base of 1,000 respondents per survey. AOL will give points to respondents that can be traded in for prizes, and users will not have to submit e-mail addresses in order to participate.
However, cautions Rex Briggs, VP at market research firm MBinteractive, San Francisco, "With these incentive schemes with a link off a home page or a chance to win a prize, you are projecting your results to a warped sample of people who take surveys to win prizes, and not necessarily to your target market."
MBinteractive, a division of Millward Brown International, uses a "click-stream intercept" approach, in which it randomly samples online users and gives them a chance to participate or decline. It reported a 75% cooperation rate on a survey of interstitial ads it conducted for Berkeley Systems.
With the AOL custom surveys, DMS will measure response to advertisers' online campaigns before they run and gather information from potential consumers.
"AOL can give you a fairly healthy amount [of information], but they can't tell you whether [consumers] buy your product, or are interested in your product or buy your competitors' products," said DMS President Dennis Gonier.
Compared with conventional Web tracking data, which measure ad delivery and click-through rates after the ad buy, the market research data are intended to gauge consumer attitudes and other subjective information that will help media buyers plan their campaigns.
ASI, for example, will conduct online research through the DMS partnership for a consortium of advertisers, including Kodak, IBM Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Sprint Corp., General Motors Corp. and Visa.
The research will evaluate online copy for Web campaigns, online ad tracking and client Web sites.
REACHING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
"There are cost efficiencies, and you're guaranteed of reaching your target audience," said Ms. Foley.
Mr. Gonier from DMS notes that online surveys are quicker to turn around than conventional research methods such as mall interception, are more successful in gathering a large enough sample-particularly since the average telephone survey refusal rate is now at about 40%-and are cheaper to manage.
While the average mall interception survey of 1,000 respondents would typically cost advertisers between $30,000 and $40,000, DMS charges an average of $20,000 for an online survey of the same scope, said Mr. Gonier. However, financial terms of the agreement with the four research companies were not disclosed.
Other traditional market researchers who have ventured into the online world note the pros and cons of online research.
"The Web is a very seductive medium for the market research world," said Charlie Hamlin, exec VP of Interactive Business Development for NFO Interactive, which conducts online surveys from a panel of 70,000 interactive households.
"It can do things-if you have the right systems-that are very alluring," he said, pointing to graphics and eventually full-motion video product presentation.
Added Rudy Nadilo, president of Greenfield Online, Stamford, Conn., "Web advertising is often an extension of a larger campaign utilizing traditional media.
"The challenge is to isolate the impact of the Web advertising relative to the