Now They Sell It, Now They Don’t

It's a good thing that I have a high tolerance for uncertainty and change, or I'd have been driven to drink by the changes in the econtent field over the last couple of years. It's been a great thing for info pros; we have access to content that wasn't even online a few years ago, and we have lots more choices than we did when the only model for econtent was either a high-priced subscription or "give it away for free and make money off the (often annoying) ads."

On the other hand, finding market research online has gotten more difficult every year. Instead of going to the usual supermarket sources—Dialog, Profound, and the like—we now have to hit the Web aggregators such as and the Web sites of the market research firms themselves, many of whom are now in the business of selling their reports on an à la carte basis to anyone with a credit card. So, let me share my pain with you regarding a couple of recent experiences as I tried to buy market research online.

I was conducting a market analysis of the dog chow industry, a fitting project for this owner of two dogs with monstrous appetites. (I was hoping I might be able to score free samples, but no such luck.) In addition to the usual trade and industry publications, I looked for relevant reports on a number of market research aggregator sites. I tend to gravitate to the ones that—at no charge—let me view the full table of contents and the key search terms in context; that way, I have some idea of whether or not it's worth paying several thousand dollars for five or ten pages of text.

Interestingly, I found the same report available through several sources, and the price ranged from $500 to $1500 for the same content. It sure pays to shop around. So, being no fool, I went to the site with the lowest price and merrily followed the prompts to purchase and download the section I needed. However, half-way through the order, I noticed that the only delivery options listed involved hard copy: overnight, snail mail, and fax. I called the customer service and spoke with a helpful person who walked me through the process and waited on the phone to make sure that the download was successful. She acknowledged that the order form was "kind of funky" and needed work, but at least I got what I needed, within a few minutes.

My second experience was far less satisfactory. I was at another market research firm's site and had identified the report that looked useful. Since there was no table of contents or in-depth description of the contents, I clicked the icon labeled "contact a representative for more information about this publication." After providing the requisite details, I was assured that "a sales representative will contact you with information on how to purchase this item." I waited three days. No call, no email. When I finally followed up, a principal of the company told me that "we misunderstood your note so didn't follow up." Huh? You folks designed the form; how could you not understand your own contact lead? What part of "tell me how to buy this" don't you understand? On top of that, I discovered that the posted price was inaccurate; it was actually $500 less than what was listed on the Web site. "Yes, there's a glitch in our system," the principal told me. I wonder which of the two prices would have shown up on my credit card statement.

What did I learn from these two experiences? First, make it as easy as possible for an eager, willing buyer to talk to a representative, live. And that doesn't just mean business hours in your location; it's as close to 24/7 as you can manage. That customer service rep who walked me through the download of a few pages of a report was in the office on Veterans' Day, a holiday here in the U.S. Second, make it a practice to look at your site from the perspective of a potential client, at least once a month. Better yet, pay an outsider to do this, someone who doesn't know what your assumptions or expectations are. See how easy it is to shop, get more information, and purchase your content. Is the user able to get enough information to make a purchasing decision? Are help screens obvious? If she emails a query, how soon does she get a response? (And rather than assume the answer, take a lesson from the retail industry and employ a few "secret shoppers" to test the response time and content of answers to queries.)

But, perhaps more importantly, the take-away lesson is to stick with what you know how to do well. If your strength is in providing research and analysis, focus on that. Throwing an etail option on your Web site as an afterthought may result in a few sales, but unless it's done well, it can sully an otherwise good reputation. There are content providers and content aggregators, and with few exceptions, the core competencies of the former don't map to the know-how required of the latter. Sue Rugge, one of the pioneers in the field of independent info pros, memorably advised newbies to "do what you do best, and subcontract the rest"—advice that aptly applies to the world of ecommerce.