Tom Webster, writing and speaking

How Data Could Kill Your Business

Added on by Tom Webster.
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In an era where there is more research and data available than ever, it's a bold statement to suggest that research could, in fact, kill your business. But, perversely, that is exactly what it could do, if you spend your time looking at other people's data.

As more and more research and data is shared publicly from vendors and analysts through social media and other sources, two things are true: everyone (your competitors included) can see the same data, and that publicly-available data is getting worse and worse. 

For a time, I had a tumbling-web-log-or-tumblr-for-short called "Datasnob." My initial, poorly thought-out impulse was to have a repository for crappy data--to highlight the worst, and point out what was wrong with it, in the hopes of educating people in the space to be more numerate and be better critical thinkers.

It didn't take long for me to abandon this. First of all, I am not, by nature, a scold. Thus, a blog based upon what's *wrong* was never going to take root in my psyche for more than a few of my darkest hours. I'd rather celebrate the good than excoriate the bad, though admittedly that's a practice. Part of pursuing that practice is not giving energy to things that work against that practice. Hence, Datasnob is no more (but I still work with data, and I'm still snobby about it.)

Recently, though, I've been seriously rethinking that. 

Content marketing is killing the perceived value of research, and now I'm beginning to see some highly dubious practices amongst organizations that should certainly know better: the industry analyst space. Just this week I have come across three different examples of how this space, once known for producing quality research, has relegated research (and numeracy) to the bench, in favor of promoting linkbait based upon the most tenuous research practices.

This was not always the case. Analyst research used to be kept under lock and key, doled out only to clients who valued good data to maintain competitive advantage. In the age of content marketing, however, industry data has become grist for the mill, and more and more data is being shared publicly in blog posts and infographics.

You might think this is a good thing.

However, consider this. When research is given away--even by industry analysts--then conducting that research stops being an "investment" and starts being considered a cost. What do we do with costs? We cut them. And there is only one, big fat line item on a research company's expense line--sample costs.

Today, I see companies in the analyst space treating research not as the core of what they do, but as a loss-leader; the thing they give away in order to sell their "insights." In my day job, we spend millions every year on sample and fielding costs. As in millions. Getting the right people to answer the right questions costs more every year, plain and simple. But today there are some in the analyst space who have responded to those pressures not by finding better ways to conduct research, but by punting it entirely. So we have players in the space--both established and upstart--who rely on web polls to answer the questions that used to be posed by calling senior executives, in a valiant effort to replace sample quality with some impressive-sounding number of "global respondents."

That's fine, of course, if you are producing data for the purposes of content marketing. If your goal is to put out a few provocative graphs in the hopes of teasing some full report or to sell consulting services, then any source is as good as another.

If your goal, however, is decision support, it isn't. It just isn't. That kind of data costs money. Data that is relevant to your business costs money. Data that tells you something your competitors don't know costs money.  

Good data costs money. 

One recent study I saw from a leading analyst attempted to cast a judgement upon social media marketing based upon a self-selected web poll of under 400 "marketers." You could likely do the same by surveying your own email database, but you aren't in the business of selling research-based analysis. 

This is the extent of their sampling methodology: Click Here To Take The Survey!

I do a number of executive interview studies a year--the kind that this data used to be based upon. They are expensive. Why? Two reasons: you need to make it worth a Fortune 500 executive's time to answer those questions, and because I make those calls. Personally. If you want to understand senior executives,  then you need to have other senior executives ask them questions. So, yeah, that kind of work costs money.

But look at some recent examples of "work" done in this space by some of the analyst firms popularly cited in social media and on various blogs, and ask yourself this: with a reasonably large database, could you not do the same? If your answer is yes, then there is NO incremental value from this research. 

There used to be, before analysts became content marketers, but that value is dwindling.  

So, I'm admittedly in a dark place at the moment. Part of me wants to "name names," but in the end I'm too thin-skinned, I suppose. Ultimately here is where I think I land: there is one thing that hasn't changed in 50 years of business intelligence: the incremental value of publicly available data is nearly zero. 20 years ago there was some publicly available data, and some data behind analyst paywalls. Today, there is more data from analysts freed from those paywalls, and it's worth no more or no less than anything else in the public domain. And that will ultimately kill the brands of those analyst firms. 

What analysts are banking on today is that giving away research as a loss leader will bring you to them for insights on your customers and business. But insights are based upon data, and data that anyone could get is worthless--and so, thus. are the insights based upon that data. 

I believe in quality market research. I believe in pushing the space forward, and leading change. As the analyst space continues to devalue proper research, and instead treat it as grist for the content marketing mill, they disrespect their charter, their industry and ultimately their clients. They are killing the perceived value of what professionals like me do every day.

I'm not okay with that.