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Bad Data

Companies are spending millions of dollars on Web sites, banner ads and online promotions – and skipping the much smaller investment it would take to do accurate, worthwhile market research. Why? Because it’s seemingly easy and inexpensive to throw a few questions up on their site, get answers from whoever happens to go there that day, and – ta-da – they have market research. There’s only one problem: The results are likely to be inaccurate, or not actionable, or both.

Online market research has exploded in the past 18 months, with a parallel decline in traditional methods such as telephone surveys. Unfortunately, a lot of it is bad research. And frankly, poorly executed research is worse than no research at all.

Do-it-yourself online research is reminiscent of desktop publishing in its early days. Faced with the possibility of so many fonts and sizes, designers did their companies a disservice with their appalling brochures. Armed with the technology but no knowledge of how to apply it, they drove away the very people they wanted to attract. Despite these warnings, some of you will want to conduct your own online research. Here are a few key basics to keep in mind.

The first rule of market research: Don’t ask about something you can’t do anything about. You will just raise expectations and disappoint your customers. Instead of asking what your next great product or service should be, ask people what their current frustrations and problems are. The results will tell you what to offer next.

The second rule: Be sure you are asking the right question. Most people think New Coke failed because of inadequate market research. Actually, it was unsuccessful because the market researchers compared it only to Pepsi – not to original Coke.

Rule three: Have some discipline about what you ask. It’s easy to fall into the trap of biasing questions so that you get the “right”answers. Even subtle differences in how a question is phrased can change results. For example, if you ask, “What do you like about Product X?” you will get a different response than if you ask, “What, if anything, do you like about Product X?” (The latter allows for the possibility that your customer hates it.)

Rule four: Discipline is also the key when it comes to the length of your questionnaire. This is a case where more is not better, and less actually is more. Ask yourself what you will do with the information you gather. What will you do if it’s true, or false? If nothing else, think about how patient you have to be to fill out your own questionnaire.

Rule five: How your questionnaire works is as important as what you ask. Questionnaires need the same sophisticated technology you employ for e-commerce. Just as you need to control the way people move through the purchase process, you need to control how they move through your survey. Otherwise, they’ll answer the questions they are supposed to skip and skip the questions they are supposed to answer. Or they’ll look ahead to see what’s coming and tailor their answers accordingly. The result will be lots of useless data.

So, while technology lets you implement your business ideas, it also provides the illusion of worthwhile information. Technology alone is not going to help you eliminate problems with study design, develop an effective and unbiased questionnaire, or correctly interpret results. Think of it this way: Who do you want to manage your IRA and advise you on volatile investments? A professional stockbroker with 20 years experience or an 18-year-old with an E-Trade account?

The most important reason to use professional market researchers is to maintain the integrity of the results. Sometimes bad news is actually good news, because it provides information on the flaws in your strategy. It’s human nature to want to sweep negative findings under the carpet, but what your company will learn from “negative” results – professionally interpreted – will be your road map to successful online marketing.

In short, online research is not for amateurs. Nonetheless, the Web is not only a viable place to conduct research, it’s a highly desirable one. So if you are a serious company – one that intends to make money on the Web – you need to invest in quality research. After all, the Web is full of companies that failed because they relied on bad data – an ironic outcome in the information age.