Primary Research – A Practical Approach

Primary research is an often overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued component of competitive intelligence. Whether it’s not understanding the benefits, or believing secondary data is sufficient, many organizations fail to capitalize on their primary data. When used correctly Primary research becomes a highly valuable methodology that enables organizations to more fully understand their current competitive dynamics, customer sentiment, and overall market perception.

Many organizations don’t optimize the value of primary data. They may not fully understand the benefits of primary and think secondary data is sufficient.  Or they may be scared away from primary and believe it violates an ethical code. In either case, not leveraging primary data diminishes the value of the competitive intelligence function and makes your organization more vulnerable and at risk of surprises.

Primary research is, in essence, a dialogue with people; it generally relies on a direct and unfiltered connection between the data collector and their source. It can take many facets:

  • Competitive Intelligence -The most common application of primary data collection is within traditional CI studies. Primary research enables the data collector better to understand not just the current situation, but also why historical decisions were made. Ideally, primary research is used to anticipate future actions, and primary sources provide the context and perspective that secondary research is unable to provide. Primary sources in CI studies can include (but are not limited to) current employees, ex-employees, outside experts, suppliers, distributors, and customers
  • Win/Loss – Direct dialogue with your prospects is invaluable. A systematic approach to understanding why you won or lost specific deals can only be accomplished via interviews with those deal-level decision-makers. Most critical is the ability to summarize those interviews to identify strengths and weaknesses and drive performance
  • Voice of Customer – Engaging with customers (current customers, prospects, and your overall target market) is yet another workstream that benefits from primary research. Diagnosing current met and unmet needs, and identifying future needs, is best accomplished with a methodology that includes primary research
  • Trade Show Research – While in-person trade show research has taken a pause, we have developed virtual conference coverage models that leverage phone/email connections as opposed to in-person interviews

There is one thing all successful primary research activities require: a planned, systematic approach.

  1. Establish Objectives: The first step is to truly understand the objectives of the project, and how a primary research methodology fits. Primary data collection activities should almost always be paired with secondary data collection (i.e. published data) to create an integrated approach
  2. Identify Sources:  Start identifying the types of sources that may hold the intelligence.
  3. Build a Discussion Guide: You never want to go into an interview blind. Knowing who you are speaking to, and what questions your organization wants to answer helps you stay on track and be thorough.
  4. Start Research: Once you have done all of prep work for an interview, it’s time to start reaching out to sources, and begin collecting information. Short-circuiting the initial steps and just jumping into interviews may seem like a good idea, but it’s often the recipe for failure.

Short-circuiting the initial steps and just jumping into interviews may seem like a good idea, but it’s often the recipe for failure. We’ve had instances when our clients say “just call people and get the intelligence!” Sometimes, that’s the right approach. Unfortunately, though, it’s usually not that easy.

There are some areas to be aware of. Its critical to make sure any partner you hire follows sound practices. Corroboration across sources is critical. If the intelligence comes from a single source, that needs to be called out. We often rate the accuracy of our intelligence based on the number and types of sources, with the goal of getting multiple well-placed sources across several types of job titles.

Compensating sources can be tricky. There are clear boundaries not to cross (like directly paying current employees for information on their current company). There are well accepted situations where compensation is the norm (like paying Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)). Then there is the gray area – is it acceptable to use a third party to facilitate information and payments? Does using an intermediary shield you and provide legal protection if compensation is made to someone to provide information on their own company? Being at arm’s length does not protect one from accusations of bribery or information theft. While it may provide a surface level degree of comfort and insulation, it puts you and your organization in legal jeopardy. What would the corporate lawyers say if they knew compensation was being made to employees for intel on their current company? I think we all know the answer to that question.

FCSI does not pay current employees for intel on the current employer. We follow (and advise everyone to follow) the Wall Street Journal Rule (or maybe now it’s the LinkedIn or Twitter rule?) – if our actions were broadcast on the front page of the WSJ, what would people think? We always want to ensure a positive perception as well as full legal protection. In 30+ years of conducting primary research, we’ve never had a single issue.

Oftentimes successful primary data collection is the result of hard work. It can be a numbers game – on some of our projects, our connection rate is less than 5%. So, we may need several hundred potential sources, as well as an aggressive, process-driven outreach approach, to secure the interviews we need. The results of these efforts are worth it.

Primary research has applications throughout the organization. Often primary can be combined with secondary for a unified approach. Some companies take shortcuts when it comes to primary research. Not enough interviews, lack of corroboration, paying sources – these are all lazy, ineffective and potentially dangerous approaches. Truly valuable primary research can only be accomplished with a refined process, skilled analysts, and a disciplined approach.

Author: Chad Stimson, COO Fletcher/CSI