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It is hard to imagine that in the Information Age, there are still some things that are not quantified. With all of the point of sale and mobile device tracking, as well as the wearables revolution soon to come online, we have clouds upon clouds of data yet to be collated and condensed into intelligence for marketing and planning professionals to swim in. But there is and will continue to be transactions that are not specifically counted at a market level. Among those are B2B sales for many products and services.

Think about your jeans and if you have few minutes, watch how cotton is converted to yarn (exciting stuff, I know) but it is a complex process. As you go through the video, note all the machines & engineering, capital and know-how needed just to do that one element of the value chain. Then draw back to the entire manufacturing process. Before you owned your jeans, cotton seeds were planted, nurtured and picked; they were converted into threads which were then died and woven into fabric. Those threads were assembled into pants and during this whole journey those processed cotton wisps likely made several trips by boat and truck as well as many overnight stays in warehouses before they arrived at a local store where your jeans received a price tag before being placed on the showroom floor. This all happened long before your credit card was swiped, before it was put into an earth friendly bag and long before you put your pants on one leg at a time. I know I skipped over some important pit stops in the value chain but the point is: there are so many companies, communities and individuals involved in your single consumer transaction with incremental price increases from seed to seat. Among all of these B2B transactions, no organization has clear visibility across all of it, let alone how big or important any one of those single industries really are. Readily available information on the domestic value chain is rare. Having that information internationally is even more scarce. Which leads me to the universal ‘So what?’ question. Why would someone go to the trouble of researching these under-served markets? Clearly there isn’t enough demand nor is it profitable to research on an ongoing basis.

The main reason people seek or create information is to get a benchmark, against which performance is then judged. That goes for not only your own industry but for your trade partners as well to understand: 1. the relative importance of their industry within the value chain; 2. their relative importance within their own industry; and 3. their relative importance to you. The operative word being ‘relative’. There are ways to simplify, scorecard and prioritize your research but when we ask (or get asked) these question, where do we start? We DIY-it and go to the internet, of course. When we cannot find it there, we look for people in our network who have an informed opinion and maybe some privileged insights. When we cannot get anything more than an anecdote or a static snapshot, we may cold call an expert. If no one truly has it, we rationalize that if it was easy and profitable to research, someone would have published an answer by now. Moreover, if that information doesn’t exist for us, then it probably doesn’t exist for our competitors either. And everyone continues operating in this information desert.

Here are some early symptoms you may operate within this desert:

  • Google is your best (and only) friend
  • You only use publicly available data, the same data to which everyone else has access
  • Private companies and start-ups fall well below your radar
  • You have exhausted asking all your friends, former colleagues and professors for favors
  • You have used someone else’s user ID and password to enter a subscription database
  • The person who shared their User ID and Password got caught and won’t share with you anymore
  • You’ve ignored Copyrights by using and/or sharing content for commercial purposes without having the license to do so
  • You’ve spent weeks trying to find information and you have come up with very little

If any of those symptoms describe you, here are five signs that you may be ready to invest in Proprietary Research:

  1. You don’t have an answer to these fundamental questions: How big is my addressable market? How much do we have of it? Can we win it? Do we want to win it?I am consistently surprised to learn how few organizations know this basic information. Let me be clear, there is a ton of data samples from consumer surveys, point of sale data and own sales data to qualitatively and quantitatively size a market but what I am talking about is sizing the prize of the total addressable market or population potential. This is information that is well beyond what any one company owns (unless you are a monopoly). So why don’t people have it? Because, it is hard to get. An average client will tell me that they are growing and making money, so who cares? When your business gets threatened or even disrupted, then you begin to care. In order to beat the market, you need have a benchmark on the magnitude, maturity and velocity of the market as well as the concentration or fragmentation of the players in that space.
  2. Your primary source of information are your sales teams and/or your trade partners (suppliers and customers).That information generally has fundamental flaws. First, that information is biased by people who will only share information that represents them well. They don’t share information that makes them look poorly. Second, it leaves you completely dependent upon the trade relationship to be your eyes, ears and hands, over which you have very little control. If you damage that relationship, information flow can stop all together. Companies like P&G and Walmart understand this and make themselves invaluable partners. They invest in and bring troves of intelligence to the table. Not only do they own the information, it enhances their negotiation position. If you want the leg up in a negotiation, come with your own intel.
  3. Time vs. money:
    Time-spent-per-task
  4. According to IDC, 9.5 hours of time can be spent searching and another 8.3 hours gathering information each week. Given enough time and human resources (project management and market researching skills), anyone can do good market research. There are limitations, however. First, someone at P&G cannot simply call up counterparts at Unilever and ask them proprietary questions. A third party will have more experience and be more successful at doing that. Second, the life cycle of a typical project done by yourself can take up to eight or more weeks: five weeks to search and gather information and another four weeks to analyze, assemble and polish your presentation. That’s two months of work, on top of your normal day job. DIY research has a very high investment of time. If time and people resources are not on your side, outsourcing a project will give you better speed, thoroughness and polish that could make the difference toward gaining stakeholder support.
  5. If you don’t believe in the philosophy, “if it is not available, it’s not worth knowing” then information that is hard for you to find is likely equally difficult for your competitors to get too. If neither of you do anything about it, it puts you on equal, if not ignorant, footing. But what if your competitor does have proprietary insights that you do not? You risk being at a disadvantage and vice-versus, if you have proprietary intelligence that they do not, as a first mover on that intelligence, you can gain an edge in the market place.
  6. You have questions about your market and value chain that are chronically unanswered and chronically dismissed as important but unknowable. That is your biggest sign that it is time to invest in having your own quantifiable benchmarks.

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