How online marketers use facts, figures and forecasts.
Studies, polls, reports, surveys, statistics and forecasts. Every day the latest data on the most current trends is widely disseminated and distributed. Want to know which demographic group is most likely to spend more online, to have broadband or to download music? There’s data out there that purports to have the answers.
There’s no dearth of data, for sure, but just how much of this mountain of market research is useful for online marketers who need to make crucial business decisions is up for debate.
Kathryn Finney, a.k.a. The Budget Fashionista, uses reports from Forrester Research and comScore to learn about the top sites in women’s apparel. This gives her an idea of “who to target, who to partner with and to get an idea of where the industry’s going.”
Joe Zawadzki, founder and president of Poindexter Systems, which provides online ad management services, is less convinced about the value of some market research. “Once that research is made public, the opportunity to capitalize on that information is gone. Private data is the key.” Zawadzki says public research does have its uses, claiming it’s good for sales and venture capital fund-raising.
Some merchants claim research is helpful to them in a variety of specific areas, including understanding the competition.
Catherine Paschkewitz, manager of Consumer Marketing at HP Home & Home Office Store, which has partnerships with Forrester, JupiterResearch, eMarketer, comScore and Hitwise, says HP wants to see how Hitwise is working with the competition, which helps to understand and plan campaigns.
“We want to see how we rate versus our competitors,” says Paschkewitz. “We also do studies around search behavior and research to see how we can further optimize our program.” HP commissions comScore to create some of this custom research, but also relies on its own customer base for information, overlaying Claritas data and performing usability studies internally.
“Research is part of a process,” she says. “One part is up-front planning – looking at affiliate sites via Hitwise to see their traffic and customer profiles.”
When the HP Home & Home Office Store launched its affiliate program, for example, the team wanted to make sure it would succeed, so they researched what was working for the affiliate market, and talked to affiliates, managers and merchants who had affiliate programs, in addition to looking at research on the subject, Paschkewitz says.
HomeGain’s Affiliate Manager Marie Nilsson says merchants often use research to start a campaign.
“[It] is actually a piece of your research project in a sense, if you document your findings, draw conclusions and use it for optimizing your future campaigns,” she says. “That’s the beauty of advertising on the Internet: Provided you have the right tracking tools in place, you are able to measure each move.”
Nilsson says that once you have some experience, the research process is easy.
“As a merchant, you understand how your channel works by launching campaigns and documenting every step of the way, noting all the details, such as placement, targeting, creative used, time of year, close rates, conversion rates, CTR, pricing, etc.,” she says. This type of data becomes your future research. “Every campaign can be looked upon as an individual test in a series which compiles a research project if you outline, structure and target your tests.”
HomeGain obtains its research in several ways. It gets monthly Hitwise information, which Nilsson says “is great for understanding what your competition is doing.” The company also internally compiles metrics and data. “We use census information, which is free. We also do consumer surveys on a regular basis, all in-house,” Nilsson says.
But not all research is relevant for a merchant’s business, according to John Joseph, Performics’ senior vice president of affiliate marketing. He claims that merchants are very interested in statistics regarding overall ad spend and retail figures. “A year from now, merchants will really start using the demographic info that’s available,” says Joseph.
However, the use of research appeared to be a sensitive subject for many merchants. Calls to BestBuy.com went unanswered. Representatives from Walmart.com and Target.com declined to comment, on the grounds that this type of information is proprietary.
The Affiliate Perspective
FatLens’ co-founder and president Siva Kumar says the research his company finds the most useful is “learning about other companies with similar challenges and business models to us. We meet with and share experiences with many of the marketing personnel of other companies.”
However, Kumar notes that, “While we have perused published research from establishments like Forrester and find the information interesting, the high-level nature of the reports is not as relevant for daily decision making.”
FatLens relies on its own traffic and revenue performance data as research, because it is the “best way of learning about what is working and what we should expect to see as results.”
He claims that this type of information is most critical to help FatLens in modifying its programs as well as experimenting with new methods of traffic and revenue generation. “Our growth as a company from inception to our current revenue and traffic levels over the last nine-month period is mainly due to the research we have done on the various online customer-acquisition techniques for similar companies in terms of market segment and business models,” Kumar says.
Melissa Salas, senior marketing manager at Buy.com echoes Kumar’s reverence for research.
“It’s essential for marketers to be well-informed about industry reports, analyst projections, shopping trends, product announcements and reviews, as well as critics’ remarks. With this knowledge, you can position your company to meet your overall business objectives.”
Salas claims that marketing campaigns benefit from research as well. “Being a multi-category retailer, it is imperative to stay on top of best sellers and new product releases so marketers can create specific promotions to gain market share,” she says.
Research = Understanding
“Consumer research leads to insight,” Greg Smith, executive vice president of media, insights, planning and analytics at interactive agency Carat Fusion, says. “It gives you ideas of where to place ads.” Smith cites a past campaign in which research led his agency to recommend positioning minivan ads on parenting and kids’ sites as well as on car sites.
Smith says Carat Fusion’s use of research depends on the client’s objective, be it marketing or branding. Marketing efforts are most always motivated by sales, so the results are measured in straightforward metrics and the agency can move from site to site until it finds the best results for the client. With branding, clients are usually looking to change perceptions and attitudes, which makes the process a bit more complex. Here, Smith would use research to define the target, and then figure out where to find that audience in large numbers. Later in the process, Carat conducts “follow- on advertising” to find out if consumers bought the advertised product. The results are then presented to the client.
Carat Fusion has relationships with AdPlan (owned by AGB Nielsen Media Research) as well as comScore, Forrester and Jupiter. Smith says the company also researches its campaigns by analyzing search results and chat rooms to find out how a product is thought of, and speaking to consumers themselves.
Former JupiterResearch analyst Gary Stein, now director of client services at BuzzMetrics, has noticed a trend of late that companies are conducting deeper research on the front end. Syndicated search from companies such as Jupiter, Forrester and Fathom Online acts as “preventive medicine” for their clients.
Stein estimates that clients usually have 90 percent of their campaigns nailed down, with ads placed on high-profile sites, but that the remaining 10 percent is “haphazardly planned.” That’s where research comes in – to offer insights to fill that gap.
Some research is suspect, Stein says, such as financial surveys sponsored by brokerage houses. To find reliable data, Stein recommends finding an objective source with a good track record, looking at several studies and in the end, making your own estimates. It’s an economic issue for many companies, because to get a good survey sample, they have to pay for each person, says Stein.
Stein believes some research is misleading, not in the spin it receives or the headline it gets, but in the very questions it puts forth. For example, Stein sites one study that asked, “Would you use a Bluetooth-enabled device?” of consumers who were not likely to know what a Bluetooth-enabled device was.
The best surveys are those that are weighted properly, according to another former Jupiter analyst who asked not to be named. “Numbers are good, but demographic variables are better.” He claims that most surveys by the well-regarded resources are properly weighted (see Research sidebar).
Pulse of the People
Most research industry insiders note that the majority of statistics are garnered from the U.S. Census data, released every 10 years. One company that has census information to power its business is Claritas. Prizm NE (short for New Evolution) is the company’s signature product. Introduced in 2003, it’s updated whenever there is new census data.
Prizm NE is a segmentation tool that divides the population into 66 categories based on a “geodemographic system” revealing behavioral and consumer activities. The product uses the census as its primary source, but is also infused with data from private sources and other governmental data. The 66 categories, which include controversial names such as “Shotguns & Pickups,” change based on the census. When the last report was issued in 2000, 26 names stayed the same, bringing 40 new ones to light. The geography is based on zip codes, with the census data as the foundation.
“Our syndicated services definitely affect online marketing decisions,” claims Bill Tancer, general manager – global research at Hitwise, which resells Prizm NE data. Hitwise provides research including “benchmarks so customers can see where they rank, and click-stream analysis to see why they have that rank.” Hitwise also offers traffic information so clients can see how users are getting to their sites, as well as the sites of the competition.
The majority of online marketers obtain research from established companies in the field. But smaller companies are popping up with some new ideas. Cydata Services owns T3report.com, a site that spotlights products such as T3 Competitor Report and T3 Affiliate Report (see Revenue March/April issue). These products allow affiliate managers to get the info they need to copy competitors’ marketing plans and potentially poach affiliates.
Having worked exclusively in the adult entertainment industry to date, Cydata recently turned its attention to the performance marketing arena. While some may find the company’s tactics unethical, Cydata founder and CEO Brandon Shalton claims his company is simply providing a shortcut to success, even though he does admit it is “a very disruptive service.”
He likens Cydata’s clients to smart fastfood chains, which shouldn’t “bother with all the research – just move in across the street from McDonald’s, because they’ve already done the research.” Shalton believes the T3 products let you “advertise smarter.”
Joe Pilotta, Ph.D., vice president of Big Research, feels his company is offering a unique service as well. “We produce more of an index of what the influence is on category of merchandise purchased. Our clients don’t need click data, etc., because it’s not that important.” Pilotta says his company’s data is created by sales and future intentions, so it’s never static.
Big Research obtains its data from established panels, and occasionally invites offline participants, such as listeners from radio stations, to weigh in. The company conducts its Simultaneous Media Study twice a year, which analyzes 32 different types of media. To get a complete consumer’s point of view, the study surveys 14,000 to 15,000 people.
Predicting the Future
Just as research reports and surveys of past activities play a big role in online marketing decisions, so do predictions for the future. “Forecasts give a gauge of how to prioritize – is search as big as we think it is? People want verification that people are spending money on a sector and that it’s growing,” Shar VanBoskirk, senior analyst on Forrester’s marketing strategy and technology research team, says.
HP’s Paschkewitz uses forecasts to plan for her company’s future, but adds in the site’s own data to get a more accurate picture.
Like most industry watchers, who claim that forecasts play a more valuable role for publishers rather than retailers, Performics’ Joseph says merchants don’t really act on general forecasts, such as last year’s hype of the potential of the Hispanic market (see Revenue March/April issue).
Big Research’s Pilotta says his clients definitely use forecasts to make decisions. Since the company releases its Consumer Intentions and Actions forecast every month, his clients are working with “fresh data” from 10,000 people.
“We use forecasts and trend reports to ensure that our infrastructure planning is adequately matched to the expectations of the market, FatLens’ Kumar says. “The trends also help us judge relative performances of the various marketing channels we are using and adjust our spending according to industry directions.”
Buy.com’s Salas agrees. “Reviewing forecasts and trend reports is an important part of preparing for the future of your business. Our marketing team makes business decisions based on internal customer behavioral data in addition to accurate and reliable forecasts, trend analyses and competitive intelligence,” she says.
HomeGain’s Nilsson says her company watches trends in the online real estate and marketing fields.
“We see a big shift now from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. It’s a nationwide trend – the question of 2006 in real estate is ‘The Year of the Buyer?'”
Nilsson’s company also keeps an eye on housing price trends in local areas, as well as changes in the competitive landscape.
“For real estate, smaller online players with great technology and VC [venture capital] backing, like Zillow.com, posed a threat in the beginning of 2006. We saw this coming at an early stage and answered with adding more local neighborhood data and by marketing our free home-valuation tool more aggressively,” she says. “Another example is foreclosed homes. A lot of homeowners have interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgages; they are going to get hit hard as rates rise, and a larger percentage will default and go into foreclosure. In anticipation of this, we’ve deepened our partnerships with the foreclosure companies.”
While many statistics are dismissed as obvious or hype, data often provides merchants, affiliates, analysts and even researchers themselves with an idea of how to improve their marketing messages and overall businesses.