Givin’ it away

Pop quiz: which market research company is currently the 500-pound gorilla of the industry? If you guessed Gallup or Nielsen, you've got the wrong century and the wrong country.

Pop quiz: which market research company is currently the 500-pound gorilla of the industry? If you guessed Gallup or Nielsen, you’ve got the wrong century and the wrong country.

Today, the fastest grower in North America is the Ipsos-Reid Corporation. The Vancouver-headquartered behemoth, which started out as the Angus Reid Group two decades ago, now has 11 offices around the world and conducts surveys in more than 80 countries.

Nitty-gritty-wise, Ipsos-Reid enjoyed sales of about $85 million in 2001. And while a measly zero to 5% annual growth is projected in the industry for the foreseeable future, Ipsos-Reid is averaging a stunning 30%, according to SVP Steve Mossop.

How did the Canadian chimp become such a global heavyweight? Mainly by staking out its territory, then clinching its dominion by supplying the media with a steady stream of free survey results. Here’s exactly how they did it, plus additional pointers from some other hefty market research pros.

Be the go-to guys

and hog the spotlight

Ipsos-Reid positioned itself as an expert in such key sectors as public affairs, retailing, the Internet, lottery and gaming, technology and food services. Then it made sure the media couldn’t not know that it was the company to go to for reliable info and stats on these topics.

Mossop says his people bombard the media with ‘almost daily’ news releases on surveys ‘designed with the goal of getting interesting headlines.’ But they don’t just carpet-bomb and hope for hits. Instead, Mossop says Ipsos-Reid frequently ‘gives first dibs’ on certain surveys to appropriate news organizations, offering them the exclusive scoop on the contents.

Kicking it up a notch, Ipsos-Reid also formally partners with such major media outlets as CNN, CTV and the Globe and Mail, as well as with specific industry publications, to produce ‘bespoke’ surveys on newsworthy subjects.

Example? ‘Our biggest hit ever,’ says Mossop, was a recent poll prepared for CNN which gathered opinions from respondents in 30 countries regarding America’s war on terrorism. The controversial results, along with Ipsos-Reid’s name, were repeatedly broadcast on CNN and subsequently parroted around the world by hundreds of other news outlets.

What’s the lesson here? Mossop says it’s that a company can propel both its profile and its credibility without spending a cent on advertising.

Choose your pond

and become top frog

Of course, positioning yourself as an expert and then soliciting free publicity to ballyhoo that expertise is hardly a new technique for impressing current clients and wooing new ones. But while Ipsos-Reid chose a diverse range of core capabilities, some other market research companies achieve success by heading in the opposite direction and trying to corner single markets.

The all-time champ is probably ACNielsen, which achieved fame and fortune by getting in on the ground floor in television half a century ago. Similarly savvy pioneers spied professional opportunities when the Internet arrived. Among them is Jupiter Communications, an offshoot of which – Toronto-based Jupiter Media Metrix Canada – specializes in analyzing online spending behaviour.

‘We were really the first independent company to come along with reliable numbers that weren’t produced by someone with a vested interest in the results,’ says JMM president Brent Lowe-Bernie. ‘So, while a lot of people were still confused and skeptical about the online universe, we established that it wasn’t all propeller-head kids glued to computers. The goal was to establish ourselves as the standard in our field.’

Being an early adopter of edgy new techniques can also make your company a winner, says David Kay, president of Toronto’s Research Dimensions. ‘We were pioneers of ethnography, which is basically going on-premise to observe what people do and speaking with them directly in-situ. We’ve done interviews on airplanes, in automobiles and bars and even in people’s bathrooms and bedrooms, seeing how they organize their closets and so forth.’

Leverage your

proprietary know-how

Leapfrogging to command its chosen pond, as Jupiter Communications did, was also the strategy adopted by the principals at Youthopia Communications and Big Orbit, but the sector they zeroed in on was youth marketing. The two Toronto-based companies merged last month, with Big Orbit as their moniker. What didn’t change, says partner Pascale LeBlanc, was the aim of ‘becoming the leading North American youth marketing consultancy.’

Big Orbit is pursuing that goal with what LeBlanc calls an ‘arsenal of guerrilla research techniques to get inside youthful heads.’ In addition to going where the kids go and finding out whassup, the company employs two trademarked initiatives: Reactorz, which LeBlanc describes as a ‘research engine connecting kids and clients in a two-way conversation,’ and WiseKidz, a program ‘designed to spark and cultivate the intrinsic creativity in every child.’

Another company that achieved its edge partly by snapping up the rights to a proprietary research tool is Innerviews. The Toronto-based company is the exclusive licensee in Canada for ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique). Developed by a Harvard business professor, the program is a quantum leap above outmoded research techniques dating from the ’50s, according to Betty Hutchins, one of Innerviews’ principals.

The object of using ZMET, she says, is to ‘get really deep insights into the kinds of things [potential customers] may not know they believe and hold dear, or may have difficulty expressing using conventional techniques.’ Additionally, she says Innerviews uses the same methodology for clients who ‘want to make sure their employees are truly living and breathing their brand.’

Press the flesh

with the influentsia

Sponsoring events tailored to enhance face time with key decision-makers is another strategy employed by successful market research companies.

Innerviews, for example, held a free breakfast seminar for 55 disparate business people last February, treating them to an interactive session with a prominent psychologist who, says Hutchins, ‘spoke about qualitative research and the advantages of using ZMET techniques to go below the surface.’

She adds that the event ‘was a great way of reaching busy people who are hard to get by phone or direct mail.’

Let your little light shine

And speaking of direct mail, Ipsos-Reid is a true believer in not hiding its light under a bushel. Mossop says in the last year and a half his company launched a whopping 30 DM campaigns touting its wares. Typical is the one that’s currently in the works aimed at 1,500 prospects that are involved with e-government.

‘This DM is going out in the form of a letter, brochure and e-mail inviting [the targets] to our Web site to check out some of the stats we’ve collected on who’s using government online services, what their opinions are and what general trends are happening,’ Mossop explains. ‘Then we’ll track who visits our site and what parts of this survey interest them, and follow up later.’

Get ‘em on-side

Inviting clients to be part of the process has worked out exceptionally well for NADbank, according to executive director Anne Ruta. She says the Toronto-based company, which focuses on measuring newspaper audiences, offers free membership to both the publishing and the advertising communities. Then it recruits board members from among those members and puts them to work on committees involved in preparing NADbank’s annual study.

Doing so ‘has really raised the profile of the study,’ says Ruta, who adds that the practice has also promoted the use of NADbank’s resources by members who previously turned elsewhere for data. ‘Now that they know how our study is conducted and they’ve been able to contribute their perspectives, they’re trusting and valuing it more.’

Challenge conventional

wisdom

Legend has it that George H. Gallup put his fledgling company on the map by challenging an established poll taker to the equivalent of a duel.

While the mighty Literary Digest went about predicting the outcome of the 1936 U.S. presidential election the old-fashioned way, i.e. via a mail-in poll, Gallup insisted he had a better idea. He would simply talk to a randomly selected pool of people, extrapolate from their opinions and name the winner. Gallup and his newfangled methodology were proven right when the Literary Digest’s candidate lost and Franklin D. Roosevelt won.

Pretty much the same new-gunslinger-in-town strategy worked more recently, says Jupiter Media Metrix’s Lowe-Bernie. The company created controversy, and resultant media coverage, when it studied the online behaviour of the 55+ age group. JMM came up with numbers contradicting the general belief that, because they represented only 7% of Internet users, this consumer segment wasn’t worth targeting.

‘To the contrary,’ says Lowe-Bernie, ‘we found that these people actually spent a disproportionate amount of time online, they had disposable income and lots of interests.’

Publish or perish

Many of Canada’s leading market research companies routinely exercise some or all of the foregoing strategies. The champs also manage to garner cachet and gravitas by producing regular reports on weighty public issues.

Toronto-headquartered Decima Research, for example, conducts year-end state-of-the-nation polls which are then published as special reports by Maclean’s magazine and subsequently quoted as gospel by many other news outlets, always with attribution for Decima.

Ipsos-Reid does likewise with surveys such as its annual ‘Face of the Web,’ a poll of Internet trends among 30,000 consumers in 30 countries which it circulates around the globe.

Why are so many Canadian market research companies so innovative?

‘Simply because they have to be,’ says Research Dimensions’ Kay. ‘The competition here is fierce. Within six city blocks of where we sit in downtown Toronto, there are probably 25 other research companies.’