Even though I am only 30 years old, I consider myself a veteran of the market research industry. I started my career in market research around the same time I was able to buy my first alcoholic drink (what a timely coincidence). I had no clue what market research was at the time; however, thanks to my thirst for knowledge, a passion for technology, the patience of awesome clients, and many late nights, I evolved into somewhat of an expert over the years. In that time, I have seen the industry grow by leaps and bounds with online panels, social media, smartphone applications, and other advanced technologies. It would be, however, dishonest to say that all of the changes have had a positive effect on the industry.
Only a few short years ago, 90% of our clients were full-service market research companies servicing the pharmaceutical industry. They came to us with a questionnaire in hand, and said: “we need 200 primary care physicians.” We programmed the survey using our customized survey engine and a team of in-house survey programmers. On the recruiting front, we used our panel (back in the good ol’ days we called it a ‘friendly database’) in combination with fax invitations and an experienced in-house call center to ensure we could deliver on quotas as promised. The clients were always thrilled; not only did we get the jobs done (and some were pretty challenging), but we recruited all of the respondents ourselves, being able to stand by the quality of the data we delivered. Heck, to this day, many of the clients from “back in the day” are still with us, working with us on a regular basis.
Top it off, please!
Fast forward a few short years later: I’m putting together a quarterly projections deck for my executive team, and I come to a realization – more and more of our revenue has been projected to come from our competitors! It baffled me, it confused me, and it gave me a few more gray hairs. We have always made the case internally that it would be foolish to turn down work, but these “client-competitors” (clompetitors?) are competing for the same projects as us, and more often than not outsourcing the “top-off” projects back to us. A “top-off” is fancy industry terminology for “help us finish the recruit, please.”
So how do we solve this issue? Do we want to solve it? Do we care to solve it? I am sure there are many who probably see nothing wrong with this business model; I, however, am not one of those people. Before the days of email blasts and pop-up ads, it was actually tough to recruit specialized survey respondents like health professionals. Over the last decade, the barriers to entry for market research data collection have all but disappeared. Anybody with a website can become a panel provider overnight – no experience necessary! The key is to find “panel partners” (another fancy industry term that means “outsourcing)” who can do the actual recruiting after you convinced someone that you have the resources to complete a project. The scary thing about this is that your “partners” also do not have to have the ability to recruit as long as they have their own partners (and so the chain continues). At some point, doesn’t someone have to actually do the work? Yes, but by the time you get to someone who can, the cost of the recruit has been marked up five times and there is absolutely no clarity on who did the actual recruiting, and what kind of experience or quality standards they have.
True story: I once took on a “favor” project during one of our busy periods. Having seen our competitor-clients request top-offs from us, I made the mistake of trying to do the same. I “partnered” (I won’t use the ugly “outsourced” word) with a sample company that assured me they have the panel and the expertise to get me the last few recruits that we needed (our call center, which would normally handle this, was swamped). We agreed on the price and they started fielding. The incidence rate was looking good, so I was sure the project would close in a few days. Two days later, I received an email from a feasibility manager of a different panel company asking for a quote. I opened up the email and my jaw dropped – I wasn’t sure whether to be upset or laugh hysterically (I chose the latter): in the body of the email were my original project specs, copied and pasted in! That is correct, the sample company we hired priced the project with their “sample partner” who decided to price it out with me. At first I didn’t know what to do, but later decided to amuse myself and provide a very pricy quote in the hopes that they would be foolish enough to hire us to do our own project at a higher price to impress their client (our vendor) – at least they were intelligent enough to not fall for the trick. I won’t name names, but both companies are big players in our industry. We immediately pulled the project and reallocated call center resources to get the last recruits. A lesson well learned!
“We do our own data collection…”
A really close friend of mine was having lunch with me at my office one day. At the time, he just started working for a pretty big pharma consulting firm. Naturally, I inquired whether there could be opportunities for us to work together (what are friends for?). Unfortunately for me, he turned me down pretty quickly, saying that they have committed to all data collection being done in-house, further citing “vertically integration” as the reason. After convincing me that we can’t be more than just friends, by pure coincidence, I received an email from one of our ‘client-competitor’, requesting a quote. Guess what?!? His company was outsourcing the data collection and the company bidding on their project was pricing it out with us. He couldn’t believe his eyes. A few months later, he admitted, “I didn’t believe you when you told me this, but now I see it happening every day.”
So what does all of this mean?
These two stories, besides being somewhat amusing, are indicative of a serious problem in our industry: a prevailing business model of “commit first, figure it out later.” What happened to honest feasibility assessments and a strong commitment to quality? When a sample provider promises respondents, what is actually happening behind the scenes? I strongly urge companies who hire sample providers to not fall for the typical song and dance routine. Just because someone says they have a million health professionals on their panel, it does not mean that it is true (or it is likely the sum of panel numbers across their panel partners). As many of our clients have discovered over the years, just because a company claims to have millions of healthcare professionals does not mean they can successfully recruit a medical market research project. Also, the rock bottom prices that these companies sometimes offer to win the project have a way of adjusting up once the incidence rate falls below the assumed 70% mark. Bottom line, do your due diligence, ask questions, and check references. I am sure we can all agree that bad data is worse than no data, and paying less (or in some cases more) for bad data is not only unwise but outright dangerous. Before hiring a sample provider, consider the following:
- How much cheaper would your project have been if you hired a data collection vendor with the experience and the industry reputation to recruit the entire project, instead of dealing with all of the mark ups by a daisy chain of “sample partners”?
- Given that almost anyone can become a sample provider overnight, how much do you really know about the quality of the collected data that will likely drive important business decisions for you or your client’s organization? Are there duplicate respondents? survey cheaters? professional survey takers?
- How well does your vendor understand your project? If you are conducting a medical market research project with health professionals, do they implement a multi-channel recruitment strategy to ensure success of a project? Will the commitments they make align with your expectations?