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Revisiting The Syndicated vs. Custom Research Conundrum

Anyone who has known me, even for just a little while has probably heard or read my opinions about the limitations of syndicated vs. custom marketing research. While I’m not about to back down from my concern that a lot of syndicated research, particularly in the media space, is often hampered by methodological flaws or misused as a score keeper that often commoditizes and puts those measured on the defensive, I’ve read and heard some interesting things lately that warrant a slightly more balanced view.

In the most current issue of the research industry trade publication, “Inside Research,” editors Larry Gold and Jack Honomichl, turn to their panel of corporate researchers to assess the current utilization and perceptions of today’s syndicated research offerings. For the most part, the findings show mixed reactions. While the panel seems largely accepting of the necessity of syndicated currency to create a balanced playing field and applauds the industry for taking some measure to improve both product quality and responsiveness to client demands for greater service and analytical offerings, they do stop short of endorsing syndicated data as the end all, be all, that I personally still see too many corporate researchers blindly embrace in this era of greater accessibility to consumer input, custom designed panels and two way communication.

Now as the head of a custom research consultancy, you might expect me to take a less than supportive position about syndicated data. I’ve historically:

  • Thrown up plenty of red flags about the inappropriateness of direct questioning (known as the “did this advertisement or promotion specifically and alone make you buy this product” dilemma)
  • Called foul on inappropriate sampling (called the “why do nearly half of the readers of the two leading monthly golf titles claim not to play the sport” problem)
  • Loudly voiced that when it comes to audience measurement, quality of the audience is a more appropriate barometer than simply the quantity of eyeballs. (known as “the engagement vs reach” debate)
  • Vocally questioned the cognitive ability of respondents to evaluate how advertising or promotion impacts their perception of a product or service (Called the, “why Jon advocates experimental design” argument)

And for consistency’s sake, those who’ve listened to me over the years know that I took a similar stance in my previous career stops overseeing marketing research and strategy for multiple client side, sports and media brands.

I still maintain that particularly in vertical niches (of which sports, travel and leisure are included), there is just not enough cost efficiency for syndicated data to accurately reflect these audiences, and not enough opportunity within the confines of a broad based syndicated study to go below the surface in examining the true behaviors and motivations of this audience. For a more thorough treatment on this I guide you to a piece that I co-authored with NBC Sports Group’s Chris Whitely in the August 2010 issue of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review

But beyond the perspectives expressed by research colleagues in the recent Inside Research, I’ve also been able to revisit the syndicated vs custom conundrum with several respected media industry clients and perhaps have grown more accepting of the role of syndicated currency in “bringing you to the dance”�that is, establishing a beachhead from which a property, be it media, event, sponsorship or consumer product can be legitimized and considered by first line buyer gate keepers. To me, managing those metrics and demanding more accountability on behalf of the syndicated provider is a necessity. Being proactive and maintaining the ability to counter punch, is at worst a right of passage. At best, it sets the table for a more thoughtful and necessary conversation with brand decision makers, who should be seeking a more rigorous and inquisitive investigation into the properties they invest in. The outcome of such a conversation begs itself to suggest a more thorough and exacting custom research approach.