What To Look For In An Industrial Research Agency

In his latest Thursday Night Insight blog feature, Alaric Fairbanks talks about the ways in which business-to-business market research agencies can prove their credentials for even the most highly specific and niche market research requests.

In our Asian operations, perhaps unsurprisingly given the rapidly industrialising nature of the major markets here and the strength of manufacturing, the bulk of work and enquiries are in the field of industrial research. Put more crudely, this involves “investigating an aspect of a market for something used to producing something else”.

Broadly speaking, this can be divided into three areas:

  • Raw materials
  • Components
  • Equipment and machinery

Obviously this can cover a huge range of industries and products, which can cause problems for buyers of market research in these industries. Understandably, the research buyer would like to be reassured that the external agency chosen has experience in the market in question, as well as in the relevant geographical areas and with appropriate methodologies. This is relatively straightforward with broad industry categories, for example pharmaceuticals. Things get more complex, however, when the buyer would like to be reassured of experience within their particular niche. To take the pharmaceuticals example further, the next question, may be: “how about biopharm?”

Again, outlining experience in this area may be no problem for most specialist b2b agencies, but what if this is followed by; “have you covered chromatography products for the purification of monoclonal antibodies in China?” Even the most experienced agency will find it difficult to claim direct experience in such a highly specialised field; indeed, it is unlikely that the buyer will find any agency that has conducted exactly this research before.

So, what should a buyer be looking for in selecting an external agency for this project and what can the agency do to facilitate this decision? The general characteristics of industrial and manufacturing markets, together with their implications, should give us some indication of the type of experience a buyer should be looking for.

The customer numbers, and thus the number of potential respondents, will be much smaller than in consumer markets. This is especially true of highly specialised markets. For the research buyer, the key issue here will be the ability of the agency to recruit respondents from a very limited sample pool.

There are likely to be multiple and contradictory members of the decision making unit, all of whom will have an impact on the decision and whose views will be of importance to the research buyer. The first issue here is identifying the key decision makers – often from roles as diverse as production, maintenance, purchasing, etc – and their roles in the process. These people are by no means easy to reach, and an agency should be able to demonstrate a track record of identifying and reaching these types of respondents.

Many aspects of the information required to reach meaningful conclusions will be of an extremely technical nature and, as we have seen, it will be very difficult for an agency to build up a high level of technical knowledge across a wide range of highly specialised industries. From the agency side, a general understanding, coupled with the ability to listen to and apply the knowledge of the buyer should be a prerequisite. This can be demonstrated by examples of working in other highly specialised areas in related industries. We would suggest that although specific technical expertise is highly unlikely, an industrial background and a certain amount of maturity are essential.

Most industries have their own technical language and vocabulary that will need to be used in any specific research project. This means that at the design stage, especially for discussion guides and questionnaires, this has to be right, as a difference in phraseology could lead to different results. Care must be taken to ensure that this is correct.

Checking and verifying the information obtained at an early stage is particularly important in this type of research. This goes beyond standard research practice of checking that the questionnaire is “working” to “is this information technically possible?” This means that there will have to be especially close liaison between client-side technical staff and the agency in the early stages. Similarly, the agency should be able to demonstrate experience of this way of working. In the analysis stages it will be important that the implications of the answers to detailed specific questions are understood by the agency in interpreting the data obtained.

In summary, whilst industrial research is an incredibly wide field, it is almost impossible to have expert knowledge of the most technical and specific markets, the high level commonalities of industrial markets require a common skill set, and choosing an agency that demonstrates a history of working on this broad type of subject, together with some relevant industry knowledge, should be the first point of contact for the potential industrial market research buyer.

More information about what makes industrial market research unique can be found our White Paper, B2B Marketing.

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