It's hard to believe how different it was, just a mere 15 years ago, to conduct secondary market research. There was no Internet (commercial at least), no Yahoo portal, no Google search, no Web-accessible databases to tap. Almost every effort required a phone call, a trip to the library, a subscription to a third-party source, a read-through of hardcopy reference material.

How times have changed.

But, not always for the better. The seemingly bottomless pit of content that makes up today's Web poses some distinct challenges to marketers looking for precise, credible facts on which to build a strategy.

This article points out some of the online research traps—which can put your marketing strategy atop the proverbial house of cards.

Misleading Definitions

It is not uncommon for a data source to use imprecise terminology. My favorite example is the oft-quoted number of cell phone users in the US. You constantly see or hear 255 million, since that number is prominently displayed on the home page "ticker" of the wireless trade association It seemed high to me, and when I contacted CTIA's head researcher, he admitted the number is for subscriptions, not subscribers.

When I later saw the 255 million number used, once again, in The New York Times April 13 "Week in Review" section, I requested a correction. The Times did its own research and two weeks later published a retraction, with a new number of 226 million.

Other data definitions to double-check include households vs. individuals, visits vs. visitors, total population vs. Internet users. These types of mistakes can really throw off your work in sizing market opportunities.

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Kevin Horne is an independent marketing strategist working with advertising agencies and interactive firms in NYC. His blog can be viewed at