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"The Dos and Don'ts of Asking Questions" Research Notes
Magnet Communications, 2000

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Asking a question seems to be a very natural activity. You have a pretty good idea of what you want to know, so you ask someone who you think will have the answer. After all, in the world of databases for anything and everything you can think of, the answer MUST be out there, somewhere! However, not all question are equal: there are questions and then, there are QUESTIONS. Or, as a client once told me: "You gave me what I asked for, but it's not what I need."

Here are some tips and traps that will help your researcher answer your questions faster, with the insights you really want and need.

Allow the research to be your partner by participating in a mini-brainstorming session about what may seem like a simple question:

  • Be as specific as possible with regard to companies or individuals about whom you are asking, including spelling of names
  • Be specific about why you want that particular information: is it to obtain a picture of the competitive marketplace or to find out about media coverage for you or your competitors, or something more focused? This can often give clues as to the best sources for your answer.
  • If possible, tell the researcher what you expect to do with the information: is it for a new business pitch, for event planning, or planning some other program element?
  • Tell the researcher, honestly, when you need the answers and the kind of summary that will be most helpful.

Holding back information can result in wasted time and effort, not to mention wasted costs incurred:

  • Give the researcher as much lead time as possible. While we all realize that last-minute questions do come up, every urgent request moves someone else back a place, and adds stress to the researcher's day. It also gives that person less time to track down every possibility for you.
  • Please tell the researcher what you already know, if you've done any searching already - why re-invent the wheel - and the databases or search engines where you've looked.
  • If searching for media coverage, the researcher needs to know how far back to look and why you believe that is the best time frame.

Here are a couple of examples of how these kinds of searches have helped gain new business and expand business with clients:

  • Looking for celebrities: We needed to recommend a spokesperson to Heinz; someone who represents youth and fun, but not a Roseann Barr type. Finally, we identified Kathy Griffin, who now appears on, a special site established by Heinz to promote a new cap for its ketchup. Second, we wanted to recommend a celebrity speaker who has suffered from cardio-vascular disease for a pitch to Wyeth-Ayerst. This resulted in winning the pitch.
  • Sometimes consumer purchase or usage information is helpful - even in a B2B situation - though it is often hard to get because most of those data are proprietary and therefore, unpublished. We have recently found data on participation in auto racing by Hispanics and the proportion of people in the largest US cities who spend a lot on apparel. Other subjects include computer monitors, drinkers of herb tea, and auto purchasers.

Following these guidelines will produce a cooperative, consultative process which will yield good results for you.

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