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There has to be a better reason than great weather for golf.

Marketing research is “the process of systematically gathering, recording, and analyzing data about customers, competitors, and the market… to help create a business plan, launch a new product or service, fine tune an existing product or service… and expand into new markets” (www.wikipedia.com).

That 41-word definition could very well cover every strategic marketing decision made by any firm operating in the AEC, planning, and environmental arena. I bet most marketers often look up when their firm announces a new strategic initiative, scratch their heads and wonder, “Who made this decision with no marketing research?”

Here’s a “hypothetical” situation similar to one I went through with one of my earliest clients. Imagine: You’re an A/E firm marketing manager. Your CEO walks into your office and says, “We’re going to open a Phoenix office. Please get your folks started on an announcement card, a press release, and new letterhead.”

You ask, “Really? A new office? Why Phoenix?”

He laughs and says, “Phoenix has a really long golf season!”

But there has to be more to the decision to open a new branch office than the frequency of great weather for golf, tennis, or skiing.

“Yes,” you reply, smiling, “but is there any work for us in the area? Golf is a great marketing tool, but it won’t keep our folks billable if there’s no work.”

“Well, every time I go there, I see a bunch of cranes in the skyline,” he says. “I want a share of that activity for us.”

“I want it, too,” you agree, “but all those cranes represent buildings already designed by other firms. How do the next few years shape up there for design work? Please tell me about your research.”

“Well, the VP and I had a conversation about this. We think the local economy is solid and should hold that way for the immediate future, if that’s what you’re asking. What other research did you have in mind?” he asks.

“Well,” you say, “here are the first questions that come to my mind when you say you want to open a new office.”

You start rattling off a series of questions, such as:

  • How much local work could there be for us over the next one to three years?
  • Should we perhaps win a job there first and then open the office?
  • How many other architects, engineers, and full-service firms like ours already have offices there?
  • How do those other firms compare with us on quality and reputation?
  • Have we been in direct contact with the cities of Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale, as well as Maricopa County?
  • Have we been in contact with any private firms in the area?
  • Will we take our total current service mix or just a part of it?
  • What kind of staff will we need to start and where will they come from? Will we transfer people from our other offices or will they be new/local hires?
  • What are the anticipated start-up costs for office space, salaries, equipment and supplies, utilities, and others?

By this point, the CEO has loosened his tie, mopped his brow twice, and acquired a “deer-in-the-headlights” look on his face.

He says, “Well, we didn’t get quite that far in our discussions. Do we really need to answer all those questions before we make a move?”

You look directly into his eyes and ask, “Do you want to still be in business a year from now?”

You stare at each other for 30 seconds.

“Look, I don’t want to scare you,” you say, “but with office space, a few staff people, and the necessary equipment, utilities, printing, public relations, and other things you need for a new office, we could be investing $500,000 or more just for the first year. It could be six months to a year before we land our first project, and another three to six months until we get the Notice to Proceed. I want to make sure that we’ve considered everything before we make that kind of commitment.”

“You’re right. Thanks,” he says. “OK, get back to me by the end of the day and tell me what we need to know, how you plan to find the information, and how quickly you think we can move on this.”

You type up the questions you just asked the CEO and print copies. You print the department’s work schedule for the next three weeks. Then you grab your pad and coffee cup and assemble the marketing staff in the conference room.

You tell them about your recent conversation with the CEO, pass out your list of questions, and ask, “What else do we need to know?” After a quick “greenlight” session, the consensus is that it will require:

  • some primary research — telephone interviews with city and county folks, owners, and construction firms; and
  • a lot of secondary research — business journal “top 25” lists, business sections of local newspapers, city and county websites, the U.S. Department of Commerce website and publications, almanacs, atlases, and other compilations of data on regional growth, etc.

Once you have figured out the questions and how long the research will take, and compare that with your current workload, you may have to decide about outsourcing the market research, a very common practice. Once the research is complete, you’ll need a day or two to review, analyze, and prepare recommendations and supporting information for the CEO.

“Too far-fetched even to be hypothetical,” you think? Absolutely not! In fact, it happens all the time: People throughout the firm make strategic marketing decisions without involving the marketing staff or even knowing, much less asking, the questions that need to be asked.

You need more? How many firms do you know that operate without a business plan based on real research and hard numbers (or without any plan at all)? How many firms make strategic decisions about long-term survival based on “gut feelings” rather than real data based on research and actual experience?

As marketing professionals, one of our critical skill sets is market research. But all too often, firm leaders view us simply as “the folks who do proposals,” or as graphic designers. So they make strategic decisions about the future without even involving marketing leaders.

Well, the world changes — and as markets change, marketing also changes. And marketing professionals change, too. Today’s marketing is also about data collection and management, synthesis, and use. We don’t just list the facts anymore; we recognize that big purchasing decisions always have an emotional component, so we use data and personal experience to write compelling narratives.

Opening a new branch office has equal possibilities for great success and unmitigated disaster. It can be a bold step, but only when properly and fully thought out. If any assumptions are allowed into the decision equation, you must make sure those assumptions are correct, and not just wishful thinking. As author David Weber observed in his 2013 novel, Like A Mighty Army, “…while audacity was the handmaiden of success, overconfidence was the handmaiden of disaster.”

The internet has opened up amazing possibilities for research conducted right from our desks, research that can benefit our firms by minimizing risk if they give us the right training and support and then set us free to find and analyze the data. But we then must make our firm leaders aware of our new skills and the benefits that can result when we are allowed to put them to work.

The typical firm leader never has the currently unallocated time to do the research necessary for a new branch office decision. Marketing staff are often overcommitted, which makes it hard to find the time for solid research. Outsourcing the market research is often the answer, and there are plenty of small firms with experience doing market research for AE and related firms. More important than who does the research is the question of who analyzes the results and helps make the decisions.

The more competitive the industry gets, the more vital it is that firms engage in proper research before committing their resources and risking their survival — and the more those firms need to recognize that marketing professionals have valuable strategic information, perspectives, and insights to bring to the table.


Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant at The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent AE strategic and marketing consultant located in Austin, Texas. Contact him at siben@sibenconsult.com or at 559-901-9596.

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