Editor’s note: Joanne Gucwa is president of Technology Management Associates, Inc., a Chicago research and consulting firm.

Using e-mail for business-to-business market research is still in its infancy. Consumer research, however, seems to be another story. I don’t know about you, but every week at least one survey request lands in my e-mail in-box. Several purport to be biz-to-biz but are actually consumer surveys in disguise (or some kind of hybrid). You know the kind: "Say, if you’ve got a home page and are looking for more hits, go to www.xyzandabc.com and tell us all about yourself so we can sell you our dirt-cheap services. If you do, we’ll throw your name in the hat for our drawing of a Palm Pilot."

Everyone talks about e-mail as the "killer app" for business. Let me tell you why I call it the "guerrilla app" for primary business-to-business market research. Yes, it’s cool, easy, cheap, fast and effective. But it also comes with some pitfalls.

By the way, don’t get me wrong: the Web is a powerful tool for conducting primary and secondary business research. We daily plumb the depths of the exponentially-expanding Web’s secondary resources -- our bookmark file has several hundred URLs sorted into several dozen categories. We’re also aware of the numerous vendors who will set up a Web-based survey for you (on your own site or theirs) and even collect the responses and do the analysis for you. Web surveys are definitely way cool, but it’s not a consistently easy, fast, or cheap means of surveying. (Although it is the best way to go if you’re anticipating hundreds of respondents: replies can be programmed for easy export into your favorite relational database.) And they come with their own pitfalls. Trade-offs are an inevitable fact of life.

One of the reasons I prefer e-mail surveys is that they are a much more personal mechanism, i.e., coming from me, with my e-mail return address, to you, at your personal e-mail address. You don’t have to take the extra step to fire up your browser if you’re using Notes, Eudora or another non-Web mail program. As a bonus, you’ve got a copy of what you’ve sent (unless you’ve set your options to "delete on send") to compare with the summary of the survey results you’ll receive after the study is completed (a frequently-used incentive, noted below).

The information or intelligence we’re talking about are the usual suspects: intelligence on business customers and channels, markets, industries, technology development and legislation. In this globalizing environment, this research is not limited by geographic boundaries, however. Kuala Lumpur and the kid next door cost the same to access electronically. Many of the traditional processes for developing research surveys still hold true in the virtual world, i.e., carefully defining objectives and appropriate population segmentation.

E-mail has tremendous value for researching "the voice of the customer" -- providing you do it right. What’s right? And not-so-right? Let’s look at some "right" ways of going about guerrilla (e-mail) business-to-business research.

  • Finding the right people to survey: Who are they? Where are they? If you want to contact those in-the-know about industry trends, try the on-line press. I’ve found dozens of editors and journalists on-line who are ready and willing to answer a few e-mailed questions. An example: We were asked to determine the readiness of the American marketplace in accepting a new safety feature for their cars. What better place to start than automotive writers for newspapers? Here’s a great resource: American Journalism Review, which lists 4,925 newspapers on-line at: http://ajr.newslink.org/news.html.

Discussion groups don’t all focus on kinky sex or video games. Professionals have been known to frequent serious discussion lists. How do you find business people who fit your desired demographics? One of my favorite search engines is HotBot (www.hotbot.com). Click on "discussion groups" just under its "search" button to bring up the discussion group search function and type in a keyword or phrase such as "machine tools" - which I did in mid-May, and found several different forums, including alt.machines.cnc, sci.engr.analysis, ott.forsale.other, among a half-dozen others, with topics ranging from "wanting to buy" to "help wanted" and "solving mechanical engineering problems."

I maintain multiple lists by "nickname" in my e-mail address book; many are members of various committees of professional, technical and trade associations I belong to. With their permission, I send periodic surveys on a wide variety of issues. You can build a great resource file this way.

Please, please, please...if you use this technique, send the survey "To" yourself and "bcc" your nickname list. You don’t want to alienate your would-be respondents by broadcasting their own and every other Tom, Dick and Harriet’s name for all to see (not to mention annoying the recipients who need to scroll down...and down...and down the page to see what it is you’ve got to say). If you’re on any personal lists, you know what I mean: forwards of forwards of forwards, all with their own endless stream of names. Sigh.

  • In the right numbers: Cast of thousands? Or smart targeting? How many is enough, and what’s a waste? If you’re doing consumer surveys, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what numbers you need for statistical significance. Some business-to-business research isn’t that much different. One company, for example, might sell industrial supplies (fairly low purchase order value, large number of customers and a healthy amount of repeat business). Another, an engineering company with major infrastructure contracts such as building an airport or a dam, needs to obtain business intelligence on each and every customer - the proverbial market segment of one.

Let me point you to one of the very best articles I’ve seen anywhere on this topic. It’s from the July 1998 issue of Interpersonal Computing and Technology: an Electronic Journal for the 21st Century and it’s called "What Sample Size is ‘Enough’ in Internet Survey Research?"

The Web address (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Eipct-j /1998/n3-4/hill.html) is certainly a handful to type, but well worth it. The real beauty of the Internet as a resource is in its ability to hotlink to references, and this article more than proves the rule. Go thou and read.

  • Asking the right questions: Ask permission first? Or just send them? It depends. You don’t want to be accused of spamming. My rule of thumb is this: for two to five questions, just send them; ask permission if the survey is long.

Here are two (disguised) examples of pre-survey inquiries:

I am conducting an e-mail study on the marketability of high speed gears and would appreciate your input. It has 11 questions and takes about five minutes. We’re offering a summary of the results to those who participate. Please let me know if you or any of your staff would like to participate. Thanks very much!

Joanne Gucwa

Hey game-software designer! We’ve designed a brief survey that’ll be a blast to fill out and will help us fine-tune a new product. Please understand we’re not selling anything, and because we’re not sending this out to the great masses in cyberland, we’d sure appreciate if you’d take a couple of minutes to fill in the blanks. We promise not to release your address or bug you with information on our product once it comes out unless you check the [O.K.] box at the end of the survey.

Just hit "reply" and type an X in the [boxes] that apply or type in your comments. Once you’re done, hit "send" and we’re out of your hair.

Enjoy, and THANKS!!

  • In the right way: Set the stage? Provide an incentive? Make it easy and entertaining? Or get right down to business? Busy "wired" executives get hit with dozens - more like hundreds, actually - of e-mails every day. With the digital equivalent of the TV remote (the trash icon or delete button), their attention to your mail is in the realm of little more than nanoseconds. How do you capture their attention?

First, do not shout IMPORTANT MESSAGE!! in your subject header - unless you want them to mistakenly think you’re touting a new porn site. We’ve found that "Request for assistance, please" gets more attention and results than any other header we’ve tried. Once your respondent opens your mail, state your business in as few words as possible (see the first example in the previous section).

Incentives are frequently used in all modes of business-to-business surveys, although the electronic form makes it that much easier. There’s little better incentive for a businessperson to respond than the promise of a summary of the survey results (by e-mail or attachment).

(A caveat or two about sending attachments: these files may be stopped in their tracks at corporate firewalls as a security measure; those that get through to your respondents may never get opened for fear of hidden macros. My virus alarm was actually set off by an Excel attachment accompanying a software association’s mailing.)

At our corporate Web site, our Guestbook form (through which we request basic demographic information) asks an "extra credit question": "If there were one thing you could do to improve your business, what would that be?" We’ve tried it with e-mail surveys as well. There aren’t many executives who can resist this playful throwback to their dear old school days.

  • At the right time: Set a deadline? Or ask for immediate reply? Our experience has been that for e-mail surveys, nearly 95 percent of the responses we’re going to get (without an extra reminder nudge by e-mail or phone) are received within 48 hours. We’ve actually received responses to short, four-to-six-question e-mailed surveys in as little as 10 minutes after sending them out.

By the way, for customer satisfaction/customer loyalty surveys, what better positive impact than to shoot off an e-mail survey soon after a sale (or even during the life of a longer-term contract)?

  • With the right vehicle: "Cold" but targeted e-mail? (That is, e-mail that’s targeted to a specific person but sent without having a prior relationship or contact with that person.) Web site? Part of electronic newsletter? Mixed media? In business, one size does not always fit all.

"Cold" but targeted e-mail works fine for most, but be flexible. We’ve had cooperative respondents ask us to send them a fax version of the survey. They didn’t want to take the time during the day and preferred filling it out on the commuter train ride home (never mind that they could have printed out the e-mail version themselves). Of course, we comply. Just be sure to include your return fax number on the document. Interestingly, we’ve never had someone ask if we had a Web-based version.

If you send periodic e-mailed newsletters to customers or clients who also fit your target audience, let it do double duty by including your survey. Ask that they copy and paste the survey portion into a new message rather than just hitting the "reply" button. This saves electrons and you the time it takes to wade through the non-survey material.

A word and big caution about formatting an e-mailed questionnaire. Those nicely aligned boxes and columns are not going to translate in the plain vanilla ASCII text format that many e- mail programs use as a default. Here’s a way around that.

Directions: please place an X inside the brackets

Number of employees (select one)

  [ ] 1-10             [ ] 11-20           [ ] 21-40
  [ ] 41-60           [ ] 61-80           [ ] 81-100
  [ ] 101-200       [ ] 201-400       [ ] More than 400

You can still dress up an e-mail survey. Use symbols such as asterisks or plus signs. Hyphens or underscores don’t work as well visually, and be sure not to use equal signs because they translate into an awful mess. Send it to yourself and keep tweaking until it works.

I mentioned reminder nudges earlier. Even though virtual is cool, easy, cheap and fast, we all live in the real world too. Sometimes you’ve just got to pick up the telephone. It’s better than 50 percent effective, especially with people we already know.

You can conduct e-mail focus groups through an e-mail discussion list, using majordomo or other software. While e-mail is not exactly real-time compared with Web-based chat, it does offer a number of advantages: flexibility for those who aren’t available at a set time, and typing speed is not a factor. Onelist is a free service that allows you to create your own list or join a current one. It boasts of more than 17 million daily e-mail exchanges. Check it out at www.onelist.com.

  • To get the right results: Confidence level and validity. It’s important to understand that the on-line population is a segment, it is not the total population in most cases. There is real danger in trying to extrapolate to the whole of the segment what is just the on-line portion, i.e., food processors who are also wired.

Another caveat: there is still a sizable population of middle-aged executives with e-mail addresses who never touch the keyboard. Their secretaries print out important e-mails for dictated replies to be typed and sent. Sometimes this is not relevant, but oftentimes it is. This is why I like posting to discussion groups or contacting active participants privately. At least I know the respondents aren’t hiding behind secretarial skirts (or trousers). So, depending upon your need to apply your findings to the entire population, both wired and not-yet, you may want to incorporate traditional processes in your survey mix.

One of the reported drawbacks of e-mail surveys compared with Web versions is that transferring the data for analysis is a far more tedious process. Working with e-mail responses does take a few more steps, but it’s not nearly as labor-intensive or prone to key-stroke error as working with paper. You can individually copy and paste each data element of every response into a spreadsheet or relational database, but that’s still a lot of work.

Here’s what we do. We set up a new mailbox and create filters in our e-mail program (Eudora Pro, Version 4.1) so all incoming surveys automatically transfer into that mailbox. Once the targeted number of replies are received, we open the entire mailbox in a spreadsheet program such as Excel or Quattro Pro. The next step is to create a title and column headings for each data point. We then highlight and delete the rows with the headers and other non-relevant data for each record.

For "select one" questions in a row format (as in the "number of employees" example above), delete all options other than the one selected. Now, highlight each record and select the "switch columns and rows" to align the responses to fit under the correct column heading. The data can now be sorted or the spreadsheet can be saved in comma-delimited form for exporting into a relational database (already set up with matching column headings and data type).

This process will not work as easily for "check as many as apply" questions. You will need to work with those questions separately, placing the multiple responses in the appropriate column, directly under each other. You will also need to create your database with multiple tables, linked in a "one-to-many" format and then copy and paste the responses into each appropriate table or into a main/subform template.

Pleasantly surprised

All in all, e-mail surveys are more of a do-it-yourself, quick-and-dirty means of conducting business-to-business market research. When your need to know is urgent and number you are surveying is small, give the guerrilla app a try. Dollar for dollar and hour for hour, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.