Using the Web to Find Local
Business and Market Information

By Marcy Phelps

Foreword by Mary Ellen Bates

"This book covers an area of business research that simply hasn’t been addressed before, and it fills an important gap in any researcher’s toolkit."
 - Mary Ellen Bates, Bates Information Services, Inc.

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Timing is everything. Marcy sent me a draft of this book to review at the same time that my best client called me. The client, who always asks for broad consumer trends, urgently needed demographics on several “Metropolitan Divisions”—whatever those were! I vaguely knew that I’d find lots of information at the Census Bureau—I mean, that’s what it’s there for, right? I quickly found out that you can easily get buried in stats and still not find the ones you need.

Realizing that I could spend several hours noodling around Census.gov, I opened up the file Marcy sent me for Chapter 4, Local Demographics. Sure enough, I found a road map there to get me exactly what I was looking for. The time I saved by relying on Marcy’s expertise rather than suffering through my own learning curve was significant, particularly since I bill my clients for my time.

What surprised me the most in reading through the rest of the chapters in Research on Main Street was realizing that a lot of business and market research projects have a local component. Now that I know more about local searching, I am finding that there are a lot of research questions that would benefit from a local perspective.

Say you need to scope out your organization’s largest competitors. National Widgets Inc., the Google of the widget industry, is headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Through your diligent research, you discover that it is planning on moving its entire research and development (R&D) staff to a suburb of Dallas, Texas. You know that it is counting on most of its professional staff making the move to Dallas, and you recognize that as an opportunity. You pull together some statistics on local schools, community diversity, tax rates, cultural opportunities, and the general employment picture (knowing that the spouses of the relocated staff may need to find jobs there, too). You can now use a headhunter to contact the key members of the R&D staff, show them the comparison of the two geographic regions, and see whether you can entice them into switching jobs instead of states. What originally looked like research for a generic, national-level industry profile in the widget industry turned into a project requiring familiarity with a variety of sources for detailed, city-level information.

Here’s a related (and sadly) real-life example. In 2010, I followed the news as the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolded. BP itself went hyperlocal by streaming the video from remotely operated cameras a mile deep on the ocean floor. But I also wanted to see what happened to that gushing oil when it hit land. Most of the coverage of the oil spill was from a national perspective, so I headed straight over to the local news sources to get a ground-level perspective on how effective the cleanup was, the impact on the local economy, the needs of local volunteers and charities, and so on. Nothing can compete with local coverage when the news is itself a local event.

One other way I tracked the oil spill was through Twitter. BP has a Twitter feed for disseminating news as do most of the local and national news sources. As one approach after another was attempted to stop the spill, I got almost real-time updates. What I find telling is that I have come to expect this level of coverage. I expect to have real-time video streaming to me from the ocean floor.

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the social or collaborative web is the increased demand for and interest in personalized, localized content and resources. As Marcy points out in Chapter 2, Packing the Essentials, social media exist to facilitate human interaction, and humans tend to be local creatures who often talk about their local area. That drives the development of new tools to mine all that user-created local content. As business researchers, we now have the opportunity to gather more and much deeper local-level information than we could by using only the static web. The business research we provide offers more facets and perspectives when we tap into all that local content. It also means that we will be called on by our organizations to know more about local-level trends as people realize that 1) learning about and interacting with the business environment at the local level is a good business decision and 2) local-level information isn’t something you can just Google—the information is on the web, but it isn’t easy to find.

That’s why Research on Main Street is such a tremendous resource. Throughout the book, Marcy offers short case studies that I found really helpful in understanding when I could use these resources in my day-to-day work. This book covers an area of business research that simply hasn’t been addressed before, and it fills an important gap in any researcher’s toolkit.

Mary Ellen Bates,
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Marcy quoted in Entrepreneur magazine
Hacking the U.S. Census for Market Research

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