Friday, July 04, 2008

Listmania: Just say No

Since we’re social animals, we like to compare ourselves, passively or actively with others. Hence the interest in lists of “Most Powerful”, “Best Dressed”, “Richest”, “Kindest”, “Most-beautiful-American-of-Indian-origin-in-New-York”. Yes, the last one is for real. The lists which are easy to understand are those based on some publicly defined and understood dimensions such as wealth or quantum of philanthropy, and most debatable are those which are entirely qualitative like beauty or fashion. Even those who wouldn’t dream of participating in these lists are guilty of reading them and wondering where they stand. And if you studied in a regular Indian school you have been brought up in the belief that being “First Rank” is all that matters.

In the business world this translates to organizations comparing themselves with other organizations. Again, some of the lists are simple enough – those based on revenue or profits. Others are based on surveys and polls and depending upon how transparent the pollsters are with the methodology these are quite credible. Then you have surveys based on consulting “experts” or the Delphi methodology. These are more difficult to understand. And then you have some other lists which are clearly in the realm of voodoo, as they share no information on the methodology or panel.

Not so long ago, research was a very expensive proposition and very few individuals could afford to invest in it on their own. So publications conducted this research as a public service and recouped their costs through increased sales. In the pre-internet days these guides were often the only source of comparative information. Now the cost of conducting a survey or poll has dramatically declined, publications are in a very competitive space fighting for circulation, marketers are greedy for PR of the businesswire variety, and the combination of these factors has led to a rapid profusion of lists.

It is hard for companies to stand up and not be counted. And we are trapped in a vicious cycle of being silent even when we do not know the methodology that was used. We marketers encourage the creation of lists by celebrating when we are winning (and whining when we’re not). We rarely publicize errors either because we stand to benefit or we come across as sore losers.

One of the most prolific lists in the past three years has been the “Black Book of Outsourcing”. It is interesting to read the BusinessWeek expose on them.

It is time to consider whether many of these lists are an anachronism because with new media technology the cost of conducting a third party survey has dramatically dropped and everyone can customize the results. The methodologies vary so that it is impossible to compare two lists. And with social networking it is easy for anyone to bring together their private panel of experts whose opinions matter most to them. There is still a need for credible third party research which is in-depth, qualitative, and based on opinions not just data. But I think the day of the pure rankings is over.


manuscrypts said...

if markets get increasingly fragmented, i think its a natural outcome for research also to get fragmented, and customisation to happen.. the real issue is that the objective of a research should be clearer as should the parameters of measurement, and should not operate not on a 'as compared to..' model..
in spite of fragmentation there's still a tendency to compare.. paradoxically, apples and oranges will also ask to be compared with each other since it suits both of them.. and thats when 'largest circulated daily among sec a audience who own nokia phones on the left side of 100ft road indiranagar when coming from koramangala' happen

Jessie Paul said...

agree, as markets get fragmented so will research. but it should stay as research, not become an "opinion piece"!