Thinking Ahead

When I go to BestBuy, I am just as interested in the products that miss as the gadgets that everybody wants. Consider the Kodak EasyShare C743, which CNET rates as one of "the worst tech of Q4 2006." One word comes to mind when you hold this camera in your hand: cheap.

Consumer electronics companies end up making cameras like the C743 because they don't have an efficient way to test consumer interest in different product attributes. Traditional focus groups are difficult and expensive to organize, and sample sizes are small. Online panels help companies gather feedback much more quickly, but they often suffer from sample bias. (The problem of "professional respondents" - or people who take particular pleasure in participating in as many panels as possible - is well-known.)

Market Insight takes a different approach. This Palo Alto startup operates six free product advisors on that help consumers pick the best product for their needs. One example is TVs. If you've ever tried to buy a High Definition set, you know that number of choices is bewildering. Market Insight's TV advisor steps you through the various choices and allows you to rate the importance of different product attributes through the use of sliders. The consumer data that Market Insight gathers through these product advisors is rich, immediate, and unbiased, and it enables Market Insight customers like General Motors, Palm, and Intel design and market products that customers in the market actually want.

Traditional market research is reactionary. It relies on small sets of dated data; it is project-based; and it is primarily used to optimize products that are already out in the market. But as the consumer feedback loop continues to shorten, it will become more and more expensive for companies like Kodak to market short-sighted products like the C743. Forward-looking, strategic market research will become the norm, not the exception.