What can analysts learn from academic diffusion?

Analyst firms need to extend the research of their insight far beyond their customer base. There’s a lot to learn from the other research community that’s motivated by diffusion: academic researchers. It is not just the readers that count: it is their quality, the quality of understanding and the degree to which things change as a result. We heard a top academic give his perspective on how to popularise his research.

Our take

Influencer Relations’ Analyst Firm Awards for 2014 (AFOTY14), which we’ll announce on Tuesday, show the dramatic impact that analyst firms can make when they explore new opportunities to enlarge their audience. Freemium methods are part of that: some of the best-performing firms in the survey have many times more users of their research than they have paying customers.

Freemium models are not primarily an act of charity. They allow small firms to overcome, in some small way, their lack of the sort of powerful sales channel that has produced Gartner’s market leadership. However, there are other benefits too, which university professors all over the world have known for decades. While analyst firms focus on revenue and readers, academia has developed complex methods to see if research is making an enduring impact on practice.


The opportunity to made an impact through the wider diffusion of knowledge is substantial, but it is under-exploited by many analyst firms. That is proving exceptionally powerful for HfS Research and Greyhound Research, which will be placed strongly in the awards, which use the data collected by the Analyst Value Survey. In one survey question, for example, India-headquartered firm Greyhound was rated in the top three firms, in term of producing independent research, by people in Asia Pacific.

Freemium is certainly not the only way to win a wider audience. One example is Aberdeen Group, which performs less well in the AFOTY14 awards while still making an impact. Many people think of Aberdeen an analyst firm, but I more accurately describe it as a research publisher providing content marketing services. Aberdeen’s research reaches a wider audience because its clients help it to do so. Aberdeen’s research drives lead generation (presumably the key goal of content marketing). However, one thing is not clear from our survey: Does its insight also drive change in companies’ behaviour?

The AFOTY14 awards show there’s a substantial opportunity for analyst firms to grow their business value, as well as their readership, through a more comprehensive diffusion. We think there’s a lot to learn from academia in this regard.


Dr Adam Bock recently gave a talk about this, taking as an example his work with Professor Gerry George. Bock and George are world-class researchers who have worked together for several years and have made a lasting impact on innovation and entrepreneurship practice. I’ve experienced that myself when George taught me Value Capture Strategies at Imperial College Business School back in 2009.

Bock explained that academics worldwide are facing increasing demands to make an impact and, therefore, to more clearly understand how they make an impact. Industry analysts often struggle to get feedback from their clients: while their work is often eagerly consumed, analysts rarely have a clear picture of how their research is affecting its users. That makes it hard to frame their analysis in a way that makes it as valuable as possible. One clear example of that was shown by the survey of IT buyers I mentioned recently. IT buyers want a wide range of research formats. Many readers will not read anything over 1,000 words. Some analyst firms thus produce only research that is useless to a big part of the market.

Academics are the great experts in this range of diffusion formats. Academics regularly share their insight with textbooks, executive education, workshops, trade articles, derided but admired ‘airport books’, conferences, teaching, detailed case studies, social media and academic papers. These are different channels, with very different levels of accessibility and audience. It is certainly time consuming to find the right channels since some are dead ends.

That said, every academic researcher becomes aware of the pillars of success. One is a relatively simple picture that explains what’s going on is key to all these forms of outreach. There’s even a field of research, subitizing, devoted to understanding the difference between a picture that is simple enough to understand at a glance and those that require the reader to labour a little. All research benefits from simplicity. As an extreme example, academic journals can take a year or more to painstakingly gather and work through extensive reviews of anonymised papers, specifying the revisions needed to make the research an enduring contribution to human knowledge. Even with these journals, one simple picture is still a powerful asset.

Academics are experts not only at providing a range of formats that allow diffusion. Academia has also developed great expertise in tracking both dissemination and tracking the impact of research. In the United Kingdom, for example, there’s a cottage industry devoted to it. Over the last year, for example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has reviewed around 5,000 case studies produced to track the impact of specific research tracks.

These case studies reflect the way in which these researchers often start with questions whose answers could make a notable impact. You can imagine some of them: How can the delivery best meet the information needs of the targeted audiences? How can we get feedback on future research ideas? Can we generate possible new collaborations, for example on future studies? Are we able to develop tools, templates or models to allow people ways to better put our findings to work? Can we better understand the boundaries of the topics we are researching, so we can see what adjacent issues our audiences might be facing?

This chart gives my SWOT analysis of some of the topics that analyst firms need to weigh up.

Can analysts make more impact with their research?  Helpful Harmful
Internal Strengths– Substantial insight

– Pyramid-based content development

– Signature research visuals, e.g. Magic Quadrants

– Strong web platforms

– Ability to reuse existing content

– Firms benefitting from national and linguistic barriers can delay entry by global competitors

Weaknesses– Productivity measured in terms of research reports rather than content objects

– Weak division of labour means that analysts are often left alone to produce diffusion tools.

– Poor access to non-client users

– Limited capacity to measure diffusion or impact of research findings

– Per-seat pricing means that many potential users in client organisations initially use competitors’ freemium research

– Even quite large firms, like IDC and 451, have very weak social media capacities

– Pricing models and delivery modes optimised for Fortune 500 mean Gartner and Forrester are essentially unable to sell subscriptions to the end-user market in China and India

External Opportunities– Rapidly expanded market for analyst insight because of non-IT use of analyst research

– Generally reducing language barriers and improved managerial aptitude at using content

– Re-emerging market for events and face-to-face workshops

– Gartner and Forrester limiting discounts, meaning budget pressures force clients to supplement their portfolio of research providers

Threats– Freemium firms become the most-used analyst in many Gartner or Forrester clients

– Quality of freemium research varies widely e.g. GigaOM

– Negative initial experiences of freemium research damages users’ perception of the value of all analyst firms.


What’s missing? What sort of analyst firms should resist the temptations of wider diffusion? Leave your comments and questions below.

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