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Which services do you really need?

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Selecting the sources you need access to might be a straightforward process.  But selecting the services you will use to access those sources can be a daunting task.  Again, it helps to know your sources.

A number of special-purpose online database services provide particular types of information on markets and industry. 

For instance, MarketResearch.com and MindBranch supply market research reports from a number of contributing companies. 

Trade Association Research, available online from Thomson Research, compiles overviews from 202 trade associations worldwide, and The Wall Street Transcript provides industry overviews compiled by independent researchers, including CEO interviews. 

Remember, although many sources have similar or overlapping information, there are often subtle differences in the actual content.

There are also online database services that offer a wide range of information, incorporating many of the special-purpose services. 

Services such as Dialog, Factiva, and LexisNexis are know as aggregators.  All provide access to databases produced by Investext and to the reports available from Thomson Research or Thomson Financial.

In some cases, special-purpose online database services incorporate information from the aggregators. 

For instance, Hoover’s which provides industry profiles, includes selected news articles from Factiva and links to Dun & Bradstreet reports.

To select the service or services that best meet your information needs, you will need to analyze pricing and interface options as well as take a close look at content.

Commercial, fee-based online database services are available through several avenues.  These options are illustrated in. 

Online database services are often available at no cost to cardholders of many public libraries, by credit card, through transactional accounts where you are charged for each use, and by subscription.  Some services offer several of these options. 

Which access option you select will depend on how critical the service is to your information needs, how much the service will be used, and who within your organization will use it.

Public Access
Many public libraries now offer remote access to online database services.  Usually a library card number is required.  For details, check the Web sites of the libraries in your area. 

Some may require that you visit the library and provide proof that you are a resident of the city or other jurisdiction that funds the library. 

Some will have more liberal definitions of residence than others.  Others may allow you to sign up for a card online. 

If you are just beginning to do online market and industry research, if you are not sure what publications and databases you will need, and if you have no idea how much research you will actually do, using the databases available through the library is an excellent option.

Public libraries generally have online database services that can be used for market and industry research. 

These are periodical databases such as ProQuest or InfoTrac.  Some libraries have the RDS Business Suite with Gale’s Business & Industry (B&I) database and TableBase.

B&I has articles from trade magazines and newsletters, the general business press, regional newspapers, and international business newspapers. 

TableBase includes tables of information covering markets and market share, brands, products, industries, and companies.

There are also “hybrid” sources that include access to a selection of business databases, such as the Gale Group Business & Company Resource Center (http//www.gale.com/BusinessRC). 

This suite of products offers General BusinessFile ASAP, Market Share Reporter, press releases, and market research reports from Datamonitor International.

Online database access through the public library has two significant advantages:  no cost and the absence of contracts.  There are also significant disadvantages.

• Uncertain long/term access.  Libraries constantly evaluate their electronic collections based on usage and budgetary considerations.  Portions or all of an online database service may be eliminated without notice.

• Content variability.  Because vendors provide a number of packages to libraries, you may have difficulty determining what publications are covered by a service.

• Limited interface options.  The basic interface may be suitable for very simple searches when you first use an online database service, but as you become experienced you may want the flexibility and power of an advanced interface.

•  Most public libraries provide only the simplest interface.

• Technical difficulties.  Public libraries periodically have network problems and unresolved technical issues with vendors. 

In some cases their contracts may limit the number of concurrent users for a particular online database service. 

When you are unable to connect to a service through the library, your only option is to try again later.

• Absence of training.  The major online database services provide a variety of training opportunities to customers that explain the resources available, advanced search techniques, and ways to take advantage of the information available.  Library access does not include access to training.

Credit Card Accounts
Several of the online database services allow pay-as-you go research with a credit card.  As with access through a public library, credit card access does not entitle you to training, and interface options are limited. 

Using a credit card is reasonable if you know that an article you need is available on a service for which you do not have an account. 

In general the credit card option allows searching for free; your card is charge only when you view a record. 

But you should not attempt a complex search on an unfamiliar service.  Charge can mount quickly when an imprecise search strategy yields dozens of potential articles.  Titles are not always indicative of article content.

If you have an unusual request and you believe the information is available through an online database service for which you do not have an account, your best option is to contact the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) at http://www.arip.org

The AIIP Referral Program can provide the name of an experienced researcher who subscribes to the online database service and knows how to search it. 

Although you will pay for the researcher’s time, you will have the assurance that a skilled professional has executed the search.

Transactional Accounts
If you are the only researcher in you organization, transactional accounts should be your initial choice if they are available from the online database services you need. 

With the exception of an account set-up fee for some services, you pay only when you use the service. 

In general fees are closely related to the amount of information you retrieve.  Searches that do no yield results are free or very low cost. 

Many services allow you to enter a client name or number so that your invoice indicates the amount spent by project, making charging the cost of research to the clients’ departments virtually effortless. 

When you have established an account you will receive regular updates on changes and enhancements to the service and you will be entitled to group and/or individual training. 

Many of the online database services have account representatives with research experience who show customers how to search the services effectively. 

With a transactional account you usually have access to all the interfaces available from the vendor so that you can migrate to a more advanced and flexible interface as your expertise increases.

Subscriptions
If several individuals in your organization will search the online database services or if you find that your usage is substantial, you should consider an annual subscription.  Some services are available only by subscription.  Subscriptions offer several advantages over transactional accounts:

• Predictable costs.  With a subscription you can establish a budget for information services; with transactional accounts your expenditures may vary widely from month to month.

• The freedom to err.  With a subscription, you incur no extra cost if you download documents in the wrong format or select the wrong documents, whereas such errors can involve substantial costs with a transactional account.

• Customization.  Several of the online database services offer sophisticated tools that allow subscribers to customize what those in the organization see when they log on to the service, including industry news and predefined searches.

The disadvantage of a subscription is the substantial initial payment that is wasted if you do not use the service as much as you anticipated.

For a comprehensive look at options for access to the major aggregators’ online services, refer to Mary Ellen Bate’s article “Can Small Businesses Go Online?: 

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