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In the world of technology research, firms such as Gartner, Forrester Research and JupiterResearch seem to hold all the cards, knowing markets in-depth and charging firms thousands of dollars for a peek inside. Many small and medium companies, especially startups, are often on the outside looking in, not able to afford the high cost of research firms but still wanting to understand their market or have key questions answered by experts.

Mike Masnick, who writes the highly regarded TechDirt blog in Silicon Valley and offers more modestly priced corporate research, decided it was time to provide a service for the little guys (and gals). Last month he launched the TechDirt Insight Community, an experiment in opening up corporate research for any company willing to plunk down a minimum of $1,000 to get analysis from a group of vetted expert bloggers.

“You talk to the people who use traditional analysis and that’s their big complaint: There’s one wise man on the hill, he’s studying this market, but who is he? What if he’s wrong?” Masnick told me. “So our idea is getting all these different analysts and having them work together — you’re not just getting one of them, and you’re getting it from different angles. Someone who’s an expert in technology, one is an expert in marketing, one is an expert in public policy, and you’re getting them all to express their opinions and interact with each other.”

Here’s how TIC works:

> A company comes to the TechDirt site and explains the question it has for the community of bloggers.

> The company bids on how much it wants to spend. The more it will spend, the more the bloggers will be motivated to do the analysis.

> Bloggers apply to be included in the community, and are vetted by at least two TechDirt staffers who check to make sure they are experts and are appropriate for the subject matter they would analyze.

> Email alerts go out to experts in the related field of the question submitted to TIC. A cash bounty is offered, usually for the Top 3 or Top 5 answers given by bloggers.

> Bloggers submit their analysis, and after submitting, can view everyone else’s analysis and comment on it.

> After the period of inquiry, usually a week or two, the company chooses the best analyst/bloggers and they are paid through TechDirt. TechDirt takes about 25% to 40% of the full payment from companies, and bloggers get the rest. In some cases, bloggers get “tipped” by companies or can be hired to do consulting directly from the companies.

While there are already free venues to get community answers to questions such as Yahoo Answers or LinkedIn Answers, TIC offers a more targeted expert service with the motivation of payment for good work. Rather than own the work of bloggers who do analysis, TechDirt actually allows them to own their own words and re-post analysis on their blogs as long as the question isn’t confidential. And by allowing bloggers to take the next step and connect with companies for consulting gigs, Masnick is trying to build karma in the community rather than stifle rising stars.

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Mike Masnick

“The way we set up the terms and conditions, the experts themselves retain the rights to their content, and can publish it on their blogs,” Masnick said. “We don’t see it as we are selling this content; we are selling the access and coordination [to companies]. If you look at who we are dealing with, these are passionate people and we don’t want to say, ‘we own everything you say here.’ We have a license to it and we can give it to the customer.”

Bloggers Getting Recognition

The issues raised by companies on TIC seem more specific than the typical research white papers. One issue was about the possibility of Google and eBay having a messy divorce, and another asked for help designing a mobile RSS reader. While TechDirt touts case studies of the TIC helping Verisign with network neutrality issues and SAP with “blogger relations,” Masnick says they have had the most interest from startup companies who don’t have the means to afford traditional research firms.

“It’s been a mix of small, medium and large companies,” Masnick said. “Small companies and startups have really been responding well to this. For a lot of startups, getting research is very difficult, it’s very expensive and it’s tough to get the research firms’ attention. If you’re a startup, the big firms won’t return your calls because they don’t think you’ll be a regular customer for very long. The other nice thing about startups [for us] is that they have a fast efficient response. It’s easy to explain the service to them, and they say, ‘That’s great, let’s do it.’”

Bloggers who are part of the TIC have had mixed feelings about their efforts. Many of them like getting recognition for their work, but others wonder whether it’s a waste of time if they’re not the chosen ones to get paid. Marketer/comedian Mark Day put it this way: “Any situation where they pay the top however many ‘insights’ will either a) get them good info from motivated people; b) make people think ‘oh, why bother…’” So far, though, Masnick says a little less than 2,000 bloggers have signed up, though far less have contributed.

David Mould, a business systems consultant in Thailand, was one of the bloggers who liked the idea of getting recognition via TIC.

“I was looking for the chance for someone to see my ideas and recognize me,” he told me via email. “This is what I get out of the community — the chance for recognition and reward and it might increase readership on my blog one day…The monetary incentive is nice but for me the buzz I get from undertaking the work and being selected is a much stronger reward for me.”

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Jim Durbin

Another TIC contributor Jim Durbin, who helps run the Durbin Media Group in St. Louis, told me his two insights earned him $1,100 but that money wasn’t the sole motivating factor for him.

“Aside from the money, there’s the recognition and advertisement [for my firm],” he said via email. “People who read the completed answers get a chance to compare my thoughts on the topics to those of other professionals. If they like what I write, they can contact me to work on their project…Although is hasn’t happened yet, it’s another channel for sales leads for my company.”

Analyst Firms Not Going Away

So how much havoc could a new business model for corporate research wreak on the established research firms? Barry Parr, an analyst in the media group at JupiterResearch, was intrigued by the idea of TIC, but didn’t think it would do much harm overall.

“This seems a little bit complicated, but there’s a role for it,” Parr said. “From an analyst perspective, if you can’t compete against something like this, you shouldn’t be in the analyst business. Our business is really the relationship with the customer. They’re paying a subscription to get research and access to the analysts within the organization, and they’re getting consistent research from the organization on topics like online advertising and online usage and so forth. It’s broader and deeper than what [TIC is] offering.”

In fact, TechDirt itself sees the TIC as a way to feed more potential corporate clients into its main business of providing in-depth market analysis. Masnick thinks TIC will eventually grow to be TechDirt’s main source of income, but with an intertwined relationship with its corporate analysis. Plus, TechDirt has taken the community concept further by holding a couple Greenhouse conferences last year where the audience actually did live consulting for companies.

Each company did a five-minute presentation — not hyping their company as is typical at tech conferences, but presenting a distinct problem. The audience then split up into groups of less than 10 people and worked together to come up with solutions to the company’s problem. Masnick said the strange twist was that companies that gave the worst presentations ended up having the best experience at the conferences.

“The people who everyone agreed did terrible presentations got the most out of it,” Masnick said. “People enjoyed those discussions the most as well. Usually when someone does a terrible presentation at a conference, it’s horrible. But in this case, they got the most out of it [because they needed the help]. It’s really beneficial for some of those companies. It doesn’t mean you should do a bad presentation…”

The conferences have been on hold while TechDirt launched TIC, but Masnick expects to bring them back because they were so popular and useful for companies. While it’s too early to tell if TIC will be similarly popular and break through to disrupt the field of technology analysis, so far it looks like a promising way for smaller companies to connect with expert bloggers and get advice at a lower cost than the marketplace currently offers.

Analysts are ubiquitous in being quoted as experts in news articles, and TIC won’t likely knock the established analysts off their perches. But opening up the expensive and largely closed process of doing tech analysis and consulting could provide more insight for smaller companies and democratize the process to give more bloggers a chance to share their expertise — and get paid.

What do you think? Have you tried the TechDirt Insight Community, and what has your experience been? Do you think expert bloggers can provide useful insights to companies looking for advice, or that analysts at research firms are the best ones for the job? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: I heard back via email from Susan Cashen, vice president of marketing for MyWaves, a mobile video provider which has used TIC. Cashen pointed out that TIC doesn’t replace analyst firms or going directly to consumers for feedback. Instead, it offers a sweet spot of tech advice from knowledgeable folks at a very reasonable cost:

Traditional research firms definitely deliver value — for us, we’d tap into them to gain more ‘enterprise or partner’ insight, understanding what carriers or content providers need/want vis a vis our offering or the competition and market numbers. Because we offer ways for people to discover and share video on the web — and on mobile phones — gaining insight from people who would use our service is very, very valuable. And the bloggers on TIC understand a lot of the technical issues that drives or impacts our approach. This is not to say TIC replaces talking to consumers. I think it is a nice step to take, to better prepare you for that more mainstream discussion.

[TIC is a] great value. An affordable way to get a feel for something. Not many options out there deliver this much for that kind of investment.

In the comments, Maureen Caplan Grey, a former Gartner analyst now with her own firm, seconds Cashen’s point about TIC augmenting traditional research:

I see no conflict between TIC expert bloggers and traditional IT industry analysts. Each targets different, though not exclusive, markets. Each uses different research methodologies. I see the TIC model augmenting, not replacing, the traditional research firm model. The traditional IT industry research firms (e.g., Gartner and Forrester) are not flexible enough to adopt a virtual community (of non-employee) analysts. The virtual community of experts don’t have access to the in-depth information as does a traditional firm.

The question is, will the client, which uses one or both of the models, understand how to reconcile differences in ‘expert’ opinions?

In other words, will the companies that buy traditional research and TIC be able to differentiate the advice and insight they get from two very different places? We talk a lot about media literacy and knowing what media to trust. Perhaps there should be “consultant literacy,” where companies learn how to discern different levels of advice that they get and how to apply it.

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