I recently read a news article about using the web to find free business and market information, and it contained an alarming quote by a professor of business at a top university: "You can find anything on the web and you shouldn't have to pay for it." It's frightening to think that this is what he's teaching his students, because – as any experienced researcher knows – no matter how hard you try, you won't find everything on the web.
Sometimes what you're looking for can only be found through conversations with people, including experts, your buyers, or your competitors. Perhaps the information you need is so cutting-edge that it hasn't yet made it to the internet. Then there are the times when your online sources appear to contradict each other, or when it's easier to just pick up the phone than do another Google search. Yes, even in research, people need people.
One thing you can't get from any search engine or database is human insights. When we go online - whether it's for a survey or a search - we're in pursuit of the answers to the questions we've decided to ask. But what about the questions we didn't choose to ask or those answers that can't be put in writing? Sometimes you need to have conversations or just listen to what others are saying in order to bring out those unexpected nuggets of really useful information.
Trade shows are fertile ground for gathering information from human sources. So are networking events and one-on-one, targeted, yet loosely-scripted telephone interviews. And you never know what you might learn from the executive seated next to you on an airplane.
Not everything can be found on the web, and taking the time to gather information from human sources often answers the questions we didn't think to ask. I hope the professor's students eventually learn this important research lesson.