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March 04, 2010

What do analysts actually do?

As you think about the debate about Forrester's blogging policy, I'd like to share a little more about how the opinions you read from Forrester analysts come about. With 15 years experience in this business, I know it's a collaboration. The analyst needs data and support from the company, and the company needs the analyst's brain and benefits from the reputation that analysts build up. A lot of time, resources, and quality standards go into what we do. I'd like to take you inside the relationship between analysts and Forrester. This is a long post, because there's a lot that goes into what we do.

(This may also prove enlightening to people who think Forrester and other technology analysts just sit around thinking stuff and saying whatever they want -- believe me there's a lot more to it than that!)

The first thing to understand is that Forrester is in the business of helping our clients in their various roles (interactive marketers, CIOs,technology product managers, etc.) to be successful. We do this by coming up with insights and analysis based on information and data we collect. Our business is based on the fact that an informed and thoughtful opinion based on knowledge, data, and collaboration with other knowledgeable people is worth something.

The analyst's thinking is central to every insight we deliver. Except for straight data requests from our surveys, if you get value from us, you work with an analyst. Forrester wants to build up the analyst's reputation, because clients want to talk to smart people. All of our materials have analyst's names and pictures on them.

We are organized by role. So insights are designed to help a particular type of client, like a CMO or a security person in IT. Here are all the roles we serve.

So, how do those insights get created? All the work I am describing happens simultaneously -- our days are very variegated -- but it's easiest to understand in stages.

Gathering information. We get information from a lot of different sources. For one thing, we gather data from consumer surveys in which the analysts help write the questions. These can take many months from conception to generate usable data, and they are expensive to create; they are more useful since they include many questions on one survey that can be cross-referenced, and often relate to historical data about the same questions. If I were doing a piece on social networks, for example, I would start with data we have collected on participation in those networks.

We also survey other kinds of people, for example, CIOs or interactive marketers, about their plans.

Surveys only tell you about the buy side. To learn more, we get briefings from vendors (like Facebook) who want us to know about their offerings so we can write about them and tell clients about them. We may request those briefings, or they may come to us. Either way, we ask a lot of blunt questions. (If you're a vendor and want to brief us, go here.)

We also learn from interviews (some on the record, some confidential) with people using the technology. So I might interview a company who built a Facebook application about how well it worked.

Our interactions with clients are designed to serve the clients, of course, but we learn a lot from them as well. If five clients in the space of a month want to know about organizing for social media, we know we had better get to work on a piece about organization.

Analysts get a lot of help in gathering this information. We have whole teams of people who are survey experts. We also have support staff (researchers and research associates) who help gather information and set up interviews.

Generating insights. Data by itself is not useful. Clients don't just want information,they want to know what to do about it. So an analyst works on turning the information into insights. Typically, this involves a lot of collaboration. Ideas will go through many drafts and get reviewed by senior research people -- principal analysts or vice presidents. We also like to get together and share ideas with each other, or tap experts (for example, when I write about mobile, I'll work with Julie Ask and Charlie Golvin).

The point of this process is to make sure we are saying something that's actually valuable and useful. A lot of stuff that doesn't qualify as new insights gets cut.

Delivering those insights. Most of our insights still get delivered in the form of reports. Most of our revenue still comes from subscriptions to research. Those reports are available only to clients who are subscribers.

We've become much more diverse in the delivery of insights, though. As you've seen if you read our blogs, analysts now blog about results in reports, and about many ideas that are not report-level insights. (Right now the analysts contribute to team blogs, but we'll all get individual blogs soon.) We try to balance what's in the blogs for free and what clients pay for -- the highly refined, often data-intensive reports and the subscriptions to research have a price, but there is plenty of content that's not so refined that we give away for free. Clients generally welcome both, and the blogs are also helpful in generating interest from people. We twitter, too: check out all the analysts twitter feeds!

We also deliver those insights in inquiries -- clients who subscribe and pay for inquiry can ask us about anything they need help with.

We also deliver those insights in our events, which are a successful part of our business. For example, our marketing event is coming up in April in Los Angeles.

We also do speeches and consulting. Some of the speeches and all of the consulting is paid. Our ability to do consulting and generate revenue from it comes from the insights in the data and the research, and the support staff in consulting; without the research and insights, we would have no consulting business. We are not a consulting company, we are a research company that also does consulting, and we want to keep it that way.

Finally, we do get quoted in the press. This is fun for analysts, and it happens in part because our PR staff are helping to make it happen. Getting quoted is great for generating awareness and boosting your image, but you can't get carried away -- in the end, clients, not reporters, are the ones that need to be happy.

Final thoughts: if you're not a client of ours, much of what I just described is invisible to you. Our blogs and twitter feeds are highly visible; you may see that our reports are available for purchase one at a time; you may notice our press quotes. But while this is what non-clients see, serving clients with insights is the actual job, and selling research subscriptions is the biggest source of our revenue.

As for the quality of our insights: we make predictions, they are not always right. And there is always the wag who reads our comments in the press or on a blog and says "Everyone knows that." But we work pretty hard to generate insights for our clients that are not available anywhere else, based on objective research and data. As long as clients continue to find that useful enough to subscribe to, we'll keep doing it. Based on my interactions with clients, it's rewarding for both sides.


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Nancy Shapira Aronovic

Thank you for this explanation. I will pass it on to my readers and clients. I also applaud Forrester for continuing to lead the way in transparency and openess.

Nigel Fenwick

Great post Josh - thamks.

And as if that weren't enough - a few more things Analysts provide for our clients: Teleconferences and workshops. And for our Leadership Board Members, regional meetings, council meetings and vitual meetings (counciltels).

Max Kalehoff

Josh, thanks for your perspective. On the topic of how analyst firms work, I have a few questions, in the spirit of post...

What is your opinion on analysts taking a break from analyst work to go work in the field, getting their hands dirty? I think of academics who leave the ivory tower to re-sync with industry, in the trenches, the daily grind and with actual decision-making. I'm not suggesting there's not a valid path or value for a life-long analyst/research producer, but curious what you think about this sort of enrichment. It seems often that analyst firms will hire executives from the field, because of the value of that experience.

Second, how have aggregators changed the business of syndicated research? Automated aggregators and people aggregators? For example, in my brief marriage with Jupiter (via the merger with Media Metrix, where I worked 10 years ago), companies like eMarketer were a big headache. And it seems many of those aggregators have built viable reputations. How have they changed the way you do business? Much? A little? Have they put pressure on margins from syndicated research? Have they prompted more of the consulting side of the business?

My last question is: how has the democratization of publishing (i.e., blogging) and the rise of various authoritative voices changed your business and the products you sell? A little? A lot? What do you do differently?

Anyway, just curious. Cheers.

Josh Bernoff

What a thoughful comment, Max.

Good analysts often come from industry, and many return back to there. That's natural and healthy.

Regarding aggregators, they don't change our business much. You can't get the reports from an aggregator, typically just a number or an insight here or there.

Certainly, the wider availability of information of all kinds has changed the technology research business enormously in the past 15 years. We need to work a little harder to make sure the insights we provide are better than what you can get with a Web search. In a world where there are thousand opinions, the analyst has to make sure his or hers stands out on quality, clarity, reputation, and methods of delivery.

Ludovic Leforestier

Hi Josh,

Great post, I'd like to ask you the permission to reblog it on the IIAR blog?


thanks! for this informative blog..analytics is often made to seem highly complex. Companies are incessantly faced with the issues of- How should one go about starting doing the work that analysts are supposed to do? Where should the Analytics team report-is it part of a marketing team or somewhere else? How much money needs to be invested to really make Analytics work?
I came across this very educating blog (http://bit.ly/enterprise-analytics)
It explains how your big or medium enterprises can make the most by using Analytics..

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