Features – Super Searchers Go To the Source

Risa Sacks is president of Risa Sacks Information Services, a research firm located in Worcester, Massachusetts, specializing in custom tailored phone interviews that provide clients with hard-to-get details, often unavailable by online research. She has extensive experience in locating information in areas such as expert witnesses, due diligence and prior art for law firms with unusual demands. Ms. Sacks has provided research and writing services to businesses, government agencies and individuals for over 20 years. She is the author of Super Searchers Go To The Source, a collection of interviews with the country’s top primary researchers in diverse fields, which has been nominated by Competia as Most Insightful Book of 2002 in the competitive intelligence and strategic planning fields. She can be reached at 508 799-8810 or [email protected] .

Condensed and excerpted from the book, Super Searchers Go To the Source: the Interviewing and Hands-On Information Strategies of Top Primary Researchers-Online, on the Phone, and in Person, by Risa Sacks; edited by Reva Basch (2001. Information Today, Inc., Medford, New Jersey USA. ISBN: 0-910965-53-6). Copyright © 2001 by Risa Sacks. Used by permission.


Since the basic goal of research is to solve each problem in the optimum way possible—most efficient, most complete, fastest, cheapest, etc.—Super Searchers know how critical it is to use the right research tool for each situation. The most comprehensive searchers have an arsenal of research methods at their disposal, and have honed their skills in each of them. Sometimes the answers are online, but sometimes you need to go to the source—talk to an expert, see for yourself, or dig through archives or case files for documents. In fact, Super Searchers in every previous book in this series have mentioned that there are times when primary research is the best way to go, and times when it’s the only way to go.

How else can you get the data that didn’t make it into the published article, or have the statistics re-run to meet your needs? With primary research, you can talk to the experts who will answer your exact questions, give you the reasons behind the opinions, or help resolve discrepancies you’ve found. You can go and see that the plant is only running at half capacity or that the “big business” is a little shack or a mail drop. You can discover that the handwriting on the documents shows that Mr. A and Mr. Z are really the same person. You can tap a large body of information and perspectives that you can’t find online—and that may provide critical pieces of a research solution.

In some ways a Super Searcher book that isn’t focused exclusively on online techniques may seem like an aberration. In other ways it’s a perfect fit, an important adjunct to an online series. As other books in the series show, Internet and commercial database searching provide information, sources, and benefits that complement each other. In a similar way, primary research provides the “third leg” of the research triangle. It’s important to provide the link between the online world and the rest of the information universe.

I fervently believe in the importance of primary research; of considering a variety of methods to reach an answer, then using the best combination of methods to get the most complete solution; of using online and offline resources interactively and synergistically so that each complements and enhances the other. At the drop of a hat (or a URL), I’ll hop up on my soapbox to preach the importance of expanding research beyond online answers, of not limiting your research horizons.

Still … now that the time had come to put my money where my mouth was, suddenly the task was daunting. “You have really done it this time!” I told myself yet again. How in the world could I integrate coverage of online skills, in-person and telephone interviewing, hands-on public records searching, and direct observation in a single book? Even though I wasn’t planning to tackle basic library research or marketing research using focus groups and surveys—either of which would have been an entire book in itself—the territory I contemplated was huge.

There was only one thing to do—exactly what I always do when faced with an impossible task: I went to the experts. Just as Reva Basch, Mary Ellen Bates, T.R. Halvorson, Amelia Kassel, and the authors of every other book in the Super Searcher series did, for my answers, I “went to the source.”

In a way it’s serendipity, I suppose, that the Super Searcher series itself is a great example of primary research—specifically interviews—in action. How else could you get the combined wisdom of so many experts exactly targeted to the specific topics you want to address? In fact, the whole series is based on using primary research to get the best answers.

The keys are knowing what is needed and how to get it, either yourself or from others. This book shares the secrets of integrating online skills with primary research to create a total research approach. It covers how Super Searchers determine when primary research is appropriate. It looks at how to use commercial databases and the Internet to prepare for primary research and, conversely, how to use primary research to supplement or validate database and Web research. Since it encompasses such a broad scope, it can’t go into great depth on each topic, but it gives you a taste of a variety of different areas.

“Broad scope” also applies to our experts—and what a set of experts they are! Because primary research cuts across all subjects and settings, I sought out a “distinguished dozen.” From the boardrooms of America’s top corporations, to the halls of academia, to the pressroom of The New York Times, researchers in a wide array of situations share their knowledge.

Whether you’re a novice researcher, an experienced online searcher who would like to improve your primary research skills and increase your research options, an experienced primary researcher, or someone who hires information professionals, this book provides invaluable tips, sources, and methods.

Why Now?

In a strange way, the growth of the Internet has contributed to the reemergence of primary research. In the beginning, there was the expert and there were your eyes. Long before computers or the Internet, even before paper and the printed word, when you needed an answer, you asked someone who knew, or you went and looked for yourself.

With the development of books, journals, and libraries, the world of paper was off and running. With computers came the growth of commercial online services and databases on CD-ROM, and their enormous power to find and organize published information. Online searching, justifiably, became the new kid, and the superstar, on the block. It was a formalized, hierarchical world, where organization and data ruled. Then came the Web, which was people-driven—and which blew the world of information wide open. Suddenly, technology was bringing people back together in new and revolutionary ways, including virtual communities, chat rooms, and instant messaging.

Robin Yarmovsky, the Market Research and Business Services Manager at SunLibrary, Sun Microsystem’s corporate library, puts it this way:

I think technology now helps that human connection. There was a phase of online where it was third-party resources and fee-based services, which wasn’t interactive in the same way; you were interacting with data. This way you’re interacting with data and people. The Internet gives you that human connection where you not only get to look at data, but then you can usually email someone or connect with someone or talk to somebody. It was like moving from getting no information online, to getting all of it online, to this place, now, where the two genres are melding together.

During the early years of online, primary research was often seen as not glitzy or sexy. It was ignored or sent off, like Cinderella, to sit by the fire and pick through the ashes. Now, increasingly, there is the recognition that primary research has something important to offer—Cinderella gets to dress up and come to the research ball.

Realizing and exploring the power and scope of what online has to offer has also highlighted the limitations and holes that exist. You may need something that is too old, not yet, or never to be loaded on a system—or something that’s too new. If a story just broke in the last fifteen minutes, now’s the time to go to the source. People require “soft” information; they want to know how someone thinks or feels, the “whys” of a situation, the “where are they going next?”

In one Super Searcher book after another, the problem of the validity of online information comes up. Primary research often provides ways to cross-check and confirm or disprove online information. Alex Kramer, a researcher and licensed private investigator in Washington D.C., who specializes in public records searching and competitive intelligence, provides one view:

The way I look at it is, there are three steps to every investigation. There’s the online, the database search, which develops the leads. There’s the public records step, which fills in from the leads and follows up, and then there’s the interview process, which is confirming, denying, getting the flavor, or getting the meat of everything else that you’ve been building up to.

Does primary research replace online? Never. Does it exist in a vacuum apart from online? Not on your life. Does it take you places online just can’t go? It can. Do online and primary research complement and reinforce each other? That’s what we’re here to explore.

Going back to the primary-research-as-Cinderella metaphor for a minute, she may not always wear the glass slipper and reign as belle of the ball, but neither can she be sent back to oblivion with impunity. To switch metaphors—enough of Cinderella, already—primary research deserves a seat at the table, a voice in the research decision making. And today’s world both facilitates that interaction and requires it for complete research solutions.

Trends and Themes

In talking to a dozen experts across a number of fields and settings, I found many areas of agreement and disagreement. One researcher might love ProfNet [108, see Appendix , http://www.infotoday.com/supersearchers/ssgs.htm], one might hate it. Some researchers use online sources to lead them to people, others use people to lead them to online sources. Still, a number of common themes emerged. They include the following.

The Importance of Primary Research

While the role of primary research in their jobs and its place in their research approach differ from researcher to researcher, the one thing the researchers all agree on, not surprisingly, is the importance of primary research. Not a single one feels that the job could be done properly or completely without it. That doesn’t mean that primary research is necessarily part of every single research project, or that it should be. If the complete answer is available online, go for it. But it does indicate a universal awareness of what primary research can contribute, a willingness to think outside the box and to consider all the options when approaching any research issue.

Along with this goes a willingness to integrate all their research methods and, as much as possible, select the best tool, or combination of tools, for the job. To quote Robin again:

The way I’ve always looked at questions is not “Where is the information?” in terms of online or primary. It’s “What is the answer to my question?” There may be a variety of different ways of getting that answer. The whole reason for research is to find the answer to a question, and so I use different strategies and techniques to get to my end goal. You learn to hone all of your research skills so that you can meet the end goal. If the answer is in a file drawer, on a shelf, online, in someone’s brain, it really doesn’t make a difference as long as you achieve the goal.

Researchers use online and offline synergistically, interactively, iteratively. They might start with online to find the names of experts, then, in talking to the experts, be led to surprising Web sites. An online public records search might lead to going to a courthouse to retrieve a case file. Information in the file might lead to an online search of a new corporation or an interview with an old employee. And serendipity plays a role in both online and offline research. Being open to where your research might lead you is a theme that came up over and over.

There’s No One Right Way; It’s Okay to Fail; We’ve All Been There …

Fortunately (or not), there’s no magic key for when to use primary research, or one right way to do it. Experiment and find which approaches, methods, and procedures work best for you. Understand that research is always a “work in progress” and be willing to re-evaluate as you go along. Joe Flower, a healthcare futurist, columnist, and author, puts it this way:

My advice to people who are doing research is, don’t swim upstream. Recognize what you’re really good at. A lot of it really is about the personal style of the researcher, what works best for you. Of course, in order to know that, you have to try out a lot of different styles. For example, I have found over time that I can work with primary documents, but I absorb things better if I talk to someone.

And don’t be afraid to fail. We’ve all been there. Are there times when you hate to pick up the phone, or when the thought of talking with someone terrifies you? Welcome aboard. In this amazing collection of talented and accomplished experts who, taken together, have conducted probably well over ten thousand interviews, are there still calls that are hard to make? Absolutely.

Had a bad experience or blown it big time? You’re in good company; join the club. Called and called only to find out weeks later that the person you were trying to reach left that company two years ago? So have the experts. Ever spent too much time on the phone when the answer was online, or too much time online when the answer was a one-minute phone call away? We have, too.

Because every interaction is different and involves so many factors, you never know for sure how something will go. And that’s part of what makes the research adventure both intimidating and exhilarating.

Do Your Homework!

Some of my least favorite words are “It’s just one quick call.” While you can’t control all the factors in primary research, and you do not have to know everything about a topic, for example, in order to interview someone, you still need to do your part. Before you pick up the phone to ask someone questions, ask yourself some questions. Have you read what they’ve written? Have you done the background research that will allow you to bring something of value to the interchange? Can you offer a quid pro quo with some valuable information to share? Again, sometimes you’re limited in how much you can, or should, do. But preparation frequently has a huge influence on the outcome of primary research.

Tenacity, Curiosity, and Caring

Tenacity, curiosity, and caring were recurring themes. Primary research requires incredible tenacity—the image of a bulldog or a terrier comes to mind: Grabbing hold of something and not letting go until you get the answer. Going over, around, and through gatekeepers and obstacles to the information. Finding alternate routes, sources, and approaches, and always being willing to think outside the box. Persevering in a way that online research doesn’t require. For example, as Té Revesz of FIND/SVP once did, “trying to get somebody in Sweden, I called them every morning for a month between 5 and 6 a.m.”

The driving force behind this tenacity (aside from Dan Tynan’s “Usually you have an editor with a whip” or Wendy Grossman’s “I’m driven by fear, because if I don’t make the deadline, they won’t hire me again”) is an enormous sense of curiosity about the world and people. A fascination with the amazing things you can find, and a real enjoyment of the hunt, the chase, the adventure.

If the Super Searchers gave one piece of advice consistently, it was something on the order of “be nice, be appreciative, be interested—really care about what you do and the people you interact with.” Whether it’s the CEO, the clerk at the court, or the temp on the switchboard, treat them with respect, and strive for that personal connection that will stand you in very good stead. Sometimes you’ll find that taking a hard line is the way to go, even being aggressive or abrupt, but those times are the exception, not the rule.


Referrals are one of your strongest tools—and a good reason to treat people well, by the way. No matter whom you speak with, always ask “Who else could help me with this?” “Who else would you suggest I talk with?” “Who do you think is the expert in this area?” Referrals introduce you to sources you would never have found otherwise; they grease the wheels of information-gathering, and they can even increase your credibility. A number of experts have made calls to other people first, just to get referrals to the person they really want to talk to. The importance of referrals can’t be overestimated. Seeing everyone as a source of referrals can even help you handle rejection. Marjorie Desgrosseilliers states it like this:

Marjorie rule number 568 in telephone research: Never, never leave somebody without asking for a referral. Even if it’s just the temp person who’s answering the phone. And when you call the next person, say that you were recommended by the previous person. People respond so well to recommended calls.

Primary Research Can Be Costly, Complex, Time-Consuming … and Worth It.

Sometimes primary research is both quick and inexpensive, the fastest, cheapest answer on the block. Many of us have had those wonderful experiences where a surprisingly quick phone call delivered the absolute gold. Frequently, however, primary research takes time, effort, and resources. You’re dealing with people, not just databases, and while computers can get viruses, people get viruses, flu, vacations, meetings, and just plain cantankerous streaks. So it’s important to weigh the costs against the possible results. But the returns can be tremendous. Primary research can pinpoint trends, debunk myths, correct errors, and provide information you can’t get any other way.

Evaluating Sources and Information

With primary research, just as with online research, it’s critical to evaluate both the sources and the information itself. Who said it? Where are they coming from? What are their biases or filters? How about their credentials? How does their information compare with everything else you’re learning? How about the internal consistency of what you’re hearing or seeing? The Super Searchers in this book offer a number of tips for evaluating information, from keeping your bullshit meter on, to “right-braining it” or following your gut instinct, to cross-checking information with someone who’s not in the same loop. All of them stressed the importance of constant ongoing evaluation.

How To Use This Book

There are unique advantages in using primary research techniques to explore primary research. Using interviews to talk about interviewing works on a number of levels. You not only get to read about interviewing techniques, you get to see them working, both in my interviews with the Super Searchers and in their many examples and anecdotes. You get to see the exact words and phrases they use when doing primary research, to experience how they deal with various situations, and to share in their trials and triumphs.

Every researcher is at some level a primary researcher. Every time you do a reference interview or talk with your client or boss, you’re involved in a form of primary research. To quote Robin one more time, “As this profession has known for a long time, you’re not only interviewing experts to get information, but you’re also interviewing the person that you’re doing research for.”

You may never, in your research career, leap for the phone or go look at a building. If this book gives you nothing more than an increased general awareness of what primary research can do, that’s fine. If you hire someone else to pick up some of those pieces, that’s fine. If you increase your use of primary research or improve your primary research skills, that’s wonderful.

However you use this book, come along as we go to the source and see what the experts have to share.

Posted in: Features, Search Strategies