Across the Great Divide?

What Generation Gap? The Preferred Product Research Methods of Machine Control Professionals Don't Vary Much by Age Group

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March 2010By Joe Feeley, Editor-in-Chief

We're in Year FIVE of our annual study that asks the Control Design audience how it researches, specifies and buys machine automation products and services. With an array of non-traditional, Internet-enabled methods—some effective, some less so—to choose from, we want to learn whether the tools of the trade are changing significantly for these tasks, so we can pass along as many peer lessons learned and best practices as we can.

We also try to use what we learn here to get a better sense of how to present content that helps you do your job. It has brought out issues that some companies in the supplier community reacted to and addressed to try to better serve your needs.

This time, we've done some additional data parsing to see if there are any significant differences in responses based on the age group with which the participants aligned. We wondered whether this would show up in affinities for Web-based content delivery.

Not Exactly 'Til Death Do Us Part

For several years, we've asked the study participants about the stability of their supplier relationships. This was a surprising finding in '08 with 52% saying they'd changed primary suppliers for one or more product categories in the past 12 months. In '09, it was higher with 62% of respondents saying they'd changed a primary supplier in at least one product category.

This year, it was slightly lower at 59%, and Table I shows that the churn is lower in every category, indicating fewer multiple product category responses. Again, we asked what prompted the change, and 33% cited price as a reason. This compares with 38% who said that in '09 and 22% in '08. Also, 29% cited product quality and performance problems, identical to last year. Respondents cited discontinued product line and poor service more often than last year.

Age and industry experience differences were noted in these answers. The three biggest age groups among the participants were the 30-39s, the 40-49s and the 50-59s. Seventy-five percent of the 30-39 and 40-49 age groups said they've changed at least one major component supplier. The 50-59 group reported a 62% rate. The 30-39 year-olds were more active in changing motor/drive suppliers; the 40-49 group identified sensors and measurement; the 50-59 group mentioned controllers most often.

Keep Friends Close

We ask our audience about their primary method for doing product research. Table II summarizes the findings this year compared with when we first asked this question in '06. This time we saw a modest decrease in respondents saying local distributors are their primary method. Meeting directly with the automation suppliers' technical people again rose noticeably, while searching supplier websites dropped a bit, continuing a decline since the '06 finding.

This year we also asked about affinity for suppliers' user group conferences. Surprisingly, only 1% of the respondents said it's their primary method, and only 5% said it's their second-most-used method for doing product research. We expected a higher interest level.

There were age group differences to note here. The 30-39 age group split its primary method vote between direct vendor contact and searching supplier websites, as both were selected by 31%. Meeting with local channel was primary to 27% of this group.

Some 41% of the 40-49 age group went with local distributors as their primary, while 35% preferred direct contact and 20% said supplier websites.

The 50-59 age group had the highest percentage (36%) whose primary method is to search vendor websites, with 34% favoring direct supplier meetings.

Overall, the percent of respondents who say their primary research source is visiting the Web, either to vendor sites or independent, third-party sites, stands at 31%, down from the 45% in '06 and '07 and 37% last year. As we'll see below, they're not running to Google or other global search engines as an obvious alternative, so our future studies will have to explore the above-noted increase in direct contact with supplier experts. Previous studies noted respondent frustration with trying to do that, so perhaps the mechanisms have improved.

Search Engines Still Rev

Of our respondents who do their primary product and specification research on the Web, the starting point more often than not still is Google if they don't have a particular vendor/brand in mind. The Google trend has been stable at 59% this year, 58% last year and 60% in '08. Having peaked at the 68% we found in 2006, and the overall website visit decline noted above, it seems to reinforce the notion of more specifiers returning to distributors and direct conversation with supplier experts. That's less the case with the 40-49 group, in which 44% named Google, compared with 73% for the 30-39s and 70% for the 50-59s.

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