Machine Builders Show Little Change in Product Buying Habits

Some of the Web-Based Methods Available to Do Automation Product Research Still Hold Little Currency for Many Machine Builders

By Joe Feeley

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Whether it's money, time or resources, it usually isn't wise to invest heavily in a new approach until you have a better sense of the potential value it can bring. Sometimes there's not much change at all in the beginning.

Month-to-month change might be unperceivable. Even year-over-year data might not reveal true patterns. It can take longer to find the emerging trends.

That's what we learn each year we conduct our audience study to summarize their product research preferences and buying habits, including adoption of methods such as social media and Internet-based video and audio options. There is no mistaking it's a rather leisurely amble toward greater levels of change among this group.

Here in the early stages of our second decade of the new millennium, more user-friendly websites and greater bandwidth give web-based product-research options legitimacy alongside traditional product catalog and distributor-centric methods for machine-automation specifiers.

We first started to ask the Control Design audience about its preferences in 2006, and have added questions as research options grew in subsequent years.

Digital Tool Destinations
The slowly accelerating affinity for use of webcasts as a source of research looks to have temporarily idled. In 2008, 16% of respondents said they used webcasts occasionally. This year it's a clearly better 29% — but that's identical with the 2011 finding, with the biggest support (54%) coming from the 30–39-year-old study participants. Although there's been little change in those who claim more frequent use than monthly, those of you who say you've never used webcasts for your job dropped to 4% compared with 26% in 2008.

Product videos and machine automation videos are one category that shows an increased acceptance by this audience — occasional level of use has grown past 40%, compared with about 14% in 2008.

"Videos about products or vendors help me evaluate their capability and competence," says Gary Cash, vice president of design services at Wynright Intralogistics in Elk Grove Village, Ill. "You should collect links to videos in one place. I view them as I see them. It would be nice for Control Design to sponsor/list a series of videos showing products in a similar way so they can be compared (similar to CNET Reviews). If this exists, I haven't found it."

Podcasts remain largely ignored by nearly nine of 10 respondents, although occasional or better frequency of use doubled since 2008.

The trend for blogs can be termed "encouraging." Although our respondents still make no regular use of them for their jobs, the segment that says it reads blogs occasionally has inched up to 23%, from 19% in 2008. The "never" group remains at 11%, but that's a significant change from a 29% bloc in 2008.

Bulletin board/forum use consistently pulls a 15% weekly use and 34% occasional use; that number has been unchanged in the four years of the study. It carries most support — about 44% occasional or better — among the 20–39 age groups.

"Forums/bulletin boards are best for me," says an engineering manager for a manufacturing company in India. "Companies are not yet using the forum/bulletin board medium fully. Personally, I would prefer if all my suppliers maintained forums with open access, because when you have a problem/query, chances are someone has already encountered it and someone else has already answered it."

A technical project leader at a packaging goods manufacturer in Massachusetts agrees. "Forums generally help me the most as they are a good source for strange problems," he says. "Podcasts are usually too long and boring, and don't relate to my projects, and in general are just a plug for a specific company."

This sums up a number of typical responses: "None [of these tools] are bad; they just don't fit my needs. I can't take time out of my day for a live webcast, social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn) are blocked at the office, and most of the videos/podcasts that are downloadable are nothing more than sales pitches."

A surprising number of respondents are either unaware of or don't find enough "on demand" content, particularly as it affects webcasts. Many say they can't make the time for a live webinar presentation. This might be a message to the supplier community that you're not making the archive option clear enough in your promotions.

"Of these choices, I use some supplier tech support forums when I am doing a project with their stuff from time to time," says a study respondent who works for an electroplating company. "But my first choice is just to call the manufacturer's tech support line where that is available or encouraged. A very few vendors offer webcasts that are actually useful in helping me use all of the capabilities of the product. The only time I use webcasts is if a vendor has a webcast available for on-demand viewing after the initial presentation. The rest of this stuff is just useless blather and a waste of bandwidth, as far as I am concerned. I do not use Facebook, Skype or Twitter."

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