This article is the first in a series of articles about the various toolboxes I use. As I have grown from a Web developer and designer, something I still do for recreation, to a digital planner and strategist I have found a variety of tools that I could not live without.

When I begin a new business pitch, interactive media plan, or client and competitive research I often begin with these tools.

Google Insights

If you think of Google as a massive database of Web sites you are missing the mark. Not only does Google index the Web, but it also indexes data and trends. With Google Insights you are able to compare search volume and patterns across a variety of data points including time, region and categories.

What can you do with this data? You can leverage the data to understand seasonality, search volume near store or branch locations, judge brand recognition by market or geography, and compare yourself against the competition.

The tool is incredibly valuable when used alone, but when combined with other data it quickly becomes an essential item in my toolbox.

Compete

There are quite a few services out there that let you track Web site traffic and demographic information. Compete and Quantcast are very valuable tools in learning more about a client for a new business pitch as well as researching the competition.

With Compete you are able to compare site traffic, unique visitors and more over a two-year time frame. Additionally, their search and referral analytics can help you ascertain what is driving consumers to a Web site, and where they have been before and after they have visited your Web site.

Combined with tools like Google AdWords you are able to resolve some interesting stats. As an example, I was able to define the total search volume for a client’s brand name in Google AdWords. I then combined that with Compete’s search and referral analytics to get a ballpark of how many consumers were landing on a competitor’s site when searching for their brand keyword.

For the client it became crystal clear that they needed to heavily invest in search engine marketing and optimization.

Quantcast

With Quantcast you can use their demographic information to determine your target audience online, and compare with your offline intelligence. Additionally, if you partake in their direct measurement program you can get even more accurate results. That combined with their media planning tools you can find and target your online audience with banner or search placements.

While there are tools from Nielsen and ComScore to find your audience online, they often do not use direct measurement. Their panel data leaves room for improvement whereas services like Compete and Quantcast use direct or metered data to come to their numbers.

Often with smaller Web sites I would receive questionable data from ComScore in the past. It always surprised me how the panel data could skew information month over month. One month my audience demographics would show 76% male and the following it would swing female.

Not that Quantcast or Compete are perfect, with smaller sites they often do not have enough data to be reliable. But they are tools I trust much more than the alternative. And in a vacuum, these two sites can provide strong directional data.

Google Analytics

Google makes its second (or third) appearance on my list. If you have not installed Google Analytics on your site then you need to open a new window and immediately sign-up for the service.

Google Analytics is a free and robust Web analytics solution. Combined with their easy to use features and custom reporting you have a very powerful tool that is only limited by your interest in data.

I also make sure to use Google’s Campaign Tags with my inbound links to build custom reports on site audiences. By doing so you are able to benchmark your general site users against your paid or earned media placements.

And with new business efforts or a new client you are able to quickly get up to speed on their Web site usage and users with access to the tool.

SocialMention

SocialMention is currently a free service that aggregates social commentary and mentions about any keyword you search on. While services like BackType and Google Blog Search are great tools for specific content types, SocialMention does a great job of pulling multiple sites together.

In lieu of a tool like Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics or Cision’s / Radian6’s Social Dashboard, SocialMention can quickly provide you with some fodder on a brand or conversation. I do not always trust it’s sentiment engine, but you can page through the data yourself to quickly get up to speed on a brand or client’s social ambitions or lack thereof.

Research

While I use a variety of tools available to me at Laughlin Constable, there are still some excellent (and free) resources for collecting audience information and data.

  • The U.S. Census Web site provides information by geo-location, demographic and more. I am very interested in seeing how the 2010 Census bolsters this information. Even more interesting is how you can access the data with a service like Yahoo Pipes to gain additional insights.
  • eMarketer has a very nice and robust service of data and information they collect from 3rd parties. They combine this with their own resources to provide insights on a variety of topics. I highly recommend subscribing to their newsletter and reading their blog for their free data and reports.
  • Mediaweek is often a free publication that you can subscribe to if you are interested in online and offline media news and trends. Along with some of the other data available on their Web site, they offer Market Profiles. These provide demographic, household and media information about each specific market. A very nice compliment to the U.S. Census information.
  • IAB, AAAA’s, Mediapost, Forrester, Nielsen and ComScore. All of these organizations have great Web sites with deep resources on trends and other data. Forrester, Nielsen and ComScore frequently share top-level information on their reports and data in press and news releases. Organizations like the IAB and AAAA’s can provide their members with a mountain of information for quickly getting up to speed on a brand, competitor or category.

These are just some of the immediate resources I leverage when I begin researching a client, audience, or trend. They have quickly become indispensable and if they are not part of your Interactive Research Toolbox, I highly recommend looking at them.