As the reality of COVID-19 and our response to the pandemic unfolded in March of 2020, my Public Spend Forum colleagues and I had the unique opportunity to contribute our market research expertise for various government agencies sourcing masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment (PPE). We were fortunate to have GovShop, our government market research tool, available to support these drills.
In a time of crisis, every moment matters. The ability to quickly eliminate irrelevant suppliers from a list of prospective contractors meant more time to focus on those that had a greater chance at providing much needed supplies. As our data team built a new COVID-19 category, we were busy researching hundreds of top government contractors through our high-resolution GovShop profiles and prioritizing those worth the precious little time we had for individual outreach.
We also began to field other requests for materials and supplies from state and local governments. One in particular caught our attention: a New York State request for a 3D printed component that could retrofit a BiPAP machine into an emergency ventilator. I was assigned to conduct the initial market research, and in doing so recognized an opportunity to create a case study to demonstrate how GovShop can be used to expedite those crucial early phases of the market research process.
Step 1 – Understand What You Are Buying
Before jumping straight into the market research, I needed to learn what a BiPAP is because I can’t effectively source something I don’t understand. This step should be part of every Market Research Report within the acquisition history and background. A few google searches taught me that a BiPAP is a Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure machine used for non-invasive therapy for sleep apnea. These machines work by pushing air into the lungs through a mask or nasal plugs that are connected to a ventilator. BiPAPs are different from the more common CPAP machine, which only has one pressure setting. BiPAPs have a setting each for inhalation and exhalation, so they are often prescribed to people with lung and cardiopulmonary disorders.
I also learned how 3D printing may be used to produce custom adapters and valves to connect the CPAP mask or helmet to a ventilator or other oxygen source. Alternatively, 3D printing can be used to reverse engineer and prototype new connectors and valves in a disrupted supply chain. 3D printing could also be used to produce the clips and attachments to hold a mask onto a patient’s face, which may be useful information for the buyers in New York and across the world.
This type of strategic market research is a necessary predicate to effective tactical market research and ultimately, a useful contract, because you should not buy something with taxpayer dollars that you don’t understand. And as I will prove throughout this case study, the time spent in strategic market research will pay dividends as I begin to conduct my tactical market research to digest hundreds of contractor profiles in GovShop.
Step 2 – Identify the Right Keywords for the Best Market Research Results
The next step in my market research process is to use what I’ve learned about the industry or sector to identify search terms and keywords that will help me find relevant contractors. And one thing I’ve learned about market research is that you get out what you put in. If you put in bad search queries, then you better like time-sucking rabbit holes.
You can avoid this with more purposeful searching, and to achieve that purpose you need to spend some time finding the best keywords. Fortunately we’ve got a tool for that, the GovShop Search Assistance Tool (GSAT). After you complete the strategic market research to better understand the product or services, the GSAT provides you with tips on identifying keywords for better tactical market research queries.
So before I started doing supplier-specific tactical market research, I needed to determine which queries would provide me with the most fruitful search results. I always start with google, because the search engine provides suggestions of related searches based on machine learning and analytics. I started at a high level with “3D printer BiPAP T-connector.” This led me to an article from the 3D Printing Media Network, where I learned something valuable: the broader industry term for 3D printing is “additive manufacturing.”
This is a better description of the industry where I’ll need to focus my tactical market research. Using industry terms eliminates irrelevant or misleading results, like I may get from hobbyist sites or 3D printing wiki pages. I also learned a bit about how 3D printing is done, and more importantly for my market research, that low-performance materials such as polylactic acid (PLA) is the weakest form of thermoplastic used in additive manufacturing, and not likely to be useful for medical component manufacturing.
So not only am I learning about the process, I also had a question about the requirement that I would need to get clarified by the experts who own this requirement. This is all good work.
By now I’ve spent a solid hour on strategic market research as background for my ultimate goal, which is to create a shortlist of qualified contractors to which I can send the NYS RFQ. A waste of time you say? Not at all! I would’ve wasted more time if I’d just randomly started researching 3D printing suppliers. Instead, I learned about the machine we are trying to convert, how 3D manufacturing would contribute to the solution, and the industry lingo that I can use to home in on the best suppliers when I begin my tactical market research.
This is also going to be useful when I begin my outreach to suppliers. I don’t want to sound clueless when I talk to them, so it’s a confident feeling to have this foundational knowledge. I’ll immediately be more legitimate, and can also ask better questions when I get them on the phone (and not in a later call back, when I realize I forgot something important).
Using My Keywords to Increase the Efficiency of Market Research
So now I’m reasonably confident that “additive manufacturing” is a good place to start the search for companies that may be interested in the NYS RFQ (e.g., tactical market research), but I wanted to confirm that with some further research. Here’s what a google search for “additive manufacturing” taught me:
- Additive manufacturing is indeed the industry term for 3D printing
- “3D printing” and “rapid prototyping” are actually subsets of additive manufacturing
- Thermoplastics are the most popular class of additive manufacturing materials
- Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
- Polylactic acid (PLA)
- Polycarbonate (PC)
- Of these, earlier research suggests PLA is not useful for printing components for healthcare applications
- Additive manufacturing has an ASTM code: F2793-12a and an ISO classification: ISO 10303-1:1994
This additional research will come in handy as I begin the process of researching hundreds of potential government contractors. As you’ll see, recognizing related, but relevant, industry terms and prefixes of those terms in my search results will help me identify more viable supplier profiles that warrant my attention. No market research effort is ever going to identify every single qualified supplier, that’s a fool’s errand and not worth the time it would take to be 100% comprehensive. Rather, I define market research success as finding as many viable government contractors in the quickest amount of time possible, and then hoping that through your public release any companies you miss will respond to your solicitation.
Step 3 – Begin Researching Government Contractors
Now I’m almost ready to begin my tactical market research, which means I’m going to look at specific contractors to determine whether they warrant the addition to my short list. For my initial search query, I selected “additive manufacturing” out of several other suggested search terms (“application of additive manufacturing in medical field,” “3d printing medical devices,” “medical 3d printing companies” and “3d printed medical tools”) which I’ll record in my GSAT in the event that my selected query bears little fruit.
At this stage, I’m ready to start searching for government contractors on GovShop using three primary search techniques: browsing supplier profiles, commodity codes, and contract vehicles. This yields over 1,000 results just from the supplier profiles that match “additive manufacturing,” so I’ll need to use GovShop filters to narrow down the population. But before I do that, I’ll use the GovShop List feature to create a place where I can save contractor profiles for further review.
So before I start digging into 1,000+ contractor profiles, I want to make sure I’m on the right track. I review the contractor profiles, look at the commodity codes and contract vehicles and am generally pleased with the direction of my search, but ultimately determine that “additive manufacturing” is too broad of a keyword because the industry services more sectors than just healthcare. Therefore, I will modify my search to “additive manufacturing healthcare” and hone in on more relevant companies.
The addition of “healthcare” improved my overall search results, so now I am finally in a position where I can confidently begin to review supplier profiles. I have done all my upfront research to learn about the market, understand what I am buying, and select the best and most fruitful search terms. Spending a couple hours reviewing contractor profiles in my GovShop search results page is not going to be time wasted, and with the list function, I don’t have to worry about copying the profile links over to another spreadsheet because they’ll be there even if I have to shut down for happy hour and pick it back up after breakfast tomorrow.
Ultimately, I end up with a short list of 37 government contracting companies for which I have a high degree of confidence to satisfy the requirement. When I’m ready to contact these businesses, I have easy access to their government POC email and phone number, so I don’t have to hunt through the website (but if I wanted to, their homepage URL is linked in the profile).
In an emergency situation like this where time is of the essence, or in general when you’re doing market research into an industry with which you don’t have a lot of familiarity, it helps to have a playbook for getting to a manageable list of contractors that warrant your precious time. If I had to execute all the aforementioned tasks without GovShop, I can easily say it would have taken 2-3 times as many hours to find the 37 top government contractors in the additive manufacturing healthcare sector.
Hopefully this has been a helpful exercise to demonstrate how a playbook can help you conduct faster, more efficient market research. Combined with the utilities offered in our free tool, GovShop, we think the important task of market research will yield better results in less time, so you can spend more time doing the other complex and arduous tasks of public sector contracting.
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