In decades past, information consultants were considered dealers in obscure information. Companies hired them to dig through dusty old libraries and spools of microfiche to locate information that was difficult or too costly in terms of personnel hours to locate. Times have sure changed. Such a huge amount of information is now available that those who hire information consultants are often paying to have the information narrowed down to a few key topics. If the Web keeps expanding as it has in the past 10 years, it won't be long before clients start hiring information consultants to find other information consultants (just kidding, but you get the idea). So much information is available that those trying to find it can't see the forest for the trees. The talent shared by those who pursue information consulting as their life's work is the ability to enter that same forest and return in a reasonable amount of time with a list of the location and size of all the pine trees.
Filtering information has become such a big business that in some areas--especially the fast-moving high-tech world--there is a large enough market for specialized information that some consultants make their living by researching specific topics and offering their findings for sale on the Web. They use the information itself to attract customers. Some even collect data on specific industries and charge customers a subscription price to receive weekly bulletins via e-mail.
Many companies don't have the resources to do their own research. They may also not need research done regularly enough to justify taking on an employee to perform it. It's generally far more expensive to hire an employee and provide the needed equipment and benefits than it is to hire outside help. Here are a few of the types of clients you can expect to work for, should you decide information consulting is for you:
- Lawyers looking for the historical background of a particular type of case. Lawyers constantly need to sort through old lawsuits to find precedent-setting decisions. Smaller firms are more likely to need outside help with this task. This type of information consulting is particularly fitting if you have a background in law--if you've been a paralegal or worked in the research department of a large legal firm, for example.
- Corporations looking for information on competitors and potential suppliers. Believe it or not, many large companies really aren't all that knowledgeable about their competitors. Some will hire you to find out everything from the specifics of another company's product line to figures that show how profitable a company has been over the course of the past few years. Some use this information to make sure they remain competitive, and others use it to scope out potential strategic partners, suppliers and even companies to buy.
- Companies or individuals looking for patent information. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel, right? That's why many companies hire information consultants to find out about potential patent and ownership conflicts. This is an especially important subject for high-tech developers, whose ideas may be considered intellectual property even if they're not patented.
- Magazines compiling buyer's guides. If you've ever seen a 50-page buyer's guide in a magazine, chances are it was put together by an information consultant. Most publications don't have the time or the resources to put together a complete listing of products and services for their readers. This can be a good place to start for information consultants with knowledge of a particular industry.
- Publishing companies looking for untapped markets in hopes of starting new magazines or newsletters. Publishing companies, especially ones that publish several magazines that each serve niche markets with small numbers of subscribers, are constantly trying to identify new markets. Once a new market is found, the search for competitors begins (to be sure there's a need for a new publication), and research is conducted to find out whether the market is valuable enough to warrant launching a new publication.
- Investors seeking company background information. Sometimes the stock market numbers don't give the entire story, and providing financial and historical data on companies can help investors decide where to spend their money.
- Individuals looking for personal information. For reasons that range from checking the truth of someone's resume to locating a long-lost relative, people often want to find personal information about other people. This type of research is performed for clients that include lawyers, private investigators, employers and even people digging into the pasts of potential spouses. Researching personal backgrounds is not for the faint of heart. While the information you're providing to the client is generally available in public records, there's no guarantee that the client's intentions are honorable. Before you start conducting personal research for clients, be sure to talk to a lawyer about potential liabilities.
Finding a Market for Your Services
Reading the examples of the different types of information people and companies are willing to pay for may lead you to wonder if there's anyone who doesn't need the services of an information consultant. The fact of the matter is, just about anyone can benefit from having more information. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power.
As an information consultant trying to make a living, you'll need to find out not only who needs information, but also who has the financial resources to pay for it. Hopefully, the suggestions given in this chapter will get the old gears turning in your head. If you have a background in general research or library science, you've got a head start into just about any area of research. If not, it's probably a good idea to keep your focus fairly narrow when you're starting out. Ask yourself these questions:
- What subject would you be considered an authority on?
- Is there a need for research in this area?
- Are you willing to spend some time up front to find out whether those who need the information you can provide actually pay for research?
- Is there a related field that may be more lucrative that you could learn more about?
All of these questions are important. If you intend to support yourself by being an information consultant, you need to find paying customers. Unfortunately, the areas that information consultants serve are extremely diverse, which makes it difficult to describe the actual procedure you'll use to find out whether there's a need for your talents.
A good first step is to become a voracious reader. Read absolutely every magazine and book available about your subject of choice. Become an expert. Becoming an expert on a particular subject is not as difficult as it sounds once you realize that most people are too busy doing their jobs to really learn everything there is to know about the field in which they work.
Once you've picked an area of expertise, test your research skills by finding contacts at companies you can provide services for. Call them up and introduce yourself. If they've never hired an information consultant, just knowing that someone is available may entice them to use your services. As you engage in this little exercise, you may be surprised by the number of companies that enlist the aid of information consultants.
Another way to find out more about the market for information in your area of expertise is to join an organization such as the AIIP. This kind of organization gives you access to people who have years of experience as information consultants. The AIIP also provides a listing on the internet where you can display your area of expertise and find others who do similar types of research. The key to taking advantage of this type of resource is to become a resource yourself. You may need information on starting a business, and someone else may ask your advice on issues in your area of strength. You'll reap as much as you sow.
Established information consultants rarely turn down a job--even if it isn't in their particular knowledge niche. It's entirely possible that another consultant may hire you as a subcontractor based on your background or skill set. While the client may not know who you are, it's a foot in the door and a great way to get experience.