Sorting out the hip from the hype in new

CD-ROMs, Web sites, and books

Survey Software for Research Amateurs--

And Pros

You're setting up a big kickoff meeting and it's time to pick a keynote speaker. The marketing group wants Lou Gerstner from IBM, but the operations people want Linus Torvalds. Surprisingly, both are available on the date you want, and while Gerstner wants more money, Torvalds has that bleeding-edge cachet you desire. What to do? Why not take a quick survey of 100 attendees and see where they come out?

Well, not everybody is on the network, so some people would have to receive a fax; some will respond to e-mail, and it would be neater and easier to create a Web-based survey, but you'd still have to alert people to visit it.

Before you decide to flip a coin, consider SurveyTracker Plus from National Computer Systems, Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. This PC-based software makes it ridiculously easy to conduct surveys using mail, e-mail, a network, the Internet, or a scannable form. It takes just a minute or two to install, and the instructions are pretty intuitive; we only had to go to the manual once to figure out the e-mail distribution setup.

The menu-driven interface asks you to create a survey name, identify the people responsible for running the survey, and plunges you into survey creation before you know it. A nice feature is the software's ability to handle varying levels of expertise--a rank beginner can create an acceptable survey, and a market research veteran can make it perform sophisticated rankings. In either case, there isn't a whole lot of front-end time required to become Survey Tracker literate.

The software walks you through the ins and outs of survey design, including creating questions and response scales. It even has a library of questions to choose from, including such useful canned queries as "Do you want a cocktail hour before dinner?"

The feature that really makes this product stand out is NCS Designexpert, which helps you create a scannable document from your questionnaire (although NCS does want you to buy one of its scanners and its own NCS scannable forms to do this). It means that paper questionnaires can be scanned and the resulting data manipulated as easily as data gleaned from e-mail or Web responses.

Finally, SurveyTracker Plus comes with a good set of analysis tools for such basic data manipulation as frequency distribution and cross-tabulation. There are also data presentation tools for creating charts, tables, and matrices.

This ease-of-use is not free. SurveyTracker Plus starts at $1,495, and goes up to $13,995 for a system with more or less unlimited information-gathering options. To learn more about SurveyTracker Plus, or its big brother, the NCS Professional Survey System, call (800) 447-3269 or send e-mail queries to info@ncs.com.

Your organization probably generates new intellectual property for every major event. Web sites, logos, and CD-ROMs, for example, are all yours and can be protected. Firstuse.com Online Registry (www.firstuse.com) offers a first step in that process by providing digital fingerprinting and time-stamp registration of your intellectual property. The service is not a substitute for patents or trademarks, but can help prove you had a particular document on a particular date. The Westlake Village, Calif., company is offering three free registrations for first-time users.

Here's a classic waste of time: Try to find a half-hour time slot in which a half-dozen executives are all free to discuss your proposed agenda for the annual meeting. If you find a time that four of them are available, you can be sure the other two are tied up. What then? More calls, more e-mail--or you could try a nifty Web site called TimeDance.

TimeDance allows you to invite people to a meeting--and identify a time everyone can be there. Here's how it works. You begin by creating an event at the TimeDance Web site by entering the names and e-mailad dresses of everyone who should get an invitation. These addresses can be saved in an address book.

You then enter the subject of the meeting, the length of the event (a pull-down menu), and type of meeting (click on business meeting, online event, conference call, etc.). Next you select possible times for the meeting on a weekly calendar--just click on any of the half-hour increments you'd like recipients to consider. There are also opportunities to write a note to invitees and to tell them the deadline for their responses.

The invites are sent via e-mail with an enclosed link to a Web site where recipients can choose among possible meeting times. While the person who initiates the meeting needs to register the first time he or she uses TimeDance, attendees do not. If it's getting close to the RSVP time, anyone whose response is missing will automatically get a reminder e-mail.

Once all responses are in, the planner receives an e-mail from TimeDance, goes online to see which times work for everyone, and selects a start time. TimeDance then sends out confirmation e-mails.

In most respects, www.eventsource.com is a perfectly ordinary meeting Web site with a useful searchable database of hotels and convention centers and a serviceable online RFP. What sets it apart is the Reviews section, where event planners are encouraged to speak their minds about their hotel experiences.

The earliest review at the site is dated September 30, and the number of reviews per day appears to be increasing, although at press time there were still only 20 reviews posted. But what reviews! Most range from complimentary to gushing, but some mince no words.

"Willing personnel hampered by lack of technology," is how one leads off, while another begins, "The facility was nice, but we did have a few problems--we will not have another meeting there."

So far, properties advertising at the site appear unmoved by the presence of this potentially embarrassing feature. Could it be that, in the wake of Matt Drudge, visitors to sites that post opinions have learned to take those opinions with a grain of salt? Eventsource.com, obviously reading from the "build an online community" playbook, is offering 500 frequent-flyer miles to all comers willing to post reviews.

Reviews aside, Eventsource.com has several qualities to recommend it. In a nice touch, the site's hotel search criteria show some creativity with such categories as boutique hotel, high-end hotel, and unique venue. The site offers meeting planners more frequent-flyer incentives for using its Bookit meeting service, which includes a detailed RFP form.

Eventsource.com's newest feature, due to be released at press time, is an online auction system that allows hotels to bid on meetings and events. We'll report on that innovation in an upcoming issue.