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If I could put one productivity tool in the hands of every market researcher - indeed, in the hands of every marketing or business professional - it would be a digital notebook. A good digital notebook application transcends the digital chaos of a hard drive cluttered with stray PDFs, half-written research reports, and one-off text files with the jotted transcript of a phone callÛ_not to mention the physical chaos of pockets full of business cards, whiteboards crammed with not-yet-captured inspiration, and notebooks full of unsearchable scribbles. Instead of that mess, you can use a single application to capture all your notes, drafts and documents in one place so that you can find, access and edit them anytime and anywhere.

Which notebook app you use matters less than choosing a single application to help manage all your research notes and clippings in one place. My digital notebook of choice is Evernote (full disclosure: Havard Business Review Press has just published my short ebook, Work Smarter with Evernote) but there are lots of people who swear by Microsoft OneNote, Simplenote and SpringPad, among many options. (Find a handy overview of some leading notebook apps here.)

To understand how a digital notebook can support your work in market research, let me suggest the 8 notebooks any market researcher should set up in their preferred digital note-taking app:

  1. Key questions: Create a single notebook to capture all the research questions and proto-questions you may want to investigate or include in a future survey. Whenever you hear a colleague musing on a customer characteristic he'd like to understand, come across a survey you'd like to emulate or borrow from, or simply have an inspiration for a whimsical question you think would engage your panel members, jot it down as the title of a new note. Dive into your notebook periodically and you'll never run short of questions to ask or surveys to deploy.
  2. Brainstorms: If you are a visual thinker, you may use whiteboards, flip charts or plain old-fashioned paper to map out your research questions and survey designs. Snap the results of these visual brainstorms so that you don't have to go hunting through old notebooks or (worse) fretting over erased whiteboards. (Some digital notebook apps, like OneNote and Evernote, use character recognition to make the text in your images fully searchable.)
  3. Competitors: When you find useful articles or blog posts about your competitors, save a screenshot or clipping to your Competitors notebook and tag the note with the name of the competitor. Now you can see all your competitive intel in one place, or click on the name of a tag to filter that notebook down to intel on a single competitor.
  4. ReadThis: It's in the nature of research that there is always more to read than time to read it. If you use a cross-platform digital notebook, you can make the most of your reading time by compiling your reading backlog in a ReadThis notebook. Any time you're at your desk and you find something you mean to readÛ_.laterÛ_.just store it in your ReadThis notebook. Use the mobile version of your notebook app to access the ReadThis notebook on your smarthphone or tablet, and you'll have ready access to that backlog of PDFs, memos and news articles.
  5. Panel highlights: Use your digital notebook to curate a collection of research highlights, including key findings and charts that summarize interesting data from your panel. One easy way to do that is by taking screenshots from within the panel reporting tool, and dropping them into your Panel highlights notebook. If you're using a notebook app that supports sharing, invite selected colleagues into this notebook so they have easy access to the latest data and graphics that they can use in their own reports and presentations.
  6. Data visualization: Use screenshots or web clippings to save interesting infographics and data visualizations so that you have an inspiration file for your own presentation of research results.
  7. Press clippings: Use your notebook to store news articles and blog posts about your company's market research and marketing efforts to a single clippings notebook. For extra hotness, automate the process by using the web service If This Then That to subscribe to Google news and blog searches on your company name and relevant key words so that the results are saved directly to your clippings file. Consider sharing this notebook with key colleagues so they have access to your clippings file, too.
  8. Survey drafts: Instead of using Word or Excel to create the first draft version of your surveys, consider using a digital notebook. You don't get nearly as many formatting options, but it's awfully handy to have all those survey drafts in one notebook, so you can easily jump between them or refer to previous surveys for preferred phrasing. Use this notebook to store your final version of each survey, too, and you'll always be a click away from a complete list of survey questions deployed - even when you're offline.

This list just scratches the surface of how a digital notebook application can help researchers capture, organize and share the vast amount of information they work with in the course of a day, month or year. If you're using a digital notebook - or you have questions about how it can work for you - I'd love to hear from you here, or on Twitter.

Re-imagining research: 10 golden tips for the modern researcher

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