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February 7, 2011 | last updated December 1, 2011 11:14 am

Winning bid | Kennebunk firm Digital Research beats out eBay for a coveted innovation award

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Jane Mount, director of research services at Digital Research Inc. in Kennebunk, says dedication to innovation helped her marketing research firm win a national award

Going up against a company as well-known as eBay for an award could tempt a business owner to adopt a "maybe next year" mentality.

Not so for Jane Mount, director of research services for Digital Research Inc. The Kennebunk-based marketing research company had, after all, been a finalist twice before, in 1999 and 2003, for a prestigious EXPLOR Award, which honors technology innovation in marketing research. The third time proved to be a charm, as DRI beat out eBay and ANZ, New Zealand's national bank, to capture the 2010 award. In addition to her pride in besting a household name, Mount saw the award as confirmation that larger firms don't have the market cornered on providing "powerhouse" services and results for their clients.

"It shows that Maine companies really can provide services to high-echelon companies," she says. "It also goes to show that you don't have to think small just because you're in Maine."

Winning teams for the EXPLOR Award are made up of the research firm, its client and additional partner companies. DRI shared the award with client American Water and its research supplier, ThinkVine. DRI won for its work developing a tool to help AW determine the markets where it should seek business. A company that contracts to provide water and wastewater management to municipalities, AW experienced a three-year drought in new business and decided to reevaluate its business development practices.

Armed with a list of municipalities with populations of 10,000-plus in 14 states, as well as historical data on AW's contracts, DRI began gathering information and doing what it does best: delving into data. Using advanced statistical factors including structural equation modeling and neutral networks that would make a layperson's brain go numb, DRI boiled all the data down into an easily understandable scoring system to identify the most fertile markets for AW. The most impressive part? DRI accomplished all of this in under seven months, even though the scope of the project grew from 14 to 26 states.

With its "cool interface" that incorporates Microsoft Excel and Google Earth technology, the resulting Target Identification Program is more than just a nifty tool. Since using it, AW has gained three new clients — a relative torrent following its long dry spell. Mount says it's instituted a change in corporate culture. "Relationship-building is still a major part of their business development," she says. "But now they have a fact-based model to show them exactly where they should be building those relationships."

Founded in New Canaan, Conn., DRI moved to Maine in 1995. From the outset, Mount says, the company has worked to stay ahead of new techniques and technologies, and was an early adopter of online surveying and research. "We were founded on innovation and utilizing technology and advanced analytics, so to win it was sweet," she says. "It's a pretty big deal because most of the time it's the big powerhouse firms that win it."

With a staff of 30, many of whom are "from away," Mount says DRI's success is based not only on its solid and diversified client base, which includes Disney, Weight Watchers, the Maine Office of Tourism and Dunkin Donuts, but also its ability to use quality of life in recruiting top employees. "Most of our employees are here because they enjoy living here," she says. "We can do everything from Maine, either online, or it's just a 45-minute flight to Manhattan."

And while she understands that sifting through numbers may not be everyone's ideal job, Mount says she keeps the bigger picture in mind. "It's really exciting. We get to work on business problems and address our clients' most strategic problems."

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