4 Questions to ask yourself before you do market research

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.  You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” Naquib Mahfouz

Here at ABCG we are big fans of talking to consumers when it is relevant, for example as part of our 360’ Brand Health Check where having a clear understanding of the consumer viewpoint can be critical to identifying new commercial opportunities.

However, in my 20 years of experience working as a Research Manager both for major international brands and agencies, I have often found that in the real world of business, research

  • Lacks clear objectives
  • Is not maximised in how it is used within organisations (think of all those reports sitting unread on your computer.)
  • And sometimes frankly shouldn’t be done at all!

To avoid falling into these traps, I have adopted the approach of conducting my own survey with myself before getting on the phone to the agency.

It goes like this (it is optional to imagine someone with a clipboard in front of you!)

Q1.  Why do I want to do this research?

You might think that no-one would possibly start doing research without addressing this question, but all I can say is that in my experience, you’d be surprised!  Honest answers to this question I’ve come across through the years include: “because my manager says I have to”,” because I think I should”, “to justify the decision I’ve already made”, or alternatively, “to show someone else’s decision is wrong… so could you just make sure the research shows the following…!”, and many more in the same vein.  Assuming that we don’t fall into any of these camps, it is still common for the overall objectives for research to be woolly, starting with words like ‘to find out more about…’.  To prevent the answers being similarly woolly, it is vital to ask:  “What decisions are going to be made as a result of this research?” and/or “What will this tell us about our customers that our competitors probably don’t know?” If the answer is ‘none’ or ‘nothing’, then we suggest you save time and money, forget the research and move on to something more important.

Q2  Who should my sample be?

Any research agency worth its salt is going to be able to provide you with technical advice to help you define your sample.  However, a common mistake is to be over prescriptive and unrealistic when defining the target group – for example, ‘women aged 22-25, ABC1, who visit the gym at least 3 times a week, who watch daytime TV and buy the Mail on Sunday’.  It may be possible to find at least one focus group matching these criteria who will like your idea, but if they only represent 100 people in the country, or you have no practical way of reaching them with your marketing, you’re probably not going to be much further forward.  It can also be tempting to get a little over-aspirational about who your customers actually are – I once did a research presentation for a beer manufacturer where the Marketing Department argued that their particular brew was only drunk by refined urbanite males in sophisticated wine bars.  On the way back from the presentation I spent an uncomfortable hour  dodging flying bottles in a train carriage where some of these ‘refined urbanite males’ were throwing bottles of the said beverage after watching a match!  Bottom line – if your product is used by ordinary Joe’s then that’s probably who you should be talking to.

Q3.  How am I going to do this research and how will it be communicated?

A point that’s often overlooked when deciding on methodology is taking into account the audience for your research.  I once did a pre-testing project for a major American male grooming brand where there was concern that one of the scenes in the TV commercial might be offensive to some of the audience.  While in theory this could have been easily and more cheaply researched using a qualitative method, it quickly became apparent that key players in this organisation were only going to be convinced by quantitative data with a high level of statistical significance.  Other organisations veer the opposite way and will be much more persuaded by a video of one articulate consumer (or indeed the expressed opinion of the Marketing Director’s partner/neighbour/mother – much to the annoyance of the Market Research Manager!). 

Also worth considering is how this research will be communicated within an organisation.  One of the most successful pieces of research I’ve ever been involved with was in the development of a ‘pyramid of customer needs’ for a major retailer.  The research process itself was rigorous and complex, but the results were distilled down to a simple but vital page of learning for all the Marketing department to show what customers valued most in their dealings with this retailer.  Two years after this research had been done it was still being regularly used and referred to within the company as a touchstone for improving the customer experience – money well spent indeed.

Q4.  When will you do this research?

New interviewing techniques have considerably quickened the speed with which some research can be conducted.  Nevertheless, much of the benefit of research is derived from the thorough and thoughtful analysis that follows.  It’s therefore vital to allow your research agency an appropriate amount of time in which to reach meaningful conclusions.  I have seen many examples where the research itself was conducted in parallel or even after the marketing activity that it was meant to be feeding into!  The moral of that story is surely to plan sufficient time to undertake the research within the project plan, or maybe even take a calculated risk and decide not to do it at all this time.

Having answered these four crucial questions, I normally find that I am in a better position to judge whether consumer research is necessary, know how it can be used to its maximum benefit within the organisation and have the basic structure for developing a sound agency brief.

By Fiona Silver

Project Manager ABCG

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