Marketing Research: It’s All About Answering Questions

Can you think of the last time you were engaged in a marketing research project? If you’re like most business people, when you hear that question you’re probably thinking about some long-range, very intensive, data-gathering exercise that involved a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of data analysis. And, yes, that is research. But we’re guessing that you are engaged in research far more frequently than you realize. Importantly, your research efforts don’t have to be full-blown initiatives that involve extensive quantitative research and analysis. Sometimes, yes–but, often, no. The trick is determining when you need to gather more information. And that comes down to two important steps:

1) Understanding the level of risk/reward involved in the decision you’re attempting to make

2) Clearly outlining what you need to know to make a decision–your “researchable question(s)”

I’ve been teaching courses in marketing research for a few years now and I work frequently with clients on projects involving research that ranges from online or secondary research to qualitative (focus groups, interviews) and quantitative (survey) research. The general process for gathering research inputs involves:

1) Identifying your “researchable question” – what is it you need to know and what impact will it have on your business (the bigger the impact, the more extensive your research process is likely to be).

2) Beginning the process of gathering information intended to help you answer the question(s) you have. This involves a series of steps. After each step, you will ask yourself: “Do I have enough information to answer my question(s)?” Those inputs generally include, in this order:

  • Internal information – sales data, customer satisfaction data, etc.
  • Secondary information – information you might attain online through search, through review of social media inputs, or the review of research or reports that others have generated
  • Qualitative research – interviews, observation, focus groups
  • Quantitative research – surveys, experiments

3) Once all of the inputs have been gathered, the next step is to synthesize all of the information and convey it through: findings, conclusions and recommendations. All of these should be framed around the original researchable question(s) and should provide the data and information necessary to make a decision, again based on the import of the decision and the potential risk to the organization of making a poor decision.

Sometimes your internal data will give you the answer(s) you need. For instance, my father owned a do-nut shop (yes, I know it’s spelled doughnut, but that’s how¬†he¬†spelled it) and he kept meticulous records of sales by time of year, day of week and even weather patterns (this was all by hand well before computers and CRM systems became relevant). If he wanted to know how many of what type of do-nut to make on any given day, he’d take a look back at his data to help make a decision. The risk/reward was not significant–he might either under-estimate the need and give up some sales or over-estimate and have to throw away some product. But, he didn’t need an extensive research project to answer his question. Often, neither do you.

On the other hand, what if your question is “should we move from a bricks and mortar environment to an entirely online environment”? That’s a more significant question involving significantly more risk. To answer this question you will likely need a combination of all of the above inputs to help you make a good decision. But, maybe not. Maybe after you’ve evaluated your internal data, you find some secondary data (articles or studies done by others in your industry or field) that provide you with a pretty reliable indication that you would be better served to move to a virtual delivery method.

The bottom line: when it comes to effective marketing research it’s really all about asking, and effectively answering, the right questions.

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