Opening with 10 pieces of advice on how to do and use market research got the 2015 MSMR Alumni Research Conference, at the University of Texas in Arlington (UTA) off to a great start.
The presentation, by Susan Schwartz McDonald from NAXION, summarized her 35 years of experience doing market research in ten key learnings. I found myself nodding at each point. She described what many professional market researchers, including me, have experienced.
If you are coming to the market research field, you will find these 10 pieces of advice on how to do and use market research useful:
1. Know The Difference Between Business Problems And Research Problems, And Frame Them Well
Business problems are not the same as research problems. Research questions exist in the context of business problems and should provide answers to solve them. The question Which product is preferred? is a research one. We use its answer to solve business problems such as In which product should we invest? Where is the growth opportunity for our business, How do we beat our competition? among others. We need to understand the business problem to frame the research questions correctly and provide relevant answers.
2. Do Not Waste Resources In Researching What It’s Already Known
Fear and internal politics are behind a lot of market research done to validate what’s already known. In other words, management often requests new research as part of a cover-your-ass strategy. Although I’m all for using research for hypothesis validation, for some questions, we simply don’t need research.
3. Work Hard To Become A Professional Market Researcher
Easy access to online survey tools gives the impression that to work in market research you don’t need special skills and knowledge. However, as Dr. Schwartz said “Amateurism has contributed to cynicism about survey research.” There are a lot of bad surveys out there producing garbage data. At the root of the problem is often the lack of the most basic knowledge about the principles of market research. If you are new to the field, please find training or hire professional market researchers to help you.
4. Focus On The Input More Than On The Output When It Comes To Developing Tools
Our field is extremely sensitive to the garbage-in-garbage-out principle. Unfortunately, there is a race to develop tools that can capture, process, and present data often based on concerns more about the output than the input.
For example, I have met many clients to whom online survey tools have given the impression that user-friendly tools equate to good survey design. The tools may have many features to develop good surveys. However, the tools don’t write the surveys themselves. Market researchers are responsible for that. Therefore, designing good surveys seems easier than it is. Badly designed surveys, as Dr. Schwartz indicated, make your tools look bad.
5. Look To Minimize Measurement Biases
All market research methods are susceptible to what is called the Observer Effect. This is the case in which the measurement of a phenomenon is affected by the measurement itself. For example, when we ask questions, each question can potentially prime the response to the next. Consequently, the results can be very different when the order is changed. This is why we have to be cognizant of the advantages and disadvantages of different data collection and analysis methods to minimize measurement errors.
6. Ask Questions People Can Answer
This is a key piece of advice on how to do market research. Many of those who argue against survey research believe that people can’t articulate what they want, can’t remember behaviors, etc. However, people can provide useful information only if you ask questions they can really answer. Unfortunately, many surveys have questions that don’t allow for that.
Due to budget constraints, short timelines, or simply lack of knowledge, some clients want to use surveys for everything. The truth is, that this research method is not a good fit for all types of business and research questions. Again, we need knowledge of market research principles and methods to select the best approach and design the right types of questions.
7. Be Aware Of The Difference Between Statistical Significance And Practical Significance
Focusing on statistical significance can be misleading if we don’t take into account the practical significance of the results. For example, take market segmentation. A solution can uncover significantly different, but very small segments, that would be enormously costly to reach. In addition, some clients only want to do research in certain niche segments without understanding them in the context of the general population. Hence, they risk missing invaluable insights into the practical significance of targeting such segments. If you find statistically significant differences, it doesn’t always mean they have practical value.
8. Don’t Fall In Love With One Single Market Research Technique
This is probably the most dangerous kind of love in the market research field. The level of comfort with certain tools and approaches is the key driver behind this. We need to be open to try new techniques based on the business and research problems, without ignoring tried and proven approaches. Each research approach, qualitative or quantitative, provides different types of insights. As Dr. Schwartz said, “research fashions come and go, but what you need is a whole wardrobe.”
9. Don’t Discount What Your Customers Say When Statistical Models Don’t Agree With Them
We know that adding more variables increases model fit. As a result, we use hold-out samples for validation and should be aware of over-fit models. As Dr. Schwartz said, customer insight is only as trustworthy as your data and your willingness to hear bad news. When things don’t match, check your math and your intellectual honesty.
10. Use Market Research To Learn How To Think Like Your Customers
Finally, users of market research are not exempt from confirmation bias. This is our tendency to pay attention mostly to what we want to see or hear. As Dr. Schwartz advises “Don’t look only for answers but seek to develop empathy.” We need to be aware of this bias and recognize when our interpretation of the results is driven by pre-conceived ideas, and it is robbing us from really understanding our customers. We need to use market research to walk in our customers’ shoes to really understand where they are coming from. Only then, we can provide products and services that are relevant to customers.
Market Research Mission
To conclude her 10 pieces of advice on how to do and use market research, Dr. Schwartz called out our mission as market researchers. On both the client and the supplier side, market researchers need to interpret, integrate, and extrapolate insights. To do this:
- Market research vendors need to interpret the results in the context of the business problem and help clients make decisions.
- Market research clients need to be open and consider market researchers as partners. They should provide business insights that only someone inside an organization may have. Without it, interpretations are made in a vacuum, integration would not be possible, and extrapolations can be simply wrong.