By now, we all know that in order to sell to a customer, you have to know what they want and who they are. Getting that information is another story. Market research can tell you where to find your first brick and mortar store, what products are competing for your customers, how your target audience perceives your brand, and what changes your customers would like to see made to your business. Market research is a specialized task, but with an understanding of basic qualitative and quantitative research skills, you can tackle smaller market projects on your own.
Identifying your research question
The more focused your research is, the more valuable the data will be to you. Your first goal should be to identify what it is you want to answer. This may be related to your target audience, performance against competitors, research into best practices or the state of the industry, or any other area that you believe has a tangible impact on the success of your business.
Be sure that your plan and the research question that you want to answer are actually feasible. It’s more than unlikely that you’ll be able to launch a large scale experiment that tests your product’s perceived versatility in a market outside your country, but it’s more likely that you can find a representative sample of customers in your current market to hold a focus group session to talk about your product. Research takes time and money, and while grand plans for your market research are appealing, you need to keep your expectations reasonable.
Once you have identified your research question, you can begin to design a strategic plan that works to isolate that topic and measure it. The two primary types of data that you can collect are qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative data is essentially information about the qualities of some variable. For instance, a focus group about how your target audience perceives your product or new packaging would collect qualitative information.
On the other hand, quantitative data is associated with numerical figures that you can statistically compare to a separate, independent variable. If you were to collect information about the number of comparable small businesses in your area that are established each year compared to the same variable in a target city, you would be collecting quantitative data.
Building out your strategic plan
Your strategic plan will be the actions that you take to reach a conclusion from the data collected. Most market research will likely involve some form of a survey or poll to test people’s impressions and thoughts. Typically, any survey that you design should attempt to elicit people’s responses in their own words, rather than putting words in their mouth. In market research, many people turn to focus groups as a way to learn firsthand what a selected group of individuals think and feel.
In order to hold a focus group, you’ll need to collect a representative sample. For instance, if you are interested in the purchasing habits of your target audience of women ages 18-35, your sample should represent this cohort. This means that your sample should include women that fit the demographics that you’ve identified as important to your research question. It seems like a no-brainer, but there needs to be a clear separation between participants and researchers. Your market research sample is ineffective if you’re pulling participants from your own friend group or from people who work for you.
Your strategic plan may be more quantitative in nature than a focus group and may rely on hard numbers such as the S&P 500, GDP, and population figures. In that case, you may need to use specialized tools to help you sort through the data.
Find the tools you need
Particularly in quantitative work, there’s a number of tools that you can use to sort through and quantify data. Google Analytics, social media in-platform analytics, IBM Watson, Google Trends, and statistical software such as SPSS, R, and SAS are all used in market research to analyze data and to identify statistical trends.
These tools may require a certain amount of familiarity with the product, such as statistical software, to use it correctly. You may want to consider delegating this task to someone more familiar with the product, either someone in-house who is trained in research techniques or an outside contractor.
Use outside sources
We have more access to information, both in terms of quality and quantity, than any generation before us. While there is plenty of shoddy and questionable research out there, you can find methodologically sound research on just about anything if you know where to look. Many marketing firms, consultancies, higher education institutions, and research journals publish research pieces regularly.
White page papers are a great source of information that can be either industry-wide or very targeted, but always check to see who published the information. Recognize that certain publishers and authors may have certain biases. For instance, a study on the benefits of corn syrup that you find published by the corn growers of America union (a fictional entity) may draw conclusions that support their agenda.
Outsourcing or contracting work is also a popular option. Data scientists and true market researchers are expensive, and for good reason. Research is a specialized skill that does not necessarily translate across disciplines, and is honed over years of experience. Many small businesses cannot afford to have researchers in-house, and contracting this work out is a good way to manage costs while receiving quality work.
You may not have the time or resources to devote to research. Please heed this warning, you cannot cut corners on research. Second-rate research with faulty data is more damaging than having no data at all. Learning the basics of marketing research is a fruitful process, but if you ever feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in your project, ask for help. Data is an enormously valuable resource, but only if it is used correctly and collected systematically and thoughtfully.
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