Marketing researchers generally think in terms of projects. After all, most of what we do is project management: figuring out what needs to be done to answer business questions, putting all the pieces (e.g., sample, questionnaire, data collection, analysis) together properly, dealing with the fires that pop up, and then finally, answering the questions.
Further, as marketing researchers, we have institutionalized this project orientation. During the annual planning period in most corporations, the marketing research budget is developed by compiling estimated budgets for individual projects. Our internal clients come to us with specific projects that they have identified. (How many times have you heard “I need a focus group?” or “Here’s the questionnaire we need to use in surveying our customer”?) Indeed, even our ability to do DIY survey research has led to the fragmentation and decentralization of marketing research, resulting in – you guessed it – more projects.
However, who’s looking at the big picture? Between marketing research, big data, social media analytics, and all the other information we have available about customers and non-customers alike, who’s pulling it all together to create the ongoing interpretation of what’s going on in the marketplace?
We need to stop thinking in terms of projects or information sources and start forming an on-going and evolving knowledge base that can inform business decisions. Only by creating cohesion regarding what all this information is telling us can we truly create a unified picture of the customer. There are four steps to the process:
- Internal Information Audit. In many companies, because of decentralization, globalization, and technological advances, no one entity has a good understanding of the total amount of information available. Start by auditing your company to unearth these information sources. Understand how each piece of data is collected, by whom, how often, why (for what business purpose), how it is reported, to whom, and what business decisions it impacts. Once you have that developed, identify overlaps and gaps, as well as connections. There may be information sources that are not being shared between business functions that could both use the data.
- External Information Audit. Are you taking full advantage of all the external information sources available in your industry? Trade associations, industry analysts and consultants, universities, even state and federal governments may be sources of information that you are overlooking. Of course, none of this information will be proprietary and may need interpretation to be useful. However, your competitors also have access to it – and isn’t that reason enough to make sure you know what’s out there?
- Start the Conversation. Begin to engage other parts of your organization in a dialogue about what they know and are learning about the customer. What other information do you have that supports – or conflicts with their view? Remember that the customer and the market are continually changing and evolving. An on-going conversation about the customer within your company can make sure your perspectives stay up-to-date and on-target.
- Ongoing Management. As new products are initiated, start by reviewing what you already know – or think you know – about the customer or prospect. There is no need to duplicate information efforts by re-collecting known facts. However, you may need to validate known facts if they have not been confirmed for a while. There may also be information areas needing further detail or clarification that you can develop in your research project. Think of every survey or data collection and analysis as an opportunity to continue building your company-wide perspective on the customer, the prospect, and the marketplace.
Your resources should and will be directed to those most important, strategic imperatives such as new product development, sales enhancement, and operational improvements. However, especially on those most critical initiatives, a cohesive approach to marketing information will prove more cost-effective than a project-based approach by ensuring that you build on what you know, and don’t re-invent the customer knowledge wheel.