Many times, when thinking about the need for marketing research, managers will automatically jump to their favorite methodology (“I need to do some focus groups.”) or will even have drafted a questionnaire based on a problem that has not yet been defined. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, managers may not conduct research because they feel that they already know the answer in their gut or because they want to save their budget for other things.
Either decision may be proven right or wrong after the fact. But, before the decision is made, there is a process that will help indicate whether the resulting information will answer the research question, and whether budget dollars should be spent. And that process doesn’t start with the questionnaire or the methodology! So, take a deep breath, and step back to the beginning.
Step One: To research or not to research. That is the question.
Marketing research is an important tool in making business decisions, but there are situations where marketing research is not needed, or cannot be done in a way that is helpful to the business situations. So the first questions you need to answer are:
- Do you already have the information you need to make a decision? Perhaps you have previous research that provides answers to the current issues. Perhaps the information rests in your internal sales or operational data. Perhaps the information you need exists in publicly available sources. By doing a review and search of existing data sources, you may find you don’t need to conduct new primary research.
- Are the costs of the research and the value of the information (and improved decision-making) in balance? It is obvious that if the value of research is $10K and the cost of the research is $20K, it would make no sense to do the research. But, research is probably justified if you can save $100K by conducting a research study for $20K.
- Do you have the time and budget to do the marketing research that is required and to do it well? Research done poorly is worse than research not done at all. If your decision needs to be made in one week and the research needed takes four weeks, it would be counterproductive to take short cuts to do “something” in a week, or to conduct a four week research project that may or may not justify a decision after it is made. In the same way, if it takes $30K to conduct a research project that will reliably provide the information you need and you only have $10K to spend, cutting your sample size or analysis to fit your budget could provide misleading information.
Step Two: Define the Problem
Lewis Carroll, writing as the Cheshire Cat in Through the Looking Glass wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”. Unfortunately, that is not true in research. If you don’t know what your problem is, then no research will provide the right answers. Without doubt, defining the problem is the most important step in the research process. Defining the problem sets the foundation for the entire project, so it is critically important to take the time to do this well.
Step Three: Establish the Research Objectives
Once you have defined the problem, what information will you need to achieve your goals? The research objectives set out the information that will be provided by the research. Ask yourself these questions to help understand what information you are seeking:
- If you learn only one thing from the research, what should it be? What is the second most important thing to learn? Then continue until you have identified both the essential information needed and the “nice to know” information.
- What data do you need to answer the business problem, and what form should those data take? Do you understand enough about how your respondent thinks and talks about this topic to conduct the marketing research or should you consider some exploratory research?
- Who has this information? This question will help you understand the respondents you will need for your marketing research project. If you need to talk to recent purchasers (e.g., the last three months) you might choose to reach them from a customer list instead of a general population sample.
- What is the context for those individuals to have this information? When do they gain the information you need from there, where are they when they learn the information and how are they likely to get the information? Would they be able to provide you with accurate answers to your questions? For example, asking consumers to recall details about minor purchases from over a year ago will probably not result in accurate answers.
Many researchers create a table describing each data element, where the information will come from, and how the question will be posed. By doing this, it becomes very easy to create a comprehensive and logical survey instrument later in the process.