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The One Question Every Market Researcher Should Ask

What's the Question? with Durk Bosma is back with the third edition of the series to explore how researchers can provide actionable outcomes that meet their client's needs.

What are you going to do with the outcomes?

Market researchers place more and more emphasis on relevance of their work. This means: providing meaningful and useful insights that actually help to grow the business of the client. Therefore, the question that market researcher and their clients must always answer clearly before the start of every research project: what decision(s) are the outcomes used for? In other words, which buttons can be pushed?

Thorough questioning pays off

Asking carefully about what the client is going to do with the market research often yields surprises. A few examples. A client who said “I want a brand awareness study” turned out to be in a repositioning project. They were ultimately helped with a segmentation study, identifying different target groups and their buying behavior. A web shop that sells software asked for a customer satisfaction study. It turned out they were developing a new website. A usability study about the ordering process was what they really needed.

“What does the business want to do, once it has addressed this issue? That question is often not asked clearly enough” Ray Poynter, Webinar Sense-making with open-ended text, 2017

Determine the leeway

It should also be clear which buttons cannot be pushed. This is necessary to ensure that recommendations that come from the research fit within the maneuvering space of the client. Recommendations that are not feasible for a client are worthless recommendations, not matter how well they are distilled from the research results.

“That depends what the outcome is”

Not always is there a clear decision visible behind the research problem that a marketer asks a market researcher to solve. On the question “What are you going to do with the research?” many clients will say “that depends on what the outcome is”. This should ring an alarm bell for market researchers. Think for instance of when a client asks for a proposal for an brand image study. Initially, the main goal is to determine what the image of a brand or product is. This seems purely descriptive. But, the results will be used to determine whether action is needed: Should we do something to change the our brand image? But then it is very likely that the client also wants to have insight into the desired or ideal image in order to decide how the image should be changed. So there certainly are decisions that could be made, even when these are not immediately clear from the original request for a proposal.

In these situations, it is important that market researcher and the user of the outcomes discuss in which areas decisions (now or in the future) are possible. Can a new product be developed? Can the brand positioning be adjusted? Is it possible to target other segments? Use different media? Or is the only possibility a marketer has, to launch a new campaign?

If truly the only possibility available to the client is communication, then it would be useful to do research strictly for communication purposes. However, in this case it would also be wise to conduct research on a somewhat higher, more strategic level. For example, if the brand positioning strategy appears to be obscure, unclear or inconsistent then brand communication can only be used as a short-term palliative. In that situation, in the longer term, there is always the possibility of rethinking the entire brand position.

Mind your step: 3 Pitfalls for market researchers

If the client and market researcher do not understand each other well enough, there are a number of pitfalls. Let me describe 3 that occur often:

  1. Wanting to research everything

Risk-avoiding researchers and clients often fall into this pitfall. If they have no idea what the problem might be and do not want to risk finding out after the research they forgot something, they simple including everything in the next study. They assume that whatever the problem is, they will find the solution this way. This pitfall leads to thick reports that are not being used, simply because they contain too much data and few concrete answers. A clear picture of possible decisions in advance prevents this and helps to give a clear guidance afterwards (and a much thinner report).

  1. Justifying a decision already taken

It is common practice for research to be carried out to substantiate a decision already made. In such a case, an research report is required only to convince the client’s boss. There is only one interpretation of the outcomes possible and that is the confirmation of the choice already made. If you encounter this situation, you are well advised to take the desired outcome explicitly as a hypothesis and set up the research as you would always do, leaving room for other outcomes. If you do not, your credibility as a researcher will melt away quickly.

  1. Research agency as data collector (the contractor)

It’s not uncommon that a client does not consider it necessary to reveal the real purpose of a research.  Then the role of the agency is merely that of data collector and not a consultant that helps to solve a problem. If a client chooses to hire an agency for the first role, then the agency cannot be held responsible for the extent to which they can give advice on the implications of the outcomes. If a client chooses the second type of relationship, a client must also be willing to provide all possible information about the decisions to be taken. And on the other hand, the agency must be prepared to invest in understanding the clients business.

Avoid the pitfalls by a thorough analysis of the problem

The one question is part of a thorough problem analysis, which clarifies the purpose of the study between the market research agency and the client. This will prevent falling into the pitfalls described and make sure that any market research will deliver only actionable results. It requires some additional effort from market research agency and client, but this is a necessary investment in the usefulness of the outcomes.

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