For SME companies inexperienced in marketing research who are contemplating initiating a project themselves or appointing an external consultant, this guide introduces the key steps involved and what to expect.
So what goes on when you ‘do’ research? Firstly, don’t be overawed by marketing research. It’s not sacred, and neither is it quantum physics. At the risk of annoying the purists, the common sense way to view research is that of ‘finding stuff out’. Yes, there are principles to be adhered to, but they’re very logical and sensible, to maximise the chances of obtaining the required data.
All projects – marketing, financial, or anything else – involves several steps followed in a particular order. It’s exactly the same in the marketing research world. This section will take you step by step through the main phases in a typical marketing research project.
Stage 1: Discussion
Marketing research for research’s sake is of no use – first and foremost in your head must be the notion that by conducting research you’re going to be in a better position at its conclusion, aiding decision making that will positively impact upon your business.
Having identified the need for insight, initial meetings will discuss what kind of data is required, together with the nature and scope of the research.
- Who is to be researched?
- What do you want to know?
- What is the best way of contacting prospective participants?
- What is the budget for the project: has it been approved internally?
- What output is required from the project?
Determining the type of information sought will also determine the type of marketing research to be carried out. If depth of insight is required, or to further understand a variety of issues and/or behaviours, or generate hypotheses for further structured research, qualitative research is called for. This is most commonly conducted through depth-interviews, group discussions, and observation. If on the other hand, statistical data (“Eight out of ten cats prefer it”) is sought, a structured quantitative survey will be designed, and conducted either online, by telephone, post, or face-to-face – or a combination. Each collection method has its own advantages and disadvantages to be considered.
Often, where depth of insight and statistical data is needed, qual and quant phases are conducted. If for instance, further understanding of customers is required to identify key issues important to them, it’s advisable to explore these at the start. These will highlight the main areas to be asked in subsequent structured surveys. Alternatively, if the main areas are well known, a structured survey may well highlight interesting trends, especially among particular customer groups. Follow-up depth interviews or group sessions can be conducted to ask these particular respondents to elaborate upon their responses and probe for further insight.
It’s essential at this stage that there’s clear indication of the likely project budget, and desired timescale. A key role for an external marketing research consultant or agency is to give you the best insight within the parameters (time/budget) available. Often this requires compromise: the most methodologically-sound research programme may be more expensive than the allocated budget, in which case the budget can either be increased, or the research programme can be tailored to conduct the provide the maximum ‘bang for the buck’ given the financial resources available. Either way, knowing the likely budget at the start saves time and effort on both sides, providing you with a cost effective research programme from the outset.
From initial discussion and clear understanding of client requirements, a proposed research programme will be forwarded for review and approval by the client. Client-supplied information and background will assist in this, accompanied by external desk research if needbe.
Stage 2: Formulating research objectives and information needs
Having received signed client approval, work begins on designing the actual discussion guides (for depth interviews or group discussions) or questionnaires (structured surveys).
It is essential that at this stage – no later – there is absolute agreement regarding the research aims and objectives. Ambiguity and misinterpretation can all too easily cause problems later on. Therefore, anything that can be misinterpreted, misconstrued, or just plain misunderstood MUST be made absolutely crystal clear so everyone is all singing from the same proverbial song sheet.
If overall research objectives can’t be agreed upon or clearly formulated, STOP. Don’t go any further. Revisit the need for the research, and what key issues are at stake. Organise a get-together with key staff members to identify them. Don’t worry if a shift in marketing research objectives is needed. The golden rule is: if the project isn’t already ‘live’ then changes can be made (but don’t leave it too late, and don’t make it habitual: agencies won’t love you for it!).
Stage 3: Research Design
Once research objectives and information needs have been confirmed, work begins on designing discussion guides and/or structured survey questionnaire(s). Depending on the type of research, other materials may be required for qual or quant research such as audio/media files to be watched/listened; websites to visit and browse, or still images.
Let’s now split the subsequent stages according to whether the research is quantitative or qualitative in nature.
QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH PROCESS
Survey design requires considerable thought. It’s not only a question of asking the correct questions, but asking the correct questions, correctly! The risk of questionnaire design error – and subsequent response error (producing potentially misleading and inaccurate data) – is always present. Furthermore, there are also some tried and tested practices that ensure you get as much use of the data as possible.
Once the first draft is completed, this is sent to the client for review and feedback. Any amendments required will be made and re-submitted to the client for final approval.
The next steps depend on where the sample to be targeted is obtained from. The most straightforward is the client’s own customer database. When initially acquiring their details for a database you’ll have probably notified them that they can be contacted for purposes such as market research. Review the database, make sure it’s clean and that nobody is on there that shouldn’t be. De-dupe your records, removing duplicate entries.
The client sends the sample over: normally this is done Microsoft Excel without too much trouble. Do ensure the file is password protected, for both general security and data protection compliance.
If non-client sample is required – target customers or the general population, for example, the consultant acquires this from specialist sample providers at competitive rates (clients can take a breather here!).
Survey set up/ fieldwork brief
Earlier on at the research design phase, the data collection methods will have been confirmed.
If online surveys are to be used, the signed-off survey will be scripted and uploaded onto webpages, accessed by a weblink (webpages can be branded as per the client’s visual identity if wished). The survey is checked thoroughly, to the point of trying to break it! This is to ensure any question routing works as specified. The client is sent the link to review the site themselves and approve the survey. When it comes to emailing the survey invites, respondents can either be sent the same link (which can subsequently be checked for IP addresses to remove duplicate responses) or be individually assigned a unique link. The latter is used if reminder emails are to be sent during the fieldwork phase.
If telephone interviewing is used, the questionnaire is scripted into interviewing software, and subsequently tested to ensure everything is correct. Depending on the complexity and/or sensitivity of the survey, briefing guides are written and forwarded to the interviewers before the survey goes ‘live’.
It’s important to note that whilst typos or routing errors (or anything deviating from the original approved questionnaire) will be amended immediately without question, if the client wishes to add or delete questions or make any other changes, additional costs are often incurred. This is due to the need to rebuild the survey from scratch each time this occurs.
When self-completion paper surveys are required, the questionnaire is professionally formatted in line with the client’s visual identity. The artwork will be designed so as to facilitate straightforward data completion when forms are returned. The final approved files will then be printed in agreed quantities, and over-printed with unique numerical ID’s attributed to each person for monitoring of response rates.
As with online or telephone interviewing, once the final artwork files have been approved, changes to the questionnaire (excluding typos, or other errors as per the original approved survey) will normally incur additional costs, due to the time taken to incorporate such requests. If printing has already commenced, print costs will also be charged back to the client.
Once surveys are live, the client is generally updated on response rates, how the project is proceeding, etc. If it’s a customer survey, a ‘red flag’ system can be used: any negative feedback received can be forwarded to quickly address (as long as respondents waive their right to anonymity).
Whilst a properly planned and executed research programme should not be exposed to too many hazards, occasionally unexpected issues do arise. It’s the consultant’s/agency’s responsibility to address these. Should additional costs be necessary to rectify things, these will only be actioned once client approval has been given: there will be NO nasty surprises come invoicing time.
Data Capture and checking
Once fieldwork has closed, the data is checked before being uploaded into the analysis software. If paper questionnaires have been used, they will be electronically scanned or manually inputted into specialist data capture software or online analysis applications.
Once uploaded, work begins on interpreting and analysing the data to identify key stories and trends.
Depending on agreed client objectives, output can be either Microsoft PowerPoint charts or Slidedocs, or Microsoft Word Executive Summary, or detailed Executive Commentary. Or perhaps a combination: it’s really up to the client to discuss with the consultant. There’s also the option of having research findings presented in person.
Exact contents (particular areas or cross-tabulations to examine) of final output will be clarified once the data has been uploaded and sufficient time to gain sufficient overall knowledge of the research ‘story’.
QUALITATIVE RESEARCH PROCESS
Discussion guides for group work or individual depth interviews are generally quicker to design than full structured surveys – after all, it’s the respondent who’s going to be doing most of the talking!
The first draft is created and sent to the client to review and check that the guide covers the key areas required as per the research objectives. Any changes needed will be made before re-sending for final sign-off.
If the research calls for telephone depth-interviewing, no further creative preparation is required. For online (or offline) discussions, relevant stimulus materials (e.g. still images, media files, clipart) are acquired (possibly from client) and/or created.
Participants are recruited either from client-supplied sample, or from sample providers. Depending on the nature of the research, recruitment is conducted online, face-to-face or over the telephone. Respondents are asked initial screening questions to ensure eligibility to participate, then given appropriate joining instructions. This may comprise directions to a viewing studio for instance, or instructions on how to join an online focus group from their home or office computer.
For individual depth interviews, these are either conducted in person, online, or by telephone – again, the nature of the research and budget available determines the most appropriate method.
Group Discussions & Depth Interviewing
Participants either meet at the venue arranged to host the group(s) or log into the online focus group session. Once assembled, participants are informed of their rights and obligations as per the UK Market Research Society Code of Conduct and Qualitative Research Guidelines, and notified of the recording of the session. If client observers are watching the session – either behind the viewing mirror or online, participants are informed (but not necessarily informed of the exact identities of the observers).
After moderators and participants have been introduced to each other, session rules are conveyed. These include equal rights of opinion for everyone, and the prohibition of offensive remarks or criticism of individual group members etc.
At the end of the session, participating group members are paid. To ensure sufficient numbers, groups are generally over-recruited. Once the required number of participants are present, any others who appear are told the required number has been achieved and are no longer required – but are paid nonetheless. Depth interviews can be conducted either in person, over the telephone, or online.
Interpretation & Analysis
Offline groups are normally audio- and video-recorded. Audio recordings are often transcribed. Online group sessions are also recorded; an electronic file is created showing the complete session as it happened, including interactive media responses. Individual responses are also stored in accompanying spreadsheets which can be easily sorted by respondent or topic.
Face-to-face and phone interviews will be audio recorded wherever possible. If interviewing online, a transcript of the conversation will be produced.
Once all the recordings and transcripts have been collated, analysis begins. Whilst the exact nature of the interpretation depends on the overall research objectives, most analyses look to provide:-
- General responses to the discussion areas
- Identification of common attitudes as well as differences
- Similarities and differences between segments (such as age, gender, frequency of purchase etc.)
- Supporting evidence – normally verbatim comments – to the conclusions
Output varies depending on the nature of the research objectives and client requirements: written reports, PowerPoint files, personal debrief, etc.
Hopefully this initial (but detailed enough) introduction to a typical marketing research project has provided you with enough context to understand the process, and what’s required when considering marketing research projects in your own company. Projects themselves can be quite straightforward or complex: it simply depends on the requirements and desired outcomes.
Naturally if you require help with any or all stages, Red Pill can provide assistance, from survey review services to full end-to-end design and project management. Get in touch to discuss in more detail.