Marketing research (not to be confused with market research, which focuses on determining whether or not there’s a need for a given product or service at the current moment) is all about uncovering data and information to help inform a company’s marketing initiatives moving forward. In conducting marketing research, organizations are able to:
- Stay focused on the data and information that truly matters in terms of their current purposes
- Uncover the meaning – both overt and hidden – behind such data as it pertains to the their marketing teams
- Determine the best course of action with regard to future marketing campaigns and initiatives
In this article, we’re going to break down the five-step process for marketing research in order to provide a well-rounded understanding of everything that needs to go into the strategic creation and implementation of a successful marketing campaign.
First, let’s dig a little deeper into the main reasons for conducting this research in the first place.
As we alluded to in the intro, marketing research is all about determining the best way to go about creating marketing materials intended to engage a brand’s target audience.
Moreover, conducting marketing research essentially realigns and refocuses your marketing team toward an incredibly specific goal (to be determined over the course of your research).
Without this focus, the members of your marketing team are liable to focus on creating content and campaigns that they think will be successful – but that end up falling flat. When this happens, the best-case scenario is that your target audience simply ignores the campaign altogether; worst-case, the campaign actually causes controversy and brings negative publicity to your brand.
On the other hand, as we said earlier, taking the time to conduct in-depth marketing research will enable your marketing team to develop content and campaigns that are driven by data – and thus stand a pretty good chance of being successful.
Also worth noting is that conducting marketing research also allows your organization to “set the bar,” so to speak, in order to determine whether or not your marketing efforts are successful.
As we mentioned in our article on marketing mix, nearly 25% of marketers are actually unable to tell whether or not a given campaign has accomplished what they’d hoped it would accomplish; by setting goals for your campaigns (a major part of conducting marketing research), you’ll have little doubt of the level of success your future campaigns attain one way or the other.
With all of this in mind, and without further ado, let’s dive into the five-step process of marketing research.
The process we’ll mainly be discussing throughout the remainder of this article contains the following five steps:
- Defining the Problem
- Developing a Research Plan
- Conducting the Research
- Analyzing and Reporting Your Findings
- Taking Action
Let’s start from the very beginning.
As with most processes that culminate in the solving of a problem, the first step toward solving said problem is acknowledging it in the first place.
More than simply acknowledging that “some” problem exists, though, you’ll want to take some time at this initial stage to truly nail down exactly what the problem is, as well as what the cause of the problem might be.
For example, say you notice that your retention rate is lower than is typical for your industry. After some preliminary analysis of your marketing plan, you realize your loyalty program doesn’t offer near as much value as your competitors’ programs do. While not necessarily the cause of your retention woes, you’ve likely found a pretty good starting point for further research.
Now, you may notice, as is the case in the above example, that your problem is really two-fold. On the one hand, the problem has to do with your business objectives (in this case, optimizing your retention rate). On the other hand, it’s dealing with the marketing objectives that go hand-in-hand with these business objectives (in our example, optimizing your loyalty program). The point of keeping both of these facets in mind is that you don’t want to lose sight of why you’re conducting the research – and why you’ll eventually make the changes you’ll end up making – in the first place.
(For example, if you make improvements to your loyalty program – and your customers appreciate these improvements – but your retention rate remains stagnant, your efforts will have been all for naught.)
Once you’ve determined the main problem you’ll be tackling throughout the research process, you’ll want to define your actual objectives for conducting the research. Here, you’ll define exactly what you hope to know, learn, or understand after you’ve wrapped up your project – and will also know what information and data you’ll need to collect in order to gain this understanding.
After determining your objectives, you’ll want to begin brainstorming a list of questions you’ll be aiming to answer via the research you conduct. The purpose of listing these questions is to become even more aligned and focused before you actually begin conducting your research. For example, if your focus is on the level of engagement your ecommerce site generates, you might ask questions such as:
- Who visits my site and makes a purchase? Who visits the site, but doesn’t make a purchase?
- Which pages do either of these type of visitors check out?
- How long do they spend on the site?
- What causes them to navigate away from the site?
Some of this information may already be available to you, but you also might have to begin collecting certain data. Other questions (such as the final one) might not have a finite answer as of yet – which is why you’ll be digging deeper into the data in the near future.
Your next order of business is to develop a plan of attack, so to speak.
Before you do so, though, you’ll need to take stock of the type of data you’ll need to collect to answer the questions you developed previously. For example, if you’re looking for information relating to how your customers interact with your website, you’d be looking at website user data, such as Time on Page, Referral Page, Bounce Rate, and more. Or, if you’re looking to discover your customers’ perception of your loyalty program, you’d want to glean both quantitative and qualitative data straight from the source (your loyal customers).
After determining the type of data you want to collect, you’ll then need to define your research method of choice. For marketers, the most common research methods include:
- Surveying your target audience
- Selecting and working with focus groups
- Conducting consumer interviews
- Conducting field or user tests
- Observing individuals in a real-world setting
As you can probably tell, these first two steps of developing a research plan go hand in hand.
Going back to the examples from above, the best way to determine your users’ average Time on Page, etc., would be to conduct user tests, or to simply observe how your visitors actually engage with your site (observation). On the other hand, if you’re looking to gather insight into your customers’ preferences, you’d likely want to conduct surveys and interviews, and perhaps put together a focus group as well.
Once you know what type of information you’re looking for, as well as how you intend to collect it, you’ll then turn your attention toward the people you’ll actually be researching.
First, hammer out exactly who they are in terms of your audience segments; the more focused your audience, the more reliable and valid your results will be. Then, consider how you intend to engage your chosen audience – both logistically and methodically.
Consider questions such as:
- Will you reach out to them electronically, or in person?
- Will the “experiment” (i.e., the survey, focus group, etc.) be conducted live, or will they be able to complete it on their own time?
- Will you provide an incentive for participating? How will you ensure that the incentive doesn’t skew the results?
Also with regard to logistics, consider the investment the overall project will necessitate from your company. How much money do you intend to spend? How long will the research take? Will you need to hire a third-party company to assist with any part of the project? These questions – and more – need to be answered in order to avoid going way overboard and unintentionally cutting into your future profits.
Finally, before you even begin conducting your research, you want to know exactly how you plan on collecting and organizing data, how you’ll go about making sense of the data, and how you’ll present your findings to the stakeholders involved in the process. We’ll go over all of this in more detail momentarily.
Once you have everything planned out, you’ll be ready to actually conduct your research, and begin collecting data.
As we alluded to earlier, you’ll first want to focus on collecting data that’s already “out there,” so that you don’t waste valuable time, money, and energy chasing after information you could have gathered with a fraction of the effort. This secondary data can typically be found on government websites (such as the US Census Bureau), industry-wide publications, and even your competitors’ websites. Again, you also want to consider data your team has recently collected for other initiatives, as well.
(Since the world of marketing is ever-evolving, though, a good rule of thumb is to only use data that has been collected within the past two to three years. Anything older than that is probably obsolete.)
Once you’ve squeezed all the info you possibly can out of these secondary resources, your next order of business will be to begin conducting research and actively collecting primary data. As we mentioned above, you’ll have already hammered out exactly what you’re going to be doing here (e.g., administering user tests, distributing surveys, etc.).
No matter which method you’ve decided to go with, you need to ensure that the research “experiments” are conducted in a truly scientific manner. Essentially, this means:
- Ensuring you administer the “experiments” objectively
- Allowing respondents to complete their tasks with as little disruption as possible
- Eliminating any potential for response bias
For one thing, you don’t want your participants’ responses and/or actions to be influenced by anything other than that which you’re actually researching. Needless to say, this would render the results completely invalid – and your efforts wasted.
Secondly, you also want to avoid interpreting your participants’ responses and actions differently from case to case. We’ll dig more into this in the next section.
Now, the data you collect can be classified as either quantitative or qualitative.
Quantitative data is, by nature, straightforward, in that “what you see is what you get.” To collect quantitative data, you’ll essentially need to limit your participants’ possible responses and/or actions, so that you can easily boil their responses down to a finite numerical value.
Examples of quantitative data include:
- Time on page when conducting user tests
- The percentage of respondents who ranked your website as “very easy to use”
- Your company’s Net Promoter Score
Qualitative data, on the other hand, refers to more open-ended data in which your respondents are provided the opportunity to expand on their thoughts and feelings with regard to a specific issue.
For example, when conducting a Net Promoter Score survey, you might ask respondents to explain why they responded with a certain numerical value. In this case, their initial response (a score of 0 to 10) is quantitative, while their reasoning for giving the score is qualitative.
In some instances – such as structured user testing – you’ll be collecting quantitative and qualitative data simultaneously. When doing so, it’s important that you, again, avoid interpreting a user’s actions subjectively; instead, you’ll want to look at the quantitative data that correlates to the actions the user took at that moment, and try to determine exactly what they have to do with one another.
Again, more on this in a moment…
After you’ve collected a sufficient amount of data, you’ll be ready to figure out what it all means to your company moving forward.
Up until this point, you’ll have remained as objective as possible while collecting your research data.
However, now is the time to analyze and interpret your newfound data from the eyes of a marketing specialist. In other words, you’re going to want to look at both quantitative and qualitative data with the purpose of discerning what the data is “trying to tell you.”
The first step, here, is to organize your data in a manner that will allow for easy analysis and interpretation. For quantitative data, this usually means putting the data in numerical order; for qualitative data, you’ll need to first quantify it (e.g., “30 people responded ‘10’ on the NPS survey, 25 responded ‘9,’ etc.), and then again organize the data accordingly.
Now, before you begin interpreting the data, you want to analyze it for validity and reliability.
Validity tells you whether or not a piece of data tells you what you’d hoped it would tell you. For example, the average response to an NPS survey should tell you how willing your average customer is to refer your brand to another individual.
Reliability refers to whether or not the responses you received are a true representation of your entire audience base. For example, if you surveyed only your New York-based customers, the data you collected would not be a reliable means of determining how all of your customers feel about the topic at hand.
After organizing your data and ensuring that the information is valid and reliable, you’ll finally be ready to work on determining what it all means.
Recall that, at the first stage of this entire process, your goal was to define the problem you intended on solving and the questions you intended on answering via your research. Upon analyzing and interpreting this new data, you should have a good idea of how to go about solving the problem, and should also have some pretty concrete answers to your driving questions.
(It’s worth noting, though, that these solutions and answers probably won’t jump out at you. Rather, you’ll need to discuss all the data you’ve collected with your marketing team and other specialists and stakeholders with the goal of coming to a consensus as to what it all means.)
After interpreting the data and coming to a consensus (or, at least, coming close to one), the final step of this process is to put your findings all together into a digestible report of some kind. Typically, this means creating a written document, and may also mean creating a visual presentation, as well. In either case, you’ll want to include the following elements:
- An overview of the research project as a whole
- The relevant data you collected throughout the study
- An explanation of what the data means to your marketing initiatives moving forward
- Your game plan for moving forward
Which brings us to the final stage of the research process:
Of course, the entire purpose of conducting all this research in the first place is to address current issues in your marketing campaigns, and inform the manner in which you approach future initiatives.
That said, you’ll want to immediately get to work putting your aforementioned game plan into action.
In doing so, you want to consider everything you learned throughout your research initiatives, including:
- The initial problem you’d defined
- The specific questions you developed and focused on from the get-go
- The audience you focused on throughout your research
- The data you unearthed, as well as your team’s interpretation of the data
- The plan of attack you developed
While this is all pretty straightforward (again, why would you go through all this trouble if you weren’t going to use everything you gained throughout the process?), it’s worth reinforcing the importance of always looping back to the problem you defined at the beginning as you forge ahead with your marketing initiatives. As we alluded to earlier, failure to do so can cause you to unwittingly make changes and “improvements” that don’t actually address the problem you intended on fixing in the first place.
Going along with this, you also want to be flexible with your approach to making such improvements. As time goes on, you’ll want to keep an eye on:
- What’s working – and what’s not
- How the changes you’ve made fared in reality (as compared to your expectations)
- Any additional issues or problems that may have come about due to the changes you’ve made
As we’ll discuss in the next section, this final step of the research process is not the be-all-end-all of things. In fact, it’s merely the beginning of a “new way” of going about things.
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If you haven’t yet begun implementing marketing research into your organization’s overall processes, doing so will require your team to make a number of adjustments moving forward.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important shifts that need be made.
Needless to say, adding marketing research as a preliminary process to the creation of new marketing campaigns will be an investment in and of itself.
That said, before you begin integrating the process into your overall business operations, you need to have a good idea of the time, money, and resources that doing so will require.
Additionally, you also want to gain a true understanding of what your company stands to gain by doing so (as we spoke about in the intro). While you might be hesitant to make the initial investment needed, focusing on the returns you’ll experience in the future will almost certainly serve to justify these added expenses.
Way back in the intro to this article, we talked about why conducting marketing research – and doing so strategically and methodically – is essential to the proper creation of a marketing plan.
Everyone involved in the process needs to have a true understanding of this.
Creating alignment in this aspect will enable everyone involved to understand why certain changes are being made, and will also enable them to become active participants in making these improvements.
Overall, by ensuring everyone on your team understands the importance of marketing research, you’ll foster a sense of continuous improvement among your team members. In turn, this will lead your team to actively seek out information and data that will help them develop improved marketing campaigns and initiatives as time goes on.
Along with the previous point, it’s essential that everyone involved in the process of conducting marketing research plays a role in each stage of the process.
Whether defining an initial problem or issue, developing research questions and topics of focus to dig into, fine-tuning research methods, or collecting and analyzing data, everyone on your team will have something of value to offer. It’s important, then, that each of your team members knows this in the first place – and that they also have a means of making their voices heard.
A major step to take, here, is to systematically de-silo your departments, so that members of your various departments (and members of teams within these departments) are primed to communicate with one another. This will help your team members avoid falling victim to “not my job” syndrome, since everyone will come to understand that the success of a marketing initiative – be it research or campaign creation – depends on everyone involved.
Perhaps above all else, you need your team members to understand that conducting marketing research is the “new normal” for your company.
In other words, as we alluded to earlier, this won’t be a “one and done” type thing that you end up abandoning the next time you begin creating new marketing content. Furthermore, it’s not an “extra” or optional step moving forward, either.
Rather, you need to ensure your team members know that this preliminary step to creating marketing content is now mandatory.
This, of course, isn’t a bad thing – not in the slightest. By facilitating the idea that marketing research is a necessary part of the overall marketing process, your team will eventually get to the point that they are constantly looking for strategic ways to utilize new data within each marketing campaign you create in the future.
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