Originally written on June 3, 2016. Content was updated August 1, 2019.
With constant change being the norm in marketing and business, one thing remains the same: the need for marketing research. Marketing research is a helpful tool for organizations to better identify marketing strategies and evaluate business decisions using data. Just as you wouldn’t go on vacation without making any plans, you shouldn’t design marketing strategies without backing them with research and data. In short, the marketing research process is the backbone of informed business and marketing decisions.
You might be surprised to hear that marketing research is one of the first things that organizations cut from their marketing budgets because of the high time (and sometimes monetary) investment. This is not the best decision, especially when your company is planning to launch a new product or venturing into a new market. As some savvy startups have learned, marketing research doesn't have to be expensive if you do it right and follow the right process.
Let’s review best practices when going through the five-step marketing research process:
1. Define the Problem or Opportunity
The most important part of the marketing research process is defining the problem. In order to do any research and collect data, you have to know what you are trying to learn from the research. In marketing research, defining the problem you need to solve will determine what information you need and how you can get that information. This will help your organization clarify the overarching problem or opportunity, such as how to best address the loss of market share or how to launch a new product to a specific demographic.
Develop questions that will allow you to define your problem (or opportunity), and examine all potential causes so that the research can be whittled down to the information you actually need to solve that problem or determine what action to take regarding an opportunity. Oftentimes, these are questions about who your target market or ideal buyer persona is (for example: “What does our ideal customer look like?”). These might include questions about demographics, what their occupation is, what they like to do in their spare time—anything to help you get a clearer picture of who your ideal buyer persona is. Consider as many variables and potential causes as possible.
2. Develop Your Marketing Research Plan
After you’ve examined all potential causes of the problem and have used those questions to boil down exactly what you’re trying to solve, it’s time to build the research plan. Your research plan can be overwhelming to create because it can include any method that will help you answer the research problem or explore an opportunity identified in step one.
To help you develop the research plan, let’s review a few techniques for conducting research:
- Interview prospects and customers. Oftentimes, you get the best feedback by using this tactic because you’re going straight to the source. This might take the form of a focus group or one-on-one interviews. Use your defined research problem to help select the right people to interview.
- Conduct a survey using SurveyMonkey or another tool.
- Run user tests on your website or landing page(s). This is a cost-effective approach that can provide a lot of insight and data on how your customers or potential customers behave or respond to something, whether it’s new messaging or branding or a modified product or service you are thinking about offering. Simple A/B tests can go a long way in discovering user behavior. Use heatmapping tools, such as Hotjar or Lucky Orange, and website analytics tools, such as Google Analytics or HubSpot analytics, to track results depending on what data you need to collect.
Oftentimes, we do all of this work and gather all of the data—only to realize that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel because someone had already run a similar, credible study or solved the same problem. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to do any research, but learning about what other organizations have done to solve a problem or seize an opportunity can help you tweak your research study and save you time when considering all of the research options. In marketing research, this is called secondary data because it has been collected by someone else, versus the primary data that you would collect through your own research study.
3. Collect Relevant Data and Information
In marketing research, most of the data you collect will be quantitative (numbers or data) versus qualitative, which is descriptive and observational. Ideally, you will gather a mix of the two types of data. For example, you might run an A/B test on your website to see if a new pricing tier would bring in more business. In that research study, you might also interview several customers about whether or not the new pricing tier would appeal to them. This way, you’re receiving hard data and qualitative data that provide more color and insight.
When collecting data, make sure it's valid and unbiased. You should never ask a research interviewee, “You think that we should offer a higher pricing tier with additional services, correct?” This type of question is clearly designed to influence the way the person responds. Try asking both open-ended and closed-ended questions (for instance, a multiple-choice question asking what income range best describes you).
4. Analyze Data and Report Findings
Now that you’ve gathered all of the information you need, it’s time for the fun part: analyzing the data. Although one piece of information or data might jump out at you, it’s important to look for trends as opposed to specific pieces of information. As you're analyzing your data, don't try to find patterns based on your assumptions prior to collecting the data.
Sometimes, it’s important to write up a summary of the study, including the process that you followed, the results, conclusions, and what steps you recommend taking based on those results. Even if you don’t need a formal marketing research report, be sure that you review the study and results so that you can articulate the recommended course of action. Sharing the charts and data you collected is pointless if it doesn’t lead to action.
Was your hypothesis proven wrong? Great—that's why you do testing and don't run with assumptions when making decisions that could have a major impact on your organization. It’s always better to take the results as they are than to twist the data to prove yourself right.
5. Put Your Research into Action
Your research is complete. It's time to present your findings and take action. Start developing your marketing strategies and campaigns. Put your findings to the test and get going! The biggest takeaway here is that, although this round of research is complete, it's not over.
The problems, business environment, and trends are constantly changing, which means that your research is never over. The trends you discovered through your research are evolving. You should be analyzing your data on a regular basis to see where you can improve. The more you know about your buyer personas, industry, and company, the more successful your marketing efforts and company will be. When you look at it that way, you should start to wonder why so many organizations don’t budget time and resources for marketing research.
Of course, there is a lot more to the marketing research process than these five core steps, but these are enough to get you started. Good luck, and be sure to share any tips you have discovered for conducting marketing research!