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Market research: Everything you need to know

Last updated

5 February 2023

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

Market research is key to developing any product or service to ensure you’re creating something that people actually want to use. This can save your company time and money while ensuring a customer-centric reputation from day one.

This guide looks at the ins and outs of market research from past and present. Keep reading to discover the power of market research and everything you need to know. 

What is market research?

Market research is how businesses explore, learn, and gather information about a market or a specific market segment. You gather the research data in different ways, depending on your primary purpose. Reasons to undertake market research include wanting to:

  • Uncover potential buyer needs or market trends

  • Test how attractive new product ideas may be before you develop them

  • Learn buyer opinions about existing products and services compared to your competitors 

When to use market research

To differentiate your brand from your competitors, you need the right data. Market research makes it easier to create a brand, product, or service that appeals to current and potential buyers.

You and your team must decide how valuable a business idea or a new or modified product may be before integrating it into your overall business plan. The data you collect gives you the basis for those decisions.

Market research is a critical part of strategic business planning. It tests ideas, enables effective resource allocation, and tightens your relationship with your current and future customer base.

You decide which methods to use based on the data you want to collect, why you want to collect it, and how you'll make the best use of it.

Why do market research?

Effective market research gives you enough valuable data to make the right decisions. You want to minimize risk and optimize your marketing to maximize revenue and hit targets. Those decisions mainly revolve around how you can:

  • Build or improve on your brand identity

  • Attract more new buyers

  • Increase sales to existing buyers using upsell, cross-sell, and down-sell strategies

  • Improve your marketing impact to build better sales relationships 

  • Maintain or expand your market share

  • Catch, overtake, or stay ahead of your competitors

  • Decide the best ways to communicate with your target markets

  • Identify any product, service, or performance issues and how you may correct them

When you use accurate and comprehensive market research data, you can successfully enter a new market or grow your turnover in an existing one.

How often should you do market research?

You should do market research frequently. That way, you will know you're still meeting buyer needs as they change before current sales levels potentially fall off. You can successfully introduce new or modified products and services by consulting your market to meet additional or changing needs and wants.

Outcomes of good market research

Customer motivations change. People often buy a product or service to solve a problem, achieve a goal, satisfy a desire, or support an aspiration.

Motivations may be at the forefront of a buyer's mind: 'I am hungry, so I will buy something to eat.' 

Or they may be more subtle: 'I need new footwear, and I also want to look cool.' Researchers call this achieving or displaying approved cultural status.

When you know which motivations result in different groups of people buying savory or sweet food to satisfy that immediate hunger need, you can deliver focused advertising messages and make the greatest impact. 

What 'cool' means to Gen Z or Millennial buyers is often different, so knowing how to differentiate your marketing will deliver a high impact. Making the right advertising decisions can create and grow demand, which you’ll meet to meet.

To take a different example, let’s look at middle managers who aspire to the C-Suite. They’re likely to choose an office product or system which will solve the current processing problem, improve efficiencies, and maximize productivity. However, they’ll also select a product that makes them look innovative and budget-minded in the eyes of their colleagues and superiors. 

A high-tech crash is devastating. Office equipment that provides full technology backup and integrates with the corporate network, the cloud, and all mobile devices while delivering high-quality presentation materials should be an attractive product. Researching these broader issues will separate you from competitors who only research at an office-operational level. 

Your sales presentations will need to do two things:

  • Focus on the basic features, advantages, and benefits of your product

  • Raise the buyer's thinking about the career implications of buying from you

When you know and understand which motivators encourage buying decisions and which of those are more important than others, you can:

  1. Make or modify products and services that you know will appeal to your target markets

  2. Advertise, market, and sell more effectively

This is how you rise above and separate your company, products, and services from your competitors.

Motivations change, so market research keeps you in the loop

Another reason for doing market research is that motivations change. They change with age and broader fashion and lifestyle trends in the B2C universe, while business trends influence motivations in the B2B universe.

It's critical to know how your chosen market segments perceive your brand and offerings as their key motivations evolve. Market research gives you practical answers about your product or service while learning how your target market feels about them. Now we've looked at the what and the why, let's move on to the how.

What are the main types of market research?

There are three main types of market research. In addition, it helps to know four terms before we look at the research methods.

Exploratory and specific market research

Exploratory market research is about asking questions to learn something new. If a business idea leads to a potential new offering, exploratory research will help you determine whether there is a market for it and how big that may be.

Specific market research would follow the exploratory phase. It deep dives into specific issues, problems, and possible solutions the exploratory phase exposed. Or you could use it to learn more about your current offerings in your existing markets.

Primary and secondary market research

Primary research is what you, your team, or market research consultants do. You go straight to your target group and get the information you want. The information may be exploratory or specific.

Secondary research is about collecting what's already out there. It could be census data, academic research publications, survey results from government agencies, your trade association, and even your competitors. Facebook and other online sites mine vast amounts of data about their members and make it available for very target-specific marketing campaigns.

Now, let's look at the three main types of research.

What is online market research?

When you do market research on the internet, you're doing online market research. You can do both qualitative and quantitative studies and a secondary web search for published data that you want.

Qualitative research may include videos of current buyers using your products, one-on-one interviews, and group discussions. You will see how they use your products and how they and others respond to using them.

Quantitative research gathers data from surveys, questionnaires, and polls. Online research means participants can opt in, rather than your team cold-calling or mailing the survey. They can also take it at a time that suits them, making them more likely to be focused and thoughtful.

What you learn tells you about purchasing behavior and the user's perspective of advantages and shortcomings. Depending on the survey you create, results might tell you things like: 

  • What buyers have bought previously

  • Why they bought those items

  • How they assess your product

  • How your product compares to your competitors' products

  • What they will base future purchase decisions on.

Some benefits of online market research

Detailed and wide-ranging online research tends to be cheaper than other methods. Data collection is:

  • Fast

  • Recorded directly, rather than collecting it from separate groups or surveyors

  • Less likely to have inputting errors

  • Quicker to do an in-depth analysis of the raw results and complete them faster

  • Quicker to do reruns to provide nuanced opinion data

  • Easier for survey management to oversee and complete the reports

  • Faster to get the reports out to interested parties

What are paid market research surveys?

You pay people to attend an online session, ask prepared questions, and record the answers. You ask the same questions to each survey participant about the product or brand in question. After the session, you review and summarize all the answers to provide common opinions for your analysis.

When the group members can handle and use a product, they can more easily comment on it and compare it with other products from your company or competitors. Sometimes, you may wish to do the survey in real time. This could occur at a supermarket where the participant responds to the product merchandising of you and your competitors.

Choose your paid participants carefully. You want them to display your ideal niche market personas' approaches, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional responses.

What is a market study?

Market studies are extensive and best before developing a major innovation. You want to ensure the whole market finds the innovation appealing and affordable over a long time rather than just a small segment. Your study will investigate market dynamics and what motivates or demotivates purchase decisions. The study will include the following:

  • The size of the potential market in terms of potential buyers

  • Purchase histories of similar products or products that served a similar purpose

  • Likely purchase frequency of the primary and secondary products

  • Likely price ranges the target market will find acceptable

  • Competitor market share

  • Competitor advantages and shortcomings as perceived by your target market

  • Needs and wants not currently being met by products comparable to your new product

Let’s imagine you’re launching a new vacuum cleaner. You can identify a broader market by looking into purchase histories of similar products. Brooms did the job vacuum cleaners do today. 

Identifying the purchase frequency of primary and secondary products is also wise. If you sell heavy-duty vacuum cleaners, you’ll know they’re not easy to carry around. So how likely is your customer to also buy a lightweight vac for minor or quick cleaning? They may even add a hand-held vac to their cleaning arsenal to remove pet hairs and easily clean the drapes and blinds. 

The history of market research

Before we discuss the specific steps to plan and execute successful market research, let's look at the history of this fascinating subject.

One of the earliest market research studies happened in 1914. Charles Parlin of Curtis Publishing Company said that automobile manufacturers could no longer sell what they decided, but what their customers wanted. 

His boss, Mr. Curtis, asked him to visit hundreds of dealerships to see where the rubber actually met the road. Parlin gave 2,500 sheets of research to his boss, so they could decide which advertisements worked best. Running better ads meant more advertising revenue, meaning wider magazine distribution. This also helped Mr. Curtis charge higher advertising fees.

Market research became something of a science in the 1920s. Rather than a local retailer or manufacturer speaking with local customers to see what they did and didn’t want, the Roaring Twenties’ mass product advertising and nationwide distribution demanded a more powerful approach. 

Automobiles encouraged the growth of city suburbs, while increased electricity supply meant companies could sell appliances. Commercial radio channels, telephone communication, and going to the movies reduced the feeling of rural and small-town isolation. Suddenly, everyone wanted what was once only available to a few. Manufacturing and innovation took off.

Making it, advertising it, and shipping it did not guarantee sales. Getting people to want it meant effective advertising. Making adverts that worked resulted in Daniel Starch coming up with a theory in 1920: People had to see and read attractive yet believable ads to act on them.

Starch and his team stopped as many people in the street as possible. They showed them an ad and asked if they remembered seeing it. If they had seen it, Starch asked which magazine they saw the ad in, what they thought of it, and whether they acted on it.

They collated the data to compare which magazine ads had the greatest effect on buying decisions.

George Gallup developed the research not by showing people ads but by asking: 

  • If they could remember which ads they'd seen

  • What they thought of them

  • What they did about it

His team eventually did face-to-face and telephone surveys.

Radio stations began to use Gallup's methods, asking people what they remembered hearing. They aimed to encourage manufacturers and retailers to run certain ads to appeal to their listeners.

In the 1930s, Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia University began focus groups to understand buyers, their preferences, objections, and motivations. This research uncovered mismatches between what people said and what they did.

They learned that a dominating group member could say something about their own experience or behavior and ask the group if others had noticed the same. Other group members sometimes agreed because the dominant member was persuasive, not because it was true for them. Many just went along with it, proving how much group dynamics matter. 

After World War II, market research became more concerned with understanding what made certain people respond to certain types of ad messages from a personal point of view.

Ernest Dichter used Freudian psychology to develop motivational research. While he went a little overboard on Freudian interpretation (people use soap to cleanse themselves of sin), he got his message out to advertisers. He surmised that if you figure out the personality of your product, you will know how to market it to people who exhibit the same personality traits.

Before we smacked gender roles on the head, Dichter would have linked an efficient, house-proud housewife to an effective vacuum cleaner. She needed a product that gave her home a permanent clean appearance. Her husband would love coming home to a shiny house, and her lady friends would be in awe. It's not just about vacs being better than brooms.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, computers and telephones enabled quantitative methods to be the focus of market researchers. Telephone surveys began to replace face-to-face interviews. John Howard said qualitative and quantitative research should work side-by-side. 

Researchers used psychology, sociology, and management science techniques to study buyer motivations and how their emotions impacted owning and consuming certain products and services. Focus groups became the order of the day once again.

Psychologists like Allan Pease, who pioneered studies in body language, began to develop the theory of buyer personas. He said that how companies advertise and sell to people is just as important as the psychological, social, and emotional principles researchers had previously developed.

In the 1970s and 80s, Neil Rackham further determined how critical it is to understand how senior execs make major purchase decisions. Researching your market from their point of view is critical. While you may have ascertained a need for the product, further market research must understand how C-Suite execs go through the purchase decision-making process.

That brings us up to date. Market research has developed into a sophisticated scientific process. When you research effectively, you’ll get the data you need to build your business.

The steps for conducting market research

Researchers use different models, but we’ve included all the steps, so you won't miss anything.

As with all projects, actions fall into four categories: Planning, execution, assessment, and implementation.

1. Planning

  • Identify the need for a particular market research project

  • Review what you have done so far and already know to ensure your research will be direct, broad, and deep enough to deliver your intended results

  • Decide on the purpose and desired outcomes of your study

  • Determine your research objectives

  • Choose your research team and methodology

2. Execution

  • Create the research project methodology and process  (qualitative, quantitative, primary, or secondary) to deliver on the objectives 

  • Determine your research methods (i.e., online surveys, focus groups)

  • Create your data collection forms, questionnaires, etc.

  • Select your research targets (past, present, potential customers, or specific customer segments if you know them) 

  • Decide on the number of people you will contact, plus where and how to contact them. For your research to be reliable, the number must be large enough to be a good cross-section of your target market.

  • Collect the data

3. Assessment

  • Analyze the data

  • Decide on any follow-ups to collect more data or to refine your understanding of what you have already collected

  • Decide if further analysis of the data will deliver relevant and valuable nuanced opinions

  • Review the results

  • Write the report

  • Present the research findings and recommendations to appropriate stakeholders

4. Implementation

Based on the research results and recommendations, determine what impactful actions to execute to deliver your intended business results.

How to get started

Your first step is to review what you have in your hand and decide who to share it with. When you and your team are clear about all the aspects of market research we've shared, you can decide which ideas, market segments, and products or services you should be researching. 

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