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Consumer Research - Definitions, Examples and Benefits

Emily James

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    When it comes to how market research is perceived by those outside of the insights industry, most stakeholders see market research as simply a way to create the best products and services for their own customers. And while that is a part of it, there is a lot more to market and consumer research than that.

    Consumer research is the path to take when businesses wish to better themselves and direct their endeavours towards success. Whether that is creating new or refining current business strategies, finding the pain points in their customer experience, or even creating new internal policies and processes to become more efficient than ever before. All of these use cases contribute to building the best version of the brand and business as long as stakeholders are relying on quality insights.

    In this guide, we’ll discuss:

    1. The definition of consumer research
    2. The power of consumer research
    3. The benefits of consumer research
    4. How behaviour influences innovation
    5. How to spot behavioural trends and patterns 
    6. How to conduct consumer research
    7. The tools and types of consumer research
    8. Best practices for consumer research
    9. Examples of good consumer research

    This is one of our longer articles, so if you’re looking for something specific then you can use the quick navigation links above to jump to each section of the guide.

    What is Consumer Research?

    Consumer research has cultivated a very unique reputation for being the way to gain information about a brand’s consumers. With dedicated consumer insights, brands and stakeholders can make sure that they are creating not only the right products but also the right business strategies and communicating in the right way to immerse consumers in their brand experience. And because of this success, the term consumer research has become synonymous with market research. Consumer research is the first thing that typically comes to mind when stakeholders are asked to think about market research and its popular use cases.

    The phrase ‘consumer research’ is typically used interchangeably with ‘customer research’ across all industries, with the term ‘consumer’ here taken to mean ‘those who consume the brand’s experience, product and services'. So in this context, consumers and customers are one and the same.

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    Consumer research is a great way for brands to learn all about their customers and target audiences - but the power of consumer research doesn't stop there.

    Definition, Reputation and Importance

    Based on the above concept, consumer research is market research that is specifically focussed on exploring the attitudes, opinions and experiences of a business’ current customers and/or potential future customers.

    This reputation has come around for a reason, because market researchers are very good at what they do. We have made sure that we can recruit and engage participants with the best of them, with our efforts leading to unique research experiences that generate high-quality insights that influence key decisions across entire industries.

    The Power of Consumer Research

    Consumer research is incredibly powerful. Conducting consumer research in the right way can save struggling businesses from abject failure, and drive moderately successful businesses into the history books under the definition of ‘success’.

    Consumer research was one of the first use cases of early market research. In a review of early consumer research, Helgeson et al. states that, “In 1950, seven percent of the articles reviewed were consumer research articles. By 1981, 34 percent of the articles were consumer research articles.” This accelerated growth of articles and information gathering about the topic of consumer behaviour so early on in the evolution of consumer and market research can be attributed to the creation of the journals of Consumer Research and Advances in Consumer Research in the 1970s. 

    The increase in interest and development in consumer behaviour indicates that many businesses started feeling the power of consumer research from the very beginning. For example, in the 1950s, Ford Motor Company conducted a ten-year-long consumer research project that resulted in the ‘Edsel’, a completely customisable car that truly served the customers’ needs and was supposed to revolutionise the industry. Ford used focus groups, in-depth interviews and ‘motivational research’ to help design the perfect car for the consumer, and with his results it’s fair to assume that at some point in that 10 year-long project, Ford and his insight team cam not the revelation that he could not satisfy every consumer’s need in one single car, which is how the ‘customisable’ option came into being. 

    While this car never ended up coming to market (due to cost and an underperformance issue), Ford still learnt about a concept that most businesses still struggle with now - the power of consumer insights can transform a business when given the chance, but insights are nothing without the ability and resources to act on them.

    Since then, consumer research has undergone significant evolution since Ford attempted to use it to revolutionise the automotive industry, with technological advancements especially in the past decade allowing insight experts to innovate creatively and come up with ways to overcome traditional challenges and reap many of the benefits in one fell swoop. 

    Benefits of Consumer Research

    With the power, importance and reputation of consumer research outlined for all to see, it’s time to explore the impacts and benefits. The power of consumer research impacts two very specific areas and audiences:

    1. Understanding Customer Behaviour for Innovation

    Now that businesses are in the practice of discovering the next new thing and understand the evolution they will have to undertake in order to stay relevant to their target audience, they are on the right track to truly understand the power of consumer research and insights. Innovation happens every day, but successful innovation happens only when fuelled with the right insights at the right time.

    Those insights are gathered directly from the mouths of consumers. Conducting consumer research to gain insights directly from the source allows for no mistakes and helps insight teams to form a complete picture of the brand’s consumers - their likes, dislikes, their demographic information, their common experiences and most obnoxious pain points, all at the very least. 

    Each insight gained is like a puzzle piece that, when all put together in the right way, paints the picture of the consumer’s experience, opinions and needs, and how the brand is working to serve those needs. 

    There are numerous ways to act on the insights gathered. Some brand stakeholders take these consumer insights and use them to create customer personas - a character that represents a segment of their consumer base - which can then be used in storytelling efforts as return characters. The more these personas are used, the more they’re recognised by stakeholders across the business and kept in mind when key decisions arise. This is one example of how relevant innovation can occur organically on a daily basis. However, it’s important that when using these personas that the persona itself is kept up to date and accurate when representing their particular segment. Use continuous insight generation to help the persona evolve as the segment does. Ultimately, as long as the method used helps the insights reach more stakeholders across the business efficiently, and influences those daily decision-making processes, insight teams and board members can use any tactic to communicate insights. 

    ‘‘With our customer panel, we are able to amplify the voice of our customers across the organisation to make sure all teams are staying customer-focused.”

    - Lisa Hulme-Vickerstaff, Head of Insight at Lowell

    2. Spotting Trends, Patterns and Needs

    Understanding present and past consumer backgrounds, needs, experiences and opinions are one thing, but their behavioural patterns and what incites their actions is typically quite another.

    Conducting consumer research to monitor and track consumer behaviour is crucial to stakeholders who need authentic insights to use in their decision-making processes both present and future. Since the very beginning, insight teams have relied on traditional methods such as surveys and focus groups to generate the right data and hunt the ‘why’ behind consumer actions and perceptions, but there is one fundamental issue that most insight experts struggle to overcome - the common gap present between what consumers say they do and what they would actually do in any given scenario. 

    Consumers typically think they would act in a logical way when imagining a scenario, but when placed in that scenario itself, faced with the real pressures, they would act more emotionally and instinctually, which is hard to communicate in a written or spoken response based in theory. 

    Tracking to understand a consumer’s actual behaviour will bolster the business’ insight generation efforts, almost eradicating that gap altogether and helping them track those behaviours more effectively. If it doesn’t eradicate the gap, then those insights will at least provide some insight into why that gap is there so insight experts can account for it in the future. This type of research is typically conducted in a long-term research experience that insight teams take on can use to generate continuous insights and observations on consumers’ actions over their words. Using documentary qualitative data, stakeholders have access to a previously under-utilised resource that better informs key decisions. 

    How to Conduct Consumer Research

    When thinking about the best way to conduct consumer research, the eternal dilemma of the consumer perception-action gap mentioned before is one that will plague all insight experts until we discover a way to account for that gap.

    This is something that insight professionals have wrestled with for decades after the initial discovery, and while there have been advancements (such as the development of system 1 and system 2 behavioural theories), there has never been a definite answer or path to follow in order to navigate this particular challenge. However, there is a multitude of tools and methods at insight teams’ disposal, and picking the right one for their research experience will determine their success. 

    Tools and Types of Consumer Research

    Qualitative and Quantitative Research is the first obvious answer to how to conduct consumer research. Since the inception of data and insights, market research professionals have created a myriad of tools, methods and tactics to help create the insights industry, home to the insight experts who are here to help businesses and stakeholders understand themselves, their consumers and their future. Through this, we have developed numerous research methods, from the humble survey and in-depth interview to the more modern online methods such as mobile ethnography that help deeply connect consumers, researchers and stakeholders from around the world in mere seconds.

    There are numerous market research methods that fall into the category of quantitative or qualitative research, and many more insight platforms on the market dedicated to hosting more traditional research experiences for stakeholders who want to use this traditional line of research to better understand their customers in a formal research setting.

    Motivational research is the second consumer research technique to mention, mainly because it was one of the first dedicated market research techniques developed that incorporated psychoanalytical tactics to help insight teams better understand consumer behaviour. Developed by Ernest Dichter in the 1940s, this method was designed with the core belief that individuals don’t always behave in a way that reflects their views, so researchers could use this method to expose their true, unconscious beliefs. The tools used to conduct this research initially were in-depth interviews, but now we can expand this to include other tools such as video focus groups (with break out options for individual questioning), question boards, and more creative qualitative tools that allow insight teams to connect with participants on both an individual and a group level for comparison.

    One of the ways that insight experts can conduct motivational research or more traditional research experiences in a formal, structured environment is to create an online dedicated customer community. These are crucial to the success of businesses, whether they are looking to create a positively impactful customer experience, future-proof their primary products and services, benchmark themselves against their direct competitors, or even innovate processes and policies internally to help them become a more efficient and reliable version of themselves. Online customer communities have been called a brand’s secret weapon when building up brand loyalty and skyrocketing themselves to the forefront of their industry.

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    Insight teams can conduct consumer research in a few different ways, with methods ranging from traditional motivational research to social media intelligence.

    Market research has taken a lot of tactics and advice from the field of behaviour, whether that’s from behavioural science, behavioural economics, psychology, sociology, or anthropology. These studies of human behaviour in many aspects of life can be directly implemented into market research studies. With insight professionals struggling to understand the unconscious biases impacting consumers’ everyday lives, it’s no wonder that we have turned to these traditionally academic pursuits to help light the way. Insight teams are now using actions to de-bias research data or mitigate the presence of bias during data collection whether that’s from the consumers or researchers.

    Behavioural science methods have stretched into most modern forms of market research, including social media intelligence and passive data collection methods such as geolocation and biometric wearable research, with this data being sent to insight teams to analyse and better understand consumer actions over perceptions. 

    Social media intelligence allows stakeholders to understand how consumers behave in a more informal setting than online customer communities, where consumers can communicate with each other on topics of their own devising without the sense of being observed by insight professionals. Social media platforms can be used similar to dedicated online customer research communities, with insight experts using the brand’s channel to spark topics if they do desire and to communicate with consumers through their comments section and direct messaging, but these platforms are already recruited with a significant amount of consumers that have already started sharing their opinions and experiences with the brand. Social media teams will be able to work well with research teams on this as they will have been dealing with both complaints and recommendations from consumers across the globe. 

    But, however comfortable digital natives find themselves discussing and connecting with each other online, this is a far from a natural setting. The anonymity or customisability provided by this online setting means that consumers can pretend to be who they’re not. While most of them will have a profile on one website that is completely authentic, they can also create alter egos or different personas to help fulfil or explore a different aspect of themselves or who they want to be. So with this danger outlined from the beginning, insight teams can still take good advantage of this platform of already recruited consumers to understand more about their behaviour, needs opinions and experiences with the brand.

    Passive data collection methods are worth considering when it comes to consumer research, geolocation and biometric data as stated before are easily available now with the commercialisation of smartphones and smart watches. Geolocation data can be obtained through brand apps on smartphones, and then used to understand when a consumer interacts with a brand, how frequently they interact, and what they are focussed on when interacting with the brand (e.g. the products/services they buy can be gained from the receipts or documented on the consumer’s profile in their order history). 

    Biometric data has been historically a little difficult to gain access to since it's been categorised as more personal data than consumer data. But now with smart watches acting as trackers for fitness apps and recording data such as pulse rate, certain insight professionals who have access to that data can cross-examine the geolocation data from the tracker with the pulse rate data to understand how their consumers feel when they come across their store, their products, etc. and this unconscious reaction could help them build better customer experiences that get their heart rate pumping.

    Best Practices: Tactics and Techniques

    So, once the tools and types of consumer research have been picked, it’s time to look at the best practices that help steer insight experts and stakeholders towards success. There are a number of tactics and techniques needed to help conduct quality consumer research:

    1. Recruit and Segment

    Should insight teams recruit their participants and then segment them? Or segment to understand their target audience better and then recruit the right people into their research project? Both can be done and lead to success, but when it comes to consumer research, insight teams should segment their consumer base first to make sure they only recruit the right people for their research project. 

    Consumer segmentation is the first step to understanding your customer base and identifying the right research participants. The research conducted off the back of this sequence will help insight teams improve the research relevance and focus, create research tasks that better engage the research participants based on their segmented characteristics, and build deeper connections between customers and stakeholders, all of which provide a better foundation to build on and engage those research respondents and stakeholders in the research experience. It will also lead to better quality and truly relevant consumer insights. 

    2. Participant Engagement

    After the foundation has been laid, there are ways to capitalise on it and create more ways for participants to engage with the research. 

    One way we can encourage participant engagement is through the building of trust. Participants won’t want to hand over their personal data or opinions on a platform or to researchers and stakeholders that they don’t trust. This can manifest in two different ways: firstly, on a fundamental level, participants need to trust the technology and the researchers that brands are using to generate these insights. With many issues nowadays with sensitive data being leaked or used against them to extort something out of them, consumers are becoming very careful with the websites that they’re inputting personal data into. Secondly, if they don’t trust the researchers gathering that data, consumers won’t want to hand over their data to people who they believe might misuse it or misplace it. Being transparent with data handling and privacy, or partnering with a research agency that is transparent with data handling and privacy is critical for a successful consumer research experience. 

    Another way to engage participants once they’ve been mollified in their data security concerns is through moderation and communication throughout the research project. Skilled researchers can get a lot out of even the most stingy of participants. There are a number of communication tools such as emails for task and incentive reminders, comments on research tasks, and then newsletters at the end to provide updates on how the insights have been used or feedback on what strategies have been impacted by the data consumers share. Closing the feedback loop in this way doesn’t just directly impact the growth and evolution of the brand, it also positively impacts the level of consumer trust in the brand, the relationship between brand and consumer, the marketing and sales processes and the research success rates at the very least. 

    3. Design Human-centric Research

    Whether insight teams subscribe to the ‘human experience’ or ‘participant experience’ research concepts, there’s no getting away from the fact that designing research projects with your participants in mind will increase the number of engagement researchers get out of their consumers.

    “Creating research experiences for real people is integral to enhancing the value of research for businesses.”

    - Maria Twigge, Research Director at FlexMR

    Designing research experiences takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it for the benefits insight teams can reap - such as an expanded understanding of what questions stakeholders actually need to ask consumers, accounting for the context in which they are posed, and a building a way to bridge the gap to full consumer behaviour understanding. Consumer segmentation at the start of the research experience to help identify the research sample is one of the best ways to understand which consumers will be populating the project, and then insight teams can think about which tools and platforms to use to make sure those consumers are able to navigate through to the end the experience.

    Choosing the right tools will also help to encourage and stimulate the right conversations and insight generation opportunities outside of scheduled tasks, which is extremely useful in dedicated customer communities that have areas on the platform where consumers can converse with each other about the brand, the tasks, the questions posed, etc. in downtimes whenever they feel they have the time and inclination.

    Understanding the right tools to use also means knowing which secondary methods to employ. While research panels and communities are great platforms for primary research, researchers can also use data mining techniques for social media to gain secondary data, or even gain access to similar research studies so they have data to use in hypotheses that primary data could confirm or deny. 

    4. Engage Stakeholders

    Motivate stakeholders to engage and closely connect brand and customer - that’s the aim of most consumer research attempts, but it can be tricky when stakeholders have numerous other priorities and responsibilities to attend to. 

    Engaging stakeholders in the research experience has been proven to aid the chances of insights activation both during and at the end of the research project, but getting stakeholders to do more than observe the research report has been a core challenge that we have yet to overcome. Each stakeholder is unique, and as such requires different motivations to engage in the research experience. But educating them on market research, the techniques being used, the consumers being surveyed, etc. and building up their knowledge of the project does help our chances of capturing and keeping their attention. 

    Stakeholders hold valuable contextual information about the business and the research objectives, which can help insight experts maintain the research project’s relevance throughout any evolution or obstacles that may occur. Allowing them to divulge and see exactly how they can shape a research experience encourages an attachment to the project, questions about how it’s going and maybe even an appearance in an observational sense as research tasks take place.

    Connecting stakeholders to the project itself motivate them to better understand the insights that are the result of the project and connect it easier to the business objectives, strategies and other contexts that might be influenced by the insights. This then sparks valuable change that consumers actually want and need, and this, in turn, fuels a connection and closeness between the brand (stakeholders) and consumers that might not have previously been possible. All because of properly conducted and immersive consumer research experiences. 

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    Connecting stakeholders to customers is the aim of good consumer research, but great consumer research sparks successful innovation and customer-centric businesses.

    Examples of Consumer Research

    The following examples are applications of consumer research taken from FlexMR's library of case studies. In each example, we detail the role that data played in informing key business decisions and the relationship between commercial results & consumer understanding.

    Isagenix

    Isagenix is a great example of consumer research done well. Founded in 2002, Isagenix is a multinational direct sales company that manufactures and distributes a range of science-based health and wellbeing products. The company seeks to inspire and empower their customers to live their best life through a journey of nutrition, health, and overall wellness.

    They created their IsaInsights panel on FlexMR’s InsightHub to achieve a rather ambitious goal: to evolve into the largest health and wellness company in the world. This panel, populated with customers and advocates, was well-used by their in-house insights team, who conducted a rather demanding research schedule that generated continuous insights to inform key decisions about their products, customer experience strategies and future opportunities. 

    These future opportunities were gathered by continuously recording customer habits, their likes and dislikes and which products they used, how and when. One particular success from this panel was the creation of their popular essential oils range, which was developed step by step in close accordance to the customer insights provided from a number of successive research projects. 

    To find out more about Isagenix’s research experience read our case study here.

    Specsavers

    Specsavers adverts are considered by some a national treasure, with their “Should’ve Gone to Specsavers” tagline one of the most recognisable and easily identifiable of most businesses in the United Kingdom. But Specsavers have a difficult job and balancing act when it comes to their carefully-cultivated reputation of being both a commercial brand AND a prominent healthcare professional.

    Because of this, Specsavers need to make sure they’re hitting the right tone with every piece of communication and branding they create, and this can’t be achieved without some input from their customers. So Specsavers created a central hub of insights through their panel on the InsightHub so they could run their marketing campaigns, branded communications, product and service concept testing, etc. passed a sample of customers who provided their insights that would influence the final result.

    “This [customer research] panel has been essential in balancing creative with clinical messaging in our Glaucoma marketing campaign. We are continuously getting clear answers to take to senior stakeholders and inform final decisions.” 

    - Sarah Marquis, Customer Insights Manager at Specsavers

    One memorable campaign that was created in accordance to customer insights was their “Don’t Lose the Picture” Glaucoma awareness campaign. To balance clinical and creative in a way that captured the audience’s attention as well as delivering vital public health information was crucial to getting the word out about the previously relatively unknown eye health disease, but thought thorough concept testing and retesting, Specsavers managed to create a well-received advert that rivalled the original “Should’ve Gone to Specsavers” campaign.

    Find out more about Specsavers and their fantastic use of consumer research in our case study here.

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