How to Choose a Market Research Methodology

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Businesses are increasingly challenging market research to deliver insight with impact, which supports decision making and provides clear direction. Unfortunately, market research is often criticised for failing to live up to these expectations. It can often tell managers what they already know (or feel). I would argue that part of this problem lies in the perceptions stakeholders have around methods and crucially the approach to selecting methodologies.

When it comes to choosing a market research methodology, for many clients, the starting point is the seemingly simple question “qual or quant?” Once this has been decided, it is followed up with a consideration of budget, audience, stakeholder needs and the significance of the business issue. These finer points are the defining factors in isolating which particular qual or quant method is the best fit.

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"The finer points of budget. audience & significance are the defining factors of market research."

On the face of it, this might feel like a perfectly valid approach – after all you have to start somewhere, but I wonder if this actually gets research off to the best start?

The Problems Posed

For me, the problem with approaching research in this way is the mind-set it creates. This ‘either/or’ thinking of qual or quant, traditional or new methods, stifles creativity in the research design process and thereby dictates that we stick with what we know.

To find something new and interesting, sometimes a creative approach is required – this could be the fusing of different methods or simply looking beyond surveys, interviews and focus groups to other less tried and tested tools.

Every method has its own merits which should be judged in terms of meeting the research objective. Jumping straight into a decision about qual or quant immediately discounts a whole host of other options, without any consideration of the benefits they might bring or the perspectives they offer. The risk here is that preconceptions, lack of awareness or misunderstanding of a method cause valuable opportunities to be missed.

Indeed, the range of methods and tools for generating insight are more numerous than ever and many do not fall cleanly into a discrete category. Take a smartboard for instance. This is an excellent vehicle for understanding customer reaction to a concept in rich detail yet it also has a strong capacity for yielding statistical insight when combined with sentiment tagging - a facet that can easily be overlooked by a stakeholder who is reportedly not interested in qual.

The other significant issue with approaching research in this way is that it fails to put objectives at the heart of the design and decision making process. Objectives should always provide a clear steer to the method employed – with methods being selected based on their fit and ability to deliver relevance to a research objective.

This means assessing their benefits and limitations in reaching the objectives. Beginning with a decision on qual or quant, places the cart before the horse, so to speak, and is an example of objectives and methods progressing independently of each other. The danger here is that you have a vague or imprecise notion of how the method informs the objective which could result in data that is difficult to interpret, or misses the mark altogether.

Starting at the End

So what is the best way to proceed? When devising a research methodology, begin with a consideration of the research objectives but more specifically the endpoints of the research. Research is rarely done for the sake of it, there is always a question or decision prompting it. Be clear on what this is from the beginning and don’t be tempted to shy away from it.

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Work back from this point asking questions about what you are trying to achieve in real terms. For example, what is already known about the issue? In what specific areas is understanding lacking? What is preventing this decision being made now – the missing puzzle piece? Consider the ideal role of participants in the process. Do you want them to collaborate with you, or indeed each other, to discover and generate? Or, do you need them to evaluate rather than create? Are you looking for gut reactions or a considered response? What resources or stimuli can you share with them?

Picturing the end point makes it much easier to identify the steps necessary to get there. Answer these sorts of questions and you will find objectives become more focused, instead of broad and ill-defined. It is at this point that you are ready to start considering methodologies. Having clarity of objectives allows you to build a more tailored methodology that fits the requirements. Budgets are not wasted collecting data that is of little relevance or won’t be used. It can also speed up the research process; each method is identified as feeding into the objective in a particular way – when it comes to analysis time is not wasted searching for the ‘right’ piece of data.

This process also opens up the door to creativity. By fully understanding what you are trying to ascertain, you are in a better position to judge the efficacy of a new method and have confidence in its ability to deliver the outcomes you require. One method rarely meets all objectives; with this process you are better able to identify how methods can be combined to achieve the necessary result.

The Role of the Research Agency

Research buyers (and suppliers) – listen up. What I have described here might seem like a lot of work, before the actual work has even begun. But the time spent is invaluable and will go a long way to ensuring insight that is on target and drives action. This does not have to be an individual process, indeed making this a collaborative approach between client and agency will undoubtedly yield the greatest gains.

Dedicated researchers are programmed to do this, and to guide non-researchers through this process. Your chosen agency should be skilled across the range of research methodologies; understanding their applications and are accomplished in fusing and combining them to give the most compelling insight possible. How do you decide on a research methodology? Let know in the comments below.

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