What is Market Research? Definition, Methods, Examples and Templates

Emily James

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Sophie Grieve-Williams

    Market research is a thriving industry, full of invention and innovation. In such a busy, future-thinking industry, it can be hard for newcomers to know where to start when learning about insights. So here is FlexMR’s guide to market research, exploring the ins and outs of market research – the industry, process, methodologies, tech, tools, and current trends.

    In this article, we'll cover four key areas that it's important for all research and insight professionals to understand:

    1.  A market research overview (definitions, approaches and technologies)
    2.  Common research methodologies (qual, quant, primary and secondary)
    3.  The market research process (recruitment, collection, analysis, activation)
    4.  Examples of effective research from industry leaders

    An Overview of Market Research

    The earliest recognised example of market research took place in the 1920s. During this period, Daniel Starch developed a theory that proposed advertising had to be remembered in order to be effective. To test this theory, he asked people on the street if they could remember specific adverts in select publications that they read. Soon after, George Gallup proposed a rival theory known as aided recall that would go on to influence media measurements for years to come.

    Between those early years and the present day, the pracitice of market research has developed significantly. It now encompasses a broad range of qualitative and quantitative methods, many proposed throughout the golden age of the 1940s - 1980s. New innovations today push the boundaries not in the realms of process of methodology, but in technology - continually refining research activities and unlocking greater efficiencies.

    Market Research Definition

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines market research as “the action or activity of gathering information about consumers’ needs and preferences.” 

    But, as noted in another of our blogs, this is a basic working definition. In fact, market research has many uses beyond identifying consumer behaviours and trends, and also works to help stakeholders understand the capabilities, efficiency and need when it comes to their own brand, products, processes and services, even the industry they operate in. Market research holds the key to understanding the current situation in all its facets and then exploring the best way to navigate into the uncertain future.

    Everyone’s experience of market research differs depending on their objectives, the methodologies used, and the answers gained. Most stakeholders have a sense of how important market research is for future success, but there is still some ground to be gained from insight teams.

    The main objective of market research is to provide accurate and relevant answers to stakeholder questions – anything more specific would depend on the questions themselves.

    Approaches to Market Research

    There is universal applicability of the insights generated from market research. Stakeholders are able to embed insights in businesses spanning all industries to inform strategies working through a range of situations and challenges, such as:

    Market research is a great way to find answers to more specific challenges and questions unique to the stakeholder organisation. Perhaps stakeholders have a communication strategy in place that needs updating or a particular part of their customer experience under review, or even an employment experience that needs renovating in order to attract new talent - market research is a flexible and widely applicable experience that can gain influential insights to inform all decision-making processes.

    Depending on the challenge at hand and the experience of the stakeholders involved, there are a couple of different ways to approach market research: 

    1. If there is a challenge presenting itself, the best way would be to enlist the help of an insight team to help devise a research experience to gain insights on how to resolve the issue effectively. 
    2. If there is a question presenting itself that is less time-sensitive and the stakeholders have some previous experience of basic insight generation, then stakeholders might look for secondary data or previous in-house research projects to see if any answers present themselves there first before requesting more research be done.

    All approaches to research must aim for the same goal: objective clarity, communicated in a way that everyone understands and can use to the full extent of their particular power.

    Typically, the traditional starting format of a research experience is for stakeholders to first define the problem, hypothesis, and potential answers they expect to pop up at the end; then they commission insight professionals (in-house or agency) to create the research experience and guide them through the process of finding the right answers.

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    Market research has many uses beyond identifying consumer behaviours and trends, with universal applicability that helps many understand the world that they live in and the challenges they will need to overcome.

    Market Research Technologies

    Technology has driven innovation in the market research industry for decades now, with most of the innovation focussed on the most heavy-lifting data collection and analysis tools. In the last 30 years, our vocation has grown from face-to-face research to mostly online insight generation. With innovation injected into every aspect of the research process, the result is new research tools and creative methodologies for insight teams to take advantage of when designing new exciting research experiences. 

    We have developed a large catalogue of research technologies for the research technology stacks insight teams need. Research technology stacks are uniquely tailored to each team and organisation, so the technology each team has available or will need available will need to be outlined and understood in the research brief and design stage of the research experience.

    We incorporate research into everything we do. Although we conduct a lot of surveys, access to agile, qualitative options enable us to dive deeper into insight and really understand customers.

    Research Analyst, SkyBet

    Finding the right technology vendors can be a heavy task for insight teams with all of the latest research technology on offer, so the question becomes: how do we choose which technologies should go into the research stack?

    There are numerous considerations insight teams need to take into account, such as:

    1. How well their technology fits in with the other tools and tech the insight team are currently looking at.
    2. The values, objectives, and future of the vendor in question, and if they align with the values, objectives, and future of the insight team/stakeholder organisation.
    3. How well they understand and are able to cater towards the requirements of the insight team, whether that’s on a long-term basis or just for one project.

    We have created a free template for insight teams to keep track of all the considerations they’ll need to find the right vendors to work alongside.

    Research Methodologies

    There are two broad ways in which market research methodologies are classified. Primary vs secondary looks at whether the data was collected first-hand or via existing sources. Whilst qualitative and quantitative methods differentiate between measures that are statistical or subjective in nature.

    Primary Research

    This is the type of research that most of the insights industry specialises in – where insight teams generate original data by getting in touch with customers and consumers to find out their opinion first-hand and forwarding that data onto stakeholders to influence strategic decisions within their business.

    There are a couple of paths stakeholders can choose to take depending on their resources, they can either conduct the research themselves (if they have the time, experience and knowledge to do so), they can request the research be done by their in-house insight team (if their organisation has one), or they can hire an external research agency to work with them and conduct the research for them.

    Each research agency will provide similar and different products and services for hire, so if stakeholders do need to hire an external agency, it’s vital they do a bit of research and speak to each agency they consider to make sure the partnership is right for all involved.

    Secondary Research

    This is the research that’s already been conducted by other people and published for others to use for their own purposes. Most of this data comes at a cost and is published in private or subscription-based academic or industry journals. While the data in these journals are typically well-thought-of and proven, researchers need to be wary and make sure the secondary data sources are reliable enough to factor into research experiences.

    These secondary data sources were originally sourced through primary data collection and analysis, but by other researchers or teams not involved in this particular project. Secondary research sources can be used within a research experience alongside primary data collection, even going so far as to influence the primary research taking place if stakeholders are wanting to test the reliability or replicability of the secondary data gathered.

    Quantitative Research

    Quantitative research and data have become synonymous with market research. It is the typical numerical, statistical data that most stakeholders are used to seeing in research reports. This data is typically gathered from quantitative methodologies such as surveys, polls, questionnaires, observations and in-depth interviews. This research provides measurable statistics that work to quantify the opinions and attitudes of research participants.

    The statistical output of quantitative research means that researchers are able to objectively test theories and measure the attitudes of their target audience. Surveys are usually the first thing anyone thinks of when they hear about quantitative market research, as it’s the most common quantitative research methodology used both inside and outside of the insights industry.

    We are answering challenging questions through our quantitative panel. It provides insights that help us make decisions today, as well as the capacity to continue improving products and campaigns.

    Customer Insights Manager, Specsavers

    Quantitative data analysis is a very logical process, and as such requires a good knowledge of mathematics and statistical analysis to derive meaning from data points on graphs and tables, finding correlations without attributing them to causations, and either proving or disproving a current hypothesis. 

    Find out more about quantitative research in our blog here.

    Qualitative Research 

    What comes to mind when you think about qualitative research? Probably not too much other than the typical focus groups and interview-based research methods. These were probably the most used in conjunction with surveys throughout market research history, and it’s only now in the past couple of decades when there were more options available to researchers and stakeholders.

    With the drive of technological innovation and the need powered by the events of 2020, online focus group technology is powering stakeholder efforts to conduct more online qualitative focus groups.

    But there isn’t just focus groups to consider. More creative research methods are able to provide just as good data with potentially more intriguing results. Scrapbooks, sentiment-based heat maps, diary studies, and more are suitably poised to drive the generation of deep contextual insights in research experiences - boosting quantitative data more than simple focus groups every could on their own. While it depends a lot on the insights stakeholders need, focus groups might not be the answer to gaining more contextual information from the survey data collected. Or at least not on their own. Insight teams need to try and blend research tasks, tools and methodologies to get the right insights for their stakeholders.

    Find out more about qualitative research in our blog here.

    Passive Research

    While this is still a developing segment of the research sector, there are passive ways of generating primary data. Data mining, using social media, geolocation tracking, and eye/movement tracking technologies are being developed up to a high standard and implemented as a part of modern research experiences.

    There is a lot of insight to be gained from tracking consumers behaviour rather than trusting their word alone. Observation research is one of the founding principles for this, however as we move into an increasingly technological age where most of the global population is living a life online, behavioural science principles have evolved to track online behaviours as well as offline behaviours:

    • Social media is a great stage for behavioural data mining and more active research tactics such as quick polls. 
    • Geolocation uses our smartphones to track our movements (when permissions allow) and businesses can use that data to get a better sense of consumers daily lives.
    • Eye-tracking software can be used to see which parts of a website, advertisement or retail store is more attractive based on what we see first and which parts we linger on more.

    The Market Research Process

    As a key step in the marketing process, it is vital that research is carried out with care and due diligence. The following five steps outline the order in which research activities should be completed to deliver project success.

    Step 1: Research Brief and Design

    A market research brief is a document a client produces, detailing important information about their unique situation and research requirements – so a brief is an essential document for insight teams to obtain before even thinking about the rest of the research process.

    Stakeholders create the brief, most of the time in a form produced by the insights team, defining the problem or situation they are currently encountering, the current business objectives this research would also work towards (if applicable), the research objectives they believe would be good to work towards, the constraints they’re working with (time, budget, etc.), and how involved they would like to be throughout the process.

    There are a number of other factors that could go into the research brief, for example, any contextual factors stakeholders think might influence the research experience, etc. However, we created a template for a research brief that covers a lot of the criteria mentioned here for ease – feel free to download and use it to your advantage.

    This brief is then the basis of the research design and planning. The insight teams involved take the brief and use the information within it and their expertise to design the most appropriate research experience possible that will generate accurate and relevant insights for the stakeholder organisation.

    A plan is similar to a brief, in which is holds vital details about the market research project and is an often overlooked part of the process - but an effective plan is critical to research success. We have created a guide on how to write an effective market research plan, complete with a template to help stakeholders and insight professionals make sure they have given all aspects equal consideration.

    Step 2: Recruitment 

    This next stage is a little trickier. Most insight teams might do well to consider the recruitment options and planning in the research design and brief stage and reserve this part of the process for active recruitment and research platform setup.

    However, for those only starting to consider recruitment, insight teams will need to take this stage for both planning and active recruitment. Consider the sample you’re looking to gain insight from, which customers or consumers might be best placed to provide the best data for insight generation. This determining of the sample can make or break a research project, with the right sample able to produce relevant and accurate data that can be applied to full effect in stakeholder decision-making processes.

    Then consider the recruitment method or sample provider insight teams are working with. It might be that the sample the team needs is all active on social media, and recruitment through targeted ads might be a good DIY tactic to implement. However, to take the stress out of recruitment, commissioning a sample provider might be a better way to go. Sample or recruitment providers are skilled in this area and typically already have a database of willing participants they can put insight teams in touch with for a set fee.

    However, another popular tactic is to recruit research participants out of a business's existing customer base. This means stakeholders and insight professionals know they’re engaged with the business to some degree, and the branded or business-specific research will already be completed by their target audience.

    Our customers are our stakeholders; their opinions and feelings are vital to the success of the society. As such, their engagement with our research is crucial.

    Customer Insights Specialist, Coventry Building Society

    Once the sample and provider have been determined, it’s time to sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s common to use a screener survey to make sure the sample is exactly what insight teams need, and segment the sample by demographic or other more project-specific factors, and upload them onto the platform the team are using to conduct research on. This platform might host a dedicated research community or simply a panel platform to hold the information in and create dedicated research tasks to send to research participants through email.

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    This guide aims to help everyone understand the basic workings of market research, identify some of the methods available to them, and explore how to create an impactful research experience.

    Step 3: Data Collection

    The most recognisable stage of market research. This is where all the data collection tools and methodologies decided in the research design stage are implemented to full effect. If the research experience is designed correctly, the data gained in this stage will be accurate and relevant, ready for insight teams to analyse and pull directly actionable insights for stakeholder use.

    There are numerous data collection tools and methodologies available to the  modern insight professional. Common market research methods include:

    • Online, telephone and street surveys
    • Online and in-person focus groups
    • Written or online diary studies
    • Smartboards and image markup
    • Long-term, pop-up and listening communities
    • Traditional, mobile and web ethnographies
    • Biometric response research
    • Wearable-based research
    • Vox pops and video surveys
    • Social media intelligence
    • Augmented reality-based testing
    • Gamification research

    It’s hard to name all of the market research methods and tools in existence because there are so many. The tools and methods mentioned here are the ones used most often, or the ones most requested in the insights industry, and while they are varied in how they collect data, all of them provide either quantitative or qualitative data for research analysis.

    Step 4: Data Analysis and Insight Generation

    This is the second most recognised stage of the research process, where all the hard work collecting the data comes to light and is seen in full. The data collected in the previous stage needs to be accurate, otherwise, the insights generated at this stage of the research experience will be worthless and irrelevant to the stakeholder situation, and thus will be a waste of time, money, and effort.

    For quantitative data handling, statistical analysis is the primary method of analysis. Cross-referencing data from tables, charts, and graphs to interpret the clear meaning and determine any correlations or causations of consumer behaviour. However, this mathematical ability doesn’t always come naturally, and so there are a number of statistical tools out there to help researchers gain more traction in this particular arena. Tools such as FlexMR’s NumbersMR produces both simple and complex data tables for better analysis, and graphical representation at the push of a button to make statistical analysis more available to stakeholders as well as researchers.

    For qualitative data, this analysis can be slightly trickier. Qualitative data analysis can be objective but is also rooted in subjective interpretation. However, because of the more open content of the data, it can be easier for even non-researchers to derive a few insights from the raw data.

    Because of recent innovations in qualitative data collection, there are up and coming methods of qualitative data analysis to match the quality of the incoming data. Video analysis tools now have a prominent place in the market researchers’ arsenal with the rise of video data collection. Tools such as our own VideoMR are rapidly gaining an appreciation for their streamlining of qualitative video analysis processes, with features such as auto-transcription and clip/montage creation making it easy to analyse and group content together, as well as provide a great new format for video clips for more engaging, connective, and immersive insight reports.

    Step 5: Insight Reporting and Activation

    There is a myth outside of the research world, that the research experience ends once the report has been handed over. This myth was brought to life and perpetuated through previous experience of early market research when that might have been true for most stakeholders and insight professionals; however the world has moved on, and the market research industry can offer so much more than simple insights. We are beginning to now offer the true power of knowledge with ways in which the insights provided can be activated.

    To master insight activation is to harness the true power of market research and make positively impactful decisions in real-time. The best way to help this happen is to inject creativity into your reporting and be consistent in your communication.

    There are a few ways we can boost the interest level of stakeholders in insight reports:

    • Using video, animation, and graphic images can bring a whole new level of interest to a research report. Whether it’s using video clips of research participants for better connectivity or using the medium of video to communicate the report itself, video, animation, and graphical imagery are proven to easily engage audiences on thought-provoking topics.
    • Interactive insight sessions are a great way to break through the barriers between stakeholders and insight teams. With in-person or online insight workshops and forums, researchers can deliver the insights face-to-face with stakeholders and take the time to explain the insights generated and answer any questions stakeholders have.
    • Using creative methods such as interpretive art to represent insights and tell the story in physical form. Art is a powerful form of storytelling and has been proven through our Insight as Art programme to engage stakeholders in insights through intrigue and interpretation.
    • Storytelling techniques are great for engaging even the most disconnected of audiences, enrapturing them in the respondents, scenarios, and challenges of the research experience through created characters, settings, and narrative plot.

    Customisation is the key to a truly impactful insight report; insight teams need to understand how stakeholders like their insights communicated and what engages them in order to make the best report possible. To help, we’ve created a simple template to help insight teams present impactful results in the research report.

    Now that we’ve established a few different reporting techniques, we need to talk about the importance of consistent communication. Embedding the right communication channels and practices between stakeholders and the insight team is incredibly important for the success of the research experience. Without communication, the connection between stakeholder and insight report will vanish, as will the actionability and memorability of the insights contained within the report, meaning that the impact of the insights will be zero.

    There are a few communication tactics insight professionals use regularly within stakeholder organisations; for example, regular insight newsletters, insight forums and workshops, insight immersion days, and even creating data warehouses to break down departmental silos that are detrimental to the productivity of stakeholders teams throughout the organisation.

    Examples of Effective Research

    Today, research is considered an essential part of many strategic processes. From new product development to advertising effectiveness, brand loyalty and market expansion. Here are a number of examples of how effective market research can have a real impact on your business.

    1. The Caravan and Motorhome Club

    The Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) use market research wisely for future-proofing their business, making sure that they’re changing with the times and in accordance with their own members’ behaviours so they can provide the best services possible. 

    As they operate distinctly in both the tourism and automotive industries, their recent attentions have turned to sustainable camping in the response to the advancements made to electric and hybrid technology development and the growing concerns for more environmentally friendly forms of camping.

    In the InsightHub, the CMC used qualitative focus groups to gain intelligence into how their members are currently using electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as their thoughts on the future of this use in domestic and international tourism. With their ultimate purpose to use the insights to redevelop a current campsite into a sustainable one, the insight team also used image-based stimuli to spark conversations on the practicalities of developing a campsite for electric and hybrid vehicles for a more sustainable future.

    Find out more about the insights the CMC gained in our case study here.

    2. Specsavers

    Specsavers have a long-term research panel dedicated to insight generation on a variety of different topics. Most recently and notably, the Specsavers insights team used online quantitative tools to gain some insights to inform their ‘Don’t Lose The Picture’ glaucoma health campaign, as well as glasses product testing.

    Being a multi-national health service as well as a retail brand, Specsavers are recognised experts in their field of optometry and audiology, and they must remain seen as these experts while also balancing a certain amount of self-promotion to be successful in both endeavours. Their glaucoma health campaign needed to balance marketing and health awareness tactics in order to push people at risk of glaucoma to take action to prevent it from happening - and that is why they conducted market research with a sample of their customers on their research panel to make the most effective campaign since their renowned ‘Should Have Gone to Specsavers’ adverts.

    To learn more about their success and the outcome of their survey research, read the case study here.

    3. The Coventry Building Society

    The Coventry Building Society, like all building societies, are a member-led financial institution. Their members are their stakeholders, and as such are directly involved with the strategic decision-making within the organisation through market research. The Coventry’s long-term research community use primarily qualitative research tools to relate feedback on a variety of topics from the strategic trajectory of the organisation to their general communication strategies and customer experience.

    With such direct involvement and the use of new research methodologies that are purpose-built for listening to customer insights (participant-led research rather than researcher-led), this has led The Coventry to build an award-winning standard of customer experience excellence - their challenge now is to maintain this excellence by building customer experience solutions that work for everyone.

    To find out how their research is going, take a look at our case study here.

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    With practical examples and templates, this guide is here to give both insight beginners and experts a boost on their way to generating effective and directly actionable insights that drive positive change.

    Insights Empowerment and Efficiency 

    Insights empowerment is the key to realising a business’ potential. Creating a culture of insights within organisations and connecting stakeholders closer to customers and consumers can revolutionise decision-making processes, with stakeholders able to make decisions more accurately in real-time through consistent access to powerful insights. 

    FlexMR has designed its trademark Insights Empowerment Framework to help identify clear steps in a business’ trajectory to improve in the domains of efficiency, scale, and reach. In other words, how efficiently insights are produced and communicated across the organisation, how much they’re able to influence stakeholders that come across them, and how many stakeholders actually have access to them.

    This game-changing way of thinking addresses the three issues insight teams face when working with stakeholders throughout their organisation and works to improve them in a timely fashion, so their insights are used to their full potential within the organisation and driving transformational change.

    Find out more about FlexMR’s Insights Empowerment Framework and how it can help revolutionise your strategic decision-making processes here.

    FlexMR InsightHub

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