Marketing Research Tutorial

Many organizations find the markets they serve are dynamic with customers, competitors and market conditions continually changing. And marketing efforts that work today cannot be relied upon to be successful in the future. Meeting changing conditions requires marketers have sufficient market knowledge in order to make the right adjustments to their marketing strategy. For marketers gaining knowledge is accomplished through marketing research.

In this part of the Principles of Marketing Tutorials we begin a multi-part discussion of research in marketing. We explore what marketing research is and see why it is considered the foundation of marketing. This tutorial also looks at the elements of good research including factors that distinguish good research from poor. We examine the risks associated with marketing research and see why it should be used to aid decision-making, but never used as the sole reason for making decisions. Finally, we look at the trends shaping marketing research.

Note that in this tutorial we use the terms "marketing research" and "market research" interchangeably. Many feel there is a distinct difference, with "marketing research" covering a broader array of research efforts associated with marketing decisions while "market research" is specific to understanding nuances of a particular market. For the purpose of this tutorial we treat these as the same.

Research, as a general concept, is the process of gathering information to learn about something that is not fully known. Nearly everyone engages in some form of research. From the highly trained geologist investigating newly discovered earthquake faults, to the author of best selling spy novels gaining insight into new surveillance techniques, to the model train hobbyist spending hours hunting down the manufacturer of an old electric engine, each is driven by the quest for information.

For marketers, research is not only used for the purpose of learning, it is also a critical component needed to make good decisions. Market research does this by giving marketers a picture of what is occurring (or likely to occur) and, when done well, offers alternative choices that can be made. For instance, good research may suggest multiple options for introducing new products or entering new markets. In most cases marketing decisions prove less risky (though they are never risk free) when the marketer can select from more than one option.

Using an analogy of a house foundation, marketing research can be viewed as the foundation of marketing. Just as a well-built house requires a strong foundation to remain sturdy, marketing decisions need the support of research in order to be viewed favorably by customers and to stand up to competition and other external pressures. Consequently, all areas of marketing and all marketing decisions should be supported with some level of research.

While research is key to marketing decision making, it does not always need to be elaborate to be effective. Sometimes small efforts, such as doing a quick search on the Internet, will provide the needed information. However, for most marketers there are times when more elaborate research work is needed and understanding the right way to conduct research, whether performing the work themselves or hiring someone else to handle it, can increase the effectiveness of these projects.

Marketing research is a process that investigates both organizations and people. Of course, organizations are made up of people so when it comes down to it, marketing research is a branch of the social sciences. Social science studies people and their relationships and includes such areas as economics, sociology and psychology. To gain understanding into their fields, researchers in the social sciences use scientific methods that have been tested and refined over hundreds of years. Many of these methods require the institution of tight controls on research projects. For instance, many companies survey (i.e., ask questions) a small percentage of their customers (called a sample) to see how satisfied they are with the company’s efforts. For the information obtained from a small group of customers to be useful when evaluating how all customers feel, certain controls must be in place including controls on who should be included in the sample.

Thus, doing research right means the necessary controls are in place to insure it is done correctly and increase the chance the results are relevant. Relying on results of research conducted incorrectly to make decisions could prove problematic if not disastrous. Thousands of examples exist of firms using faulty research to make decisions, including many dot-com companies that failed between 1999 and 2002.

As one might expect, the trade-off for doing research right is the increase in cost and time needed to conduct the research. So a big decision for marketers, when it comes to doing research, is to determine the balance between the need for obtaining relevant information and the costs involved in carrying out the research.

As noted, marketing research is undertaken to support a wide variety of marketing decisions. The table below presents a small sampling of the research undertaken by marketing decision area. Many of the issues listed under Types of Research are discussed in greater detail in other parts of the Principles of Marketing Tutorials.


Marketing Decision Types of Research
Target Markets sales, market size; demand for product, customer characteristics, purchase behavior, customer satisfaction, website traffic
Product product development; package protection, packaging awareness; brand name selection; brand recognition, brand preference, product positioning
Distribution distributor interest; assessing shipping options; online shopping, retail store site selection
Promotion advertising recall; advertising copy testing, sales promotion response rates, sales force compensation, traffic studies (outdoor advertising), public relations media placement
Pricing price elasticity analysis, optimal price setting, discount options
External Factors competitive analysis, legal environment; social and cultural trends
Other company image, test marketing

As we discussed, not all research requires undertaking an elaborate study. But even marketers conducting small, informal research should know that any type of research performed poorly will not yield relevant results. In fact, all research, no matter how well controlled, carries the potential to be wrong. There are many reasons why research may not yield good results (a full discussion being beyond the scope of this tutorial), however, most errors can be traced to problems with how data is gathered. In particular, many research mistakes occur due to problems associated with research validity and research reliability.

Research Validity

This problem with data gathering represents several concepts that to the non-researcher may be quite complex. But basically validity boils down to whether the research is really measuring what it claims to be measuring. For instance, if a marketer is purchasing a research report from a company claiming to measure how people prefer the marketer’s products over competitors’ products, the marketer should understand how the data was gathered to help determine if the research really captures the information the way the research company says it does.

While research validity is measured in several ways, those evaluating research results should keep asking this simple question: Is the research measuring what it is supposed to measure? If the marketer has doubts about the answer to this question then it is possible the results should also be questioned.

Research Reliability

This problem relates to whether research results can be applied to a wider group than those who took part in a study. In other words, would similar results be obtained if another group containing different respondents or a different set of data points were used? For example, if 40 salespeople out of 2,000-person corporate sales force participate in a research study focusing on company policy, is the information obtained from these 40 people sufficient to conclude how the entire sales forces feels about company policies? What if the same study was done again with 40 different salespeople, would the responses be similar?

Reliability is chiefly concerned with making sure the method of data gathering leads to consistent results. For some types of research this can be measured by having different researchers follow the same methods to see if results can be duplicated. If results are similar then it is likely the method of data gathering is reliable. Assuring research can be replicated and can produce similar results is an important element of the scientific research method.