As we note in How is Marketing Research Gathered?, marketers engage in a wide range of research from simple methods done spur of the moment to extensive, highly developed research projects that take months or even years to complete. While lower-level research rarely requires a formal plan, formal planning for marketing research projects that are intended to offer critical information to support marketing decisions is important for outlining how research will be conducted.
This research plan consists of multiple steps which under most condition are developed before research takes place. For instance, a researcher hired to perform work for a client presents the client with a written description of what is to be done prior to undertaking the work. This serves the purpose of making sure the client agrees with what is being done and also understands the commitment needed (e.g., costs, time, personal involvement) to complete the project.
In this tutorial we examine the process researchers follow to acquire information. Understanding this process is not only important for anyone carrying out marketing research but is also of value for marketers purchasing research from third-party sources. As we discussed in What Are the Risks in Doing Marketing Research?, relevant research must meet tests for research validity and reliability. For those purchasing research, the material presented in the this tutorial will help in that assessment.
Step 1: Identify Research Purpose
The first step in conducting research is to examine the reasons why research is being undertaken. Determining the research purpose sets the stage for the rest of the research plan because it lets everyone with a stake in the outcome of the research (e.g., researcher; client; outside firms) know the general philosophy of the project and also establishes the urgency of the research. As we noted in What is Marketing Research?, marketing research serves as the foundation of marketing since it is used to support all marketing decisions. Marketers use research to support decisions in five important ways, thus the purpose of research falls into one of these categories:
Possibly the most cited reason for conducting research is to use it to explain why something is occurring. Most often this means identifying and explaining a problem facing the marketing organization. For example, marketers may seek to know why sales in a certain geographic region are declining when it was forecast to rise.
Research is used to help assess a situation and predict what may happen in the future. This type of information is critical in many marketing decisions, such as forecasting demand for a new product. It is also used to predict what may happen if something is changed, such as a key marketing variable decision (e.g., effect on sales if price is changed).
Many decisions made by marketers must be monitored to insure that goals are being attained. A sales manger, for instance, will look to monitoring research in order to track the performance of the sales force in meeting sales targets.
Most marketers are continually on the look out for ways to improve their marketing efforts. Improvements may include such things as new product options, ways to increase sales or decrease costs, promotional approaches that improve the company’s image, and many more. Finding new opportunities is sometimes the result of luck but more often the marketer engages in research to locate these.
Finally, marketers use research to help test theories or “gut feelings” about some issues. For instance, a marketer may suspect there is a difference between the purchasing habits of one type of customer as compared to another type. Hypothesis testing, which is at the heart of scientific research, relies on statistical analysis to help evaluate a hypothesis. It should be noted that each of the previously described purposes for doing research can also be undertaken as a hypothesis test. For example, a marketer looking to explain why sales are declining in a certain region may have a “gut feeling” for why this is occurring and can combine explanation with hypothesis testing.
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Step 2: Identify What is to Be Learned
Once the general purpose of research is determined, the researcher’s next job is to decide what specific information she or he wants to obtain. Many in the market research field believe this is the most critical step in the research process since it provides guidance on what must be accomplished. While the purpose identified in Step 1 may be determined relatively quickly (e.g., sale reports shows an obvious problem that needs to be explained), in Step 2 the researcher may spend a considerable amount of time deciding what to study. For instance, the researcher may engage in numerous conversations with company personal to insure that she/he understands the circumstances facing those requesting the research.
But identifying what needs to be learned is not always easy. For example, saying a drop in sales in a geographic region is the problem does not tell the researcher much since declining sales is a symptom with the real problem resting in some other area. In situations where the party needing the research has trouble articulating what is needed the researcher must probe the client for more details until they can uncover what information is really needed. Doing this helps the researcher decide what to study and, more specifically, what concepts to include in the research (i.e., what questions to ask; what variables to study).
Determining what is to be learned is also important in helping marketing researchers envision the scope and demands of what must be done.
The scope of a research project refers to the amount of information needed. If the scope is too large the researcher may find that it is not worth carrying out the research since they lack the resources to accomplish the goal. Alternatively, knowing in advance what is needed may give the researcher the opportunity to break a larger project into smaller, more manageable parts.
The demands of the project refer to what users of the information (e.g., marketing manager; clients) seek from the research. Most demands revolve around issues related to: acquiring information (e.g., want information that is usable); timing of the research (e.g., want information as quickly as possibly); limits on methods that can be used (e.g., may not allow certain questions be asked); and funding (e.g., limited research money). Again, knowing this in advance can help the researcher design the research plan.
Step 3: Determine Research Design
To get answers to the issues raised in Step 2 the researcher lays out a design for obtaining the information. Of course many marketers do not produce a formal design plan when conducting research. For example, a small retailer who asks a returning customer how she liked the product she purchased the previous week is engaged in research and doing so without the need to produce a formal plan. But for marketers looking to undertake formal research, a written research design plan is important.
The first part of the research design is to decide on the type of research that will work best for the purpose (i.e., explain; predict; monitor; discover; hypothesis test) and information that is sought. Research method choices can be broadly categorized as:
As we will see, these methods differ in terms what each hopes to learn and how information is acquired.
Descriptive Market Research
The focus of descriptive market research is to provide an accurate description for something that is occurring. For example, what age group is buying a particular brand; a product’s market share within a certain industry; how many competitors a company faces; etc. This type of research is by far the most popular form of market research. It is used extensively when the research purpose is to explain, monitor and test hypotheses, and can also be used to a lesser extent to help make predictions and for discovery.
Marketers routinely conduct basic descriptive research using informal means. For instance, the head of marketing for a clothing company may email a retailer to see how the products are selling. But informal descriptive research, while widely undertaken, often fails to meet the tests of research validity and reliability and, consequently, the information should not be used as an important component in marketing decisions. Rather, to be useful, descriptive research must be conducted in a way that adheres to a strict set of research requirements to capture relevant results. This often means that care must be taken to develop a structured research plan. Under most circumstances, this requires researchers have a good grasp of research methods including knowledge of data analysis.
Exploratory Market Research
The exploratory market research approach attempts to discover general information about a topic that is not well understood by the marketer. For instance, a marketer has heard news reports about a new mobile technology that is helping competitors but the marketer is not familiar with the technology and needs to do research to learn more. When gaining insight (i.e., discovery) on an issue is the primary goal, exploratory research is used.
The basic difference between exploratory and descriptive research is the research design. Exploratory research follows a format that is less structured and more flexible than descriptive research. This approach works well when the marketer doesn’t have an understanding of the topic or the topic is new and it is hard to pinpoint the research direction. The downside, however, is that results may not be as useful in aiding a marketing decision.
So why use this method? In addition to offering the marketer basic information on a topic, exploratory research may also provide direction for a more formal research effort. For instance, exploratory research may indicate who the key decision makers are in a particular market, thus enabling a more structured descriptive study targeted to this group.
Causal Market Research
In this form of research the marketer tries to determine if the manipulation of one variable, called the independent variable, affects another variable, called the dependent variable. In essence, the marketer is conducting an experiment. To be effective the design of causal research is highly structured and controlled so that other factors do not affect those being studied.
Marketers use this approach primarily for purposes of prediction and to test hypotheses, though it can also be used to a lesser extent for discovery and explanatory purposes. In marketing, causal research is used for many types of research including testing marketing scenarios, such as what might happen to product sales if changes are made to a product’s design or if advertising is changed. If causal research is performed well marketers may be able to use results for forecasting what might happen if the changes are made.
Step 4: Research Data Collection
The next step in research design involves laying out a research data collection plan to gather the information within the research method selected. To collect research marketers have three choices:
- acquire previously undertaken research
- undertake new research themselves
- out-source the task of new research to a third-party, such as a market research company
The first option is associated with Secondary Research, which involves accessing information that was previously collected. The last two options are associated with conducting Primary Research, which involves the collection of original data, generally for one’s own use. As we will see, the data collection approach used depends on what the researcher determined in the Steps 1-3 of the research plan. That is, the optimal collection technique is selected only after the researcher has determined the purpose, the information sought, and the basic research design method. In many instances, the researcher uses both secondary and primary methods as part of the same research project.
An extensive look of Secondary Research and Primary Research can be found in the our Marketing Research discussion.
Step 5: Evaluate the Research Data
The researcher’s next task is to evaluate research data in order to make sense of what has been collected. Before the researcher can gain understanding from the collected data, he/she must first examine the raw information (i.e., what was actually collected) to make sure the information exists as required. There are many reasons why data may not be presented in the form needed for further analysis. Some of reasons include:
This most likely occurs when the method of data collection is not fully completed, such as when the person taking part in the research fails to provide all information (e.g., skips questions on a survey).
Data Entry Error
This exists when the information is not recorded properly which can occur due to the wrong entry being made (e.g., entry should be choice “B” but is entered as choice “C”) or failure of data entry technology (e.g., online connection is disrupted before full completion of survey).
This occurs when there are apparent inconsistencies in responses, such as when a respondent does not appear to be answering honestly.
To address these issues the researcher will take steps to “cleanse” the data which may include dropping problematic data either in part (e.g., exclude a single question) or in full (e.g., drop a respondent’s entire survey). Alternatively, the research may be able to salvage some problem data with certain coding methods, though a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this tutorial.
Step 6: Analyze the Research Data
With the data in a form that is now useful, the researcher can now analyze the research data to determine what has been learned. The method used to analyze data depends on the approach used to collect the information (secondary research; primary quantitative research; primary qualitative research). For primary research the selection of method of analysis also depends on the type of research instrument used to collect the information.
Essentially there are two types of methods of analysis – descriptive and inferential.
Descriptive Data Analysis
Not to be confused with descriptive research, descriptive analysis, as the name implies, is used to describe the results obtained. In most cases, the results are merely used to provide a summary of what has been gathered (e.g., how many liked or dislike a product) without making a statement of whether the results hold up to statistical evaluation. For quantitative data collection the most common methods used for this basic level of analysis are visual representations, such as charts and tables, and measures of central tendency including averages (i.e., mean value). For qualitative data collection, where analysis may consist of the researcher’s own interpretation of what was learned, the information may be coded or summarized into grouping categories.
Inferential Data Analysis
While descriptive data analysis can present a picture of the results, to really be useful the results of research should allow the researcher to accomplish other goals such as:
- Using information obtained from a small group (i.e., sample of customers) to make judgments about a larger group (i.e., all customers).
- Comparing groups to see if there is a difference in how they respond to an issue.
- Forecasting what may happen based on collected information.
To move beyond simply describing results requires the use of inferential data analysis where advanced statistical techniques are used to make judgments (i.e., inferences) about some issue (e.g., is one type of customer different from another type of customer). Using inferential data analysis requires a well-structured research plan that follows the scientific method. Also, most (but not all) inferential data analysis techniques require the use of quantitative data collection.
As an example of the use of inferential data analysis, a marketer may wish to know if North American, European, and Asian customers differ in how they rate certain issues. The marketer uses a survey that includes a number of questions asking customers from all three regions to rate issues on a scale of 1 to 5. If a survey is constructed properly the marketer can compare each group using statistical software that tests whether differences exists. This analysis offers much more insight than simply showing how many customers from each region responded to each question.
Step 7: Communicate Results
The final stage in the marketing research process is to report the findings. For marketers doing small-scale research for their own purposes, communication may be quite informal. The marketer may simply draw conclusions from what he or she gleans from the data analysis.
For more serious marketing research projects, those conducting the research will prepare a written report outlining what was researched and offer results. Additionally, an oral presentation may be required in which the research is explained within a slide presentation.