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Marketing research process guide

The Kodak camera should tell you all you need to know about the critical importance of doing effective market research.

For decades, Kodak was synonymous with photography, dominating the market. Just about everyone had a Kodak camera or used Kodak film. Yet Kodak made an all-but-fatal mistake of not keeping up with market trends and fast-evolving consumer preferences. In doing so, Kodak completely missed the move to digital photography. Today, photography has evolved into the digital age—namely, transforming smartphones into high-quality cameras.


Get a better understanding of survey design, sampling, and analysis from survey experts.

Market research surveys help you identify, understand, and ultimately engage with your target customers. It also provides vital insight into the broader market landscape, your competitors, and trends affecting your industry and consumers.

Yet the process can be intimidating. Where do you start? What is the quickest and most effective path to success? How can you be sure that your research will be accurate and generate actionable insights?

Success can be found by gaining a greater understanding of marketing research and then following an effective marketing research process to achieve your goals.

Marketing research encompasses a range of activities aimed at gathering information and data to help your company better understand its target market. Once you capture market research data, you can then leverage it  to introduce or upgrade products, improve the customer experience, craft a sharper marketing position, or help guide business decisions.  

Need help identifying your target market? We’re here to help. 

The marketing research process focuses on collecting insights from your target audience, such as their opinions and attitudes that would help you evaluate current products, services, or test concepts aimed at improving them. It can also gauge customer perceptions about your company. This is best known as brand tracking

Good marketing research has myriad benefits. At its core, marketing research replaces assumptions and go-with-your gut decision-making with data-driven insights to inform smarter strategy and tactics.

The overarching benefit of marketing research is to gain a deep understanding of your customers or prospects so you can take actions that will resonate with them to build greater customer loyalty, increase engagement and ultimately, grow your business. 

Data captured from surveys, interviews and other methods reveal customer behaviors that indicate why they buy particular products or take certain actions. Typically, most products are designed to solve a customer’s problem. The marketing research process gets to the root of those problems, paving the way to develop new products, services and support that connect with customers and help solve their challenges.

A common focus of marketing research is concept testing: the process of determining if a new product will be a hit with customers. 

Based on analysis of the data and information captured, your company can develop and execute on a plan to more effectively launch a new product or service, or refine their branding and marketing position.

Dove Soap early 2000s “Campaign for real beauty” offers a gorgeous example of effective marketing research delivering game-changing results. Relying on their internal research and insights from a global study "The real truth about beauty report," that found only 2% of respondents claimed to be beautiful.

The subsequent campaign aimed to redefine beauty, moving away from using professional models in their marketing to show women that they are naturally beautiful. The thinking was that if customers could see themselves in Dove's advertising, they would feel a deeper affinity for the company and its products.

The campaign was not only a huge win for Dove, but also a catalyst for marketing with “real people” for a wide range of consumer products and services.

Of course, there is a bottom line benefit to marketing research as well. Marketing research saves time and money on wasted efforts by quantifying what customers want, how much they like the product, and if they intend to use it. And, if done right, it can help drive increased sales and profitability.

 Learn how to test products, packaging, messaging, concepts, and more. Market Research Solutions makes it easy. 

The marketing research process follows a series of sequential steps that allow you to focus your efforts on understanding and addressing customer challenges. 

Market research is only as good as the information it collects. That’s why it’s critical to follow a step-by-step process that all leads to gathering quality data that is accurate and actionable. The following six steps offer the roadmap to success:

1.   Define the problem. Focus on the core customer challenge to solve.

2.   Develop your research plan. Create a roadmap that includes identifying your target audience, as well as determining what research tools to use, and the timeline and resources for the project.

3.   Gather your information. Whether you use surveys, interviews or other methods, you will gather and organize your data. You can rely on qualitative and/or quantitative data to help you get started.

4.   Analyze your data. Review the data for meaningful insights and home in on key points that will help inform your marketing campaigns and strategies.

5.   Develop a strategy. Determine how your business can shape your future products and services with the marketing research you’ve just done.

6.   Take action. Plan those next steps, which may include new product development, further concept testing, a new product launch, or fresh marketing campaign.

Savvy shortcut: SurveyMonkey’s market research resources offer a one-stop shop for key information, tools, and resources to expedite your market research efforts.  

When it comes to executing an effective marketing research process it’s wise to begin with the end in mind. In short, what do you aim to accomplish through your research? Clearly understanding the outcome you're aiming for will help you identify and frame the specific customer problems you want to study and solve. Ultimately, you want to take a deep dive into the challenges and desires of your target customers so you can design products and position services that fully meet their needs and craft supporting messaging that resonates deeply with them.  

If you frame your problem too broadly, you will get vague answers. Too narrow and you may not understand enough. Determine the scope of what you want to study and what conclusions you hope to arrive at.

Think about what decisions will be made based on your research. Are you testing a concept that will affect the packaging of your product? Are you gathering information for a new product that will fill a market gap? Ask good questions and they will help to clarify your outcome.

Brainstorming is a valuable way to arrive at your research problem. Your team can create lots of potential research questions and narrow them down to which ones best address your study.

Deeper dive: SurveyMonkey’s market research survey templates offer a shortcut to developing effective surveys to get the information you need to make better decisions about your products and services

The next step is to develop a plan of action that will drive toward the outcomes you are seeking and provide a roadmap to keep you on track.

The initial phase of this planning focuses on choosing your data sources – where you will get the information and insights you are looking for. At the core of this effort is effectively identifying your target audience. This is essential because you want to be sure that the feedback and data you gather comes from the people who are most relevant to what you are researching. SurveyMonkey can make sure you survey who you want when you want to with powerful and easy-to-use audience targeting tools.

If you conduct primary research, you will gather quantitative and qualitative data about your target audience. This approach includes:

  • Surveys that produce quick results directly from your target audience. SurveyMonkey offers a wide range of market research surveys that can be tailored to meet your specific needs.
  • Interviews with customers and prospects will provide deep insights, but take longer to conduct. You may use one-on-one interviews or a focus group to collect direct feedback. You will need to design an appropriate questionnaire.

You may also want to conduct secondary research that collects data from existing sources. This research is valuable and keeps you from spending extra time and money on information that is readily available.

Next, select your marketing research methods. Depending on your research problem, you’ll need to conduct different research methods. Here are several to consider:

  • Observation: Will you be collecting data by observing your target audience’s behavior? Will you conduct interviews to capture data or use focus groups?  Will it be in an uncontrolled environment like a store or a controlled environment like a lab or conference room?
  • Survey: Does it make sense to conduct a survey, or series of surveys, to capture audience feedback?
  • Time: Will you collect data at one point in time, or a longitudinal study that takes place over a longer time period?
  • Behavior or experimental: Will you be observing actual consumer behaviors or setting up an experiment to see how they react to a new product or idea?
  • Sampling: How large does your sample size need to be to be relevant to your study?
  • Contact methods:  How will you contact research participants? In their homes, and office, or virtual interviews?

Going global? SurveyMonkey can help you quickly identify survey participants from your target audience in up to 130 countries around the globe.  

Now it is time to execute your research plan. A logical place to start is often  with secondary research to find out what existing data is available from reputable sources that directly relate to your research question. The benefits of this are two-fold. Through the process of reviewing secondary research you gain a deeper understanding of what you are studying. Additionally, you help ensure that you are not duplicating research so you can focus your primary research on capturing fresh insights and data.

Unless your topic is brand new and there is no existing data, previous in-house or industry research, academic journals, and experts in your field may provide valuable information that contributes to your research.

Your primary research will then begin as you survey, interview, and observe your research participants. Depending on your research plan, you will have a combination of qualitative and quantitative data to analyze to substantiate your research question. 

It is important to be vigilant about any potential researcher biases that may exist. If you and your team have preconceived notions about how research participants will react to your questions, you will have to put them aside to ensure your data is collected according to your research plan.

After your primary and secondary data is collected, you're now ready to shift to the most meaningful phase of the process—analysis. Typically, researchers use several statistical methods to analyze their data, including advanced decision models and predictive analytics. Averages, statistical regression, spreadsheets and charts may all be part of your analysis.

Setting aside assumptions about what you think the data means allows for data-driven patterns and trends to emerge that should lead to actionable insights.  Depending on the research tools you use, analytics and reporting, like those included in online surveys, will supply ready-to-use information.

Your goal is to discover what your data says about your target audience’s behavior patterns, attitudes and preferences. You may find that your data proves or disproves your original research question. It’s important to remain open to both outcomes. Never fall victim to the temptation to alter the data to prove you are right. Not only is that unethical, it could lead to actions that actually run counter to your company’s goal, leading to disappointing, even disastrous, results.

Your data should be tabulated and ready for the next phase where you present your findings to your company or research sponsor for their review.

Depending on who paid for or sponsored the study, you will have to create a formal research report that outlines your initial question, target audience, research methods, data collection methods, audience demographics, and finally your conclusion. You will want to clearly state if you proved or disproved your research question and outline your conclusions.

Your study conclusions may outline opportunities (or challenges) for your company or research sponsor. For instance, does your audience like the new packaging you tested and will they pay the proposed price you asked them in your survey? Can the company move to the next stage of product development, or did you research uncover different features that are more important to customers?

You may present your findings to company leadership, or small groups of relevant colleagues throughout your organization. Beyond reporting results, effective presentations often include actionable recommendations based on your findings. 

Your research findings should serve as a guide to specific actions your company can take to improve business results or deepen customer relationships. If your concept testing was successful, it may be time to move to the product development phase. If your updated branding and logo received negative reviews, it’s time to go back to the drawing board or make some major tweaks. If your marketing messaging struck a powerful chord with your target audience, it likely makes sense to find ways to infuse that message into marketing materials and other content.

There are numerous other ways to use your research. Updating buyer personas, or developing new marketing strategies and advertising campaigns might be the next phase. Your research is a valuable first step in helping companies spend their resources on products and services that increase their revenue.

Your research plan will include one or more types of marketing research. The intention of each of these marketing research types is to identify, collect, analyze, and present specific solutions that your target audience perceives as a problem.

There are four types of marketing research that are designed to help you collect data that is appropriate for your audience.

Have a fresh idea that no one has researched before? That’s the goal of exploratory research -- to collect information about a problem and insights about how to solve the problem. As a researcher, you will use secondary data that currently exists to provide insights about your goal.

You’ll need to remain open to what you discover. The data you collect may indicate new ways to restructure your research problem or look at it from a different perspective. As you clarify your concept, collect insights, structure potential problem statements, and discard impractical ideas, you’ll eventually arrive at a research problem that you can investigate. The goal is to collect more information about a topic, not pose or substantiate a solution.

Descriptive research tests the research question to discover if it is accurate or inaccurate. This method measures how often and to what extent variables in the study are correlated.

This approach works if you are asking who would buy the product being tested, how the products are used, and who are the competitors. You can collect data through observations, surveys, or interviews. 

Because the researcher records the data, bias can occur.  As opposed to a survey that is directly filled out by the respondent, the data can be skewed if the researcher records a response that they personally prefer. 

Causal research looks at the cause-and-effect relationship between variables. If one variable changes, the researcher can record the impact on another variable. Causal research can answer “what if” questions that include price changes, packaging changes, adding or removing product changes and more.

This approach is repeatable and can be replicated outside of a single research study. A potential downside to this approach is perceiving that  cause-and-effect occurred, when in reality it was mere coincidences. In addition, if the two variables are closely linked, it can be hard to determine which variables contribute to the cause or effect.

As the name implies, researchers are looking for what will happen in the future. They may study future sales growth, user adoption, and market size based on data collected about product preferences and customer demographics.

Predictive research taps into demographics, brand preferences and other marketing data, often combining it with Big Data. The outcome is information that can predict purchasing trends, product volume, competitor insights and other datasets that aid in business decisions for marketing, sales, and finance. Predictive research can help companies decide where to spend their resources most efficiently.

As a marketing leader, you can be challenged to make sure customers are satisfied. But how do you continually collect data to prove, or disprove, that customers are happy?

Customer satisfaction doesn’t just apply to individual products, it can aldo be an indication of how the market feels about an entire company. Customer satisfaction surveys can help marketing departments make product improvements that retain customers or winback those who have churned.

Solid data for startups

Startups have great ideas that they want to capitalize on. But how do they know if there is a substantial market for their product or service?

Bridgecare wanted to find out if there was a market for their childcare financing idea. Was it just gut instinct or was there an untapped market for parents of children who were going into debt to pay for childcare?

This company conducted a survey that tapped into parents across the US to validate the business concept. Within 24 hours, the company concept was validated by a large audience, leading to a new business idea that investors supported.

You’re a small company with a successful product - mattresses. But how do customers feel about additional products, like pillows, that seem like a natural fit to the existing product line?  Is it just an assumption or is there market potential?

You’ll need the right target market to see if your idea will work. Using surveys helped this company refine their original product idea, creating a better pillow based on feedback from survey participants. The company owner found that they cut their product development time in half by using online surveys, saving time, money, and frustration.

Surveys can be the cornerstone of effective marketing research as they offer a quick, cost-effective way to collect a large variety of data. Whether you use short questions, open or closed-ended questions, surveys often are the most efficient way to gather credible insights from your target population.

Survey reports typically include analytics and charts that are easily interpreted and incorporated into your report. Depending on the focus of your survey, a ready-made test bank can be used to reach your ideal customer audience within hours. Online surveys are a widely used, credible way to get feedback about important topics that help you perform concept testing, product or packaging testing.

Clearly, if you want to avoid a “Kodak moment,” you should include market research as an ongoing tool to guide more informed, data-driven decision-making. By following an established process, you can be assured that the actions your company is taking are in lockstep with the needs and desires of your customers. 

SurveyMonkey offers reliable, detailed survey test question banks for every market research need. From product and packaging testing to logo design, we give you immediate access to the survey respondents that match your target audience demographics. Get their insights immediately to save time, money, and lower the risk of an expensive mistake.

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