Critical work decisions are steeped in uncertainty. Is now the time to grow? Will a new product resonate with that demographic? Which segment will respond best to a revamped marketing campaign? What values, opinions, or insights define the cutting edge? Where are we even going?
Often necessarily focused on internal discussions and operations, even the most creative work tech firms can neglect an outside perspective. Designing, launching, and promoting in an echo chamber, leaders and creators can come to see their markets – and themselves – through a glass darkly.
Research creates a lens through which to see an aspect of the world more clearly. What that lens looks like and how it’s made depends on many factors, including the methodology (qualitative or quantitative), the target population (farmers or day traders), and the range and depth of subjects explored. What specifically is brought into focus ultimately depends on the research questions: What do you want to know (or more accurately, what do you want to try to know)?
In academia, research exists to further knowledge. A Ph.D. is awarded based on whether the researcher has contributed something original to the field (often in the form of a dissertation). I once asked one of my professors what the point of academic research was. She dismissed the question, arguing that learning should be done for its own sake.
Market research, on the other hand, needs to have a point. (Otherwise, nobody would pay for it.) It needs to have a projected ROI, even if that return is abstract. In an industry setting, research exists to help decision-makers take a leap. A multitude of possible paths stretches out before you. It’s overwhelming! Researchers, like detectives, seek out existing and novel data for clues, patterns that suggest the viability of one path over another.
It’s dangerous to go alone. Luckily, with market researchers on your team, you don’t have to.
The Places You’ll Go
Market research is a diverse field, and individual projects can take myriad forms. The following outlines five major archetypes, examining how the research flows and some use cases where these studies have provided practical, meaningful intervention.
1. Brand Study
Let’s start with the most straightforward — or as straightforward as research gets — archetype: a brand study. Brand studies essentially gauge the current market penetration and associations of a brand. Brand studies typically include several elements:
- Recall and recognition — What percentage of the target population is familiar with your brand?
- Affinity — To what extent do people like your brand?
- Association — What values, attributes, and services do customers associate with your brand, for better and for worse?
While you’ll find value in a one-off point-in-time measure of your brand, you’ll get even greater value by repeating the measurement process over time, via a longitudinal approach that takes place across periodic waves.
Brand studies can also help sketch out the firmographic and psychometric profiles of radical buyers, the customers most likely to be dedicated to your brand.
- Establishing a baseline ahead of a significant increase in marketing investment or a significant change in investment allocation
- Measuring marketing performance against that baseline through annual or semi-annual brand studies
- Getting a “pulse check” following a major event (e.g., internal shakeup, a pandemic, etc.) or before a planned event (e.g., merger, acquisition, divestiture)
- Navigate a strategy of claiming a dominant market share in a category; in B2B enterprise software markets, brand awareness measures relative to category competitors provide a leading indicator of market share position 12 to 18 months later
Go-to-market studies map out a battle plan. Ahead of launching a new product, service, or campaign, these studies can reveal potential hangups or paths of least resistance. Go-to-market studies are typically robust, incorporating elements of a brand study but with added dimensions including but not limited to: relevance and desirability of product features, market position strategies, and message testing.
Go-to-market studies are essential for mapping out new market territory. They can provide valuable insight into how a new solution or marketing campaign will resonate with a particular industry or user segment before you commit valuable resources to the unknown.
- Determining market segmentation for a marketing campaign or product launch
- Informing the positioning of a product that’s meant to shift from an early adopter phase of adoption to mainstream market adoption (IOW, crossing the chasm)
- Collecting user preferences for brand or new product messaging
- Establishing ownable differentiation in brand or product positioning and messaging
- Identifying the information-usage characteristics of a target market that can be used to guide paid, owned, and earned media strategy and execution
3. Buyer Journey
Buyer journey studies are like the secret shopper of market research. But rather than pretending to eat at a restaurant or buy a pair of shoes, we conduct a much more comprehensive picture. Buyer journey studies focus on three main questions:
- Where have current and potential customers gone?
- Where are they going?
- What do they need to get there?
By answering these three questions, you’ll have a much better idea of what your current customers like and would like to see more of, and what will attract those elusive prospects.
Buyer journeys focus heavily on how users and their organizations define value, what kinds of roadblocks or pain points they typically encounter, what sort of features or aesthetics entice or repel them, and what they need as a buyer to ultimately take the plunge.
Buyer journey studies typically do not disclose the client brand, preferring to get a candid look into sponsoring and rival brands alike. For this reason, buyer journey studies generally pair well with competitor analyses (see below).
- Probe the habits, preferences, and quirks that push one segment toward a particular platform
- Explore how current social, political, or economic pressures are influencing buying patterns and preferences
- Troubleshoot your sales funnel
4. Employee Experience
Employee experience is an increasingly important phenomenon in today’s world of work. As critical as it is, it can be unclear what employee experience actually means. The reality is that employee experience, like culture, is unique to every organization. Even within the same industry or across developmental stages, differences in personnel, company vision, geographic location and climate, market performance, or the arrangement of workstations can have radical impacts on how people feel about their working lives.
Employee experience studies delve into the minutia of working lives to gather insight into not only what creates employee experience, but how to proactively shape it. They serve to both catalog the unique elements that make up an organization’s employee experience and to give insight into proven and bespoke methods for improving and maintaining worker experience and organizational culture.
As recent responses to COVID-19 and other sociopolitical instabilities have underscored, employee experience is volatile, but also malleable and resilient. Developing an active, consistent approach to evaluating employee experience is an increasingly essential strategy for long-term success. By surfacing the complex emotional currents that run through your organization, employee experience measures can help design employee experience initiatives with empathy and intention.
- Startups looking to capture a baseline of employee experience
- Pulse checks following a major disruption
- Proactively addressing issues with employee morale, retention, turnover
- Developing eNPS systems to monitor employee wellness
5. Thought Leadership Studies
Thought leadership is an increasingly prevalent genre in the world of work. It’s not enough anymore to create cool products or offer great services. Companies look to demonstrate value through the power of their ideas.
Solid ideas start with solid research. Thought leadership studies explore the relationship between social issues, market trends, and segment characteristics. Research can surface valuable insights into the complex cultural currents that shape our businesses, careers, and lives.
We combine research methods with insight to understand which patterns best resonate with target audiences. In doing so, we can either create thought leadership pieces or guide others in articulating their own insights.
- As we described above, research creates a lens to see the world more clearly; thought leadership often takes the form of publishing and promoting that newfound clarity to the broad market.
- Thought leadership research findings provide the fuel for valuable earned media opportunities and for developing content assets that drive brand and demand-oriented outcomes.
- Like brand studies, thought leadership research lends itself to a longitudinal view, whereby the value of the research accumulates as each wave surfaces directional trends and changes that bring a richer level of insight.
In practice, many projects have elements of several of these studies. In our experience, it’s best to keep a study tightly focused on a small number of objectives. That said, while a jack of all trades may be a master of none, we ultimately design research studies based on our clients’ insight needs and financial and time constraints. Often that means getting creative with hybrid studies.
Tricks of the Trade
While the previous section outlines some research archetypes, the following describes some of the research methodologies that animate these studies. Importantly, any of the above studies can incorporate any of the following methods. Indeed, mixed-method studies tend to offer more robust insights due to the multiple vantages they allow.
When people think about “research,” they often think about numbers. That’s quantitative data. Quantitative research methods collect this type of data. Quantitative data answers questions that can be measured and compared with specific numerical values. For example, “How do you feel?” is not a quantitative question, but “How do you feel on a scale of 0–10?” is.
Quantitative methods we frequently employ include:
- Surveys — structured questionnaires that sample target audiences to gain insight into the population as a whole
- Conjoint analyses — test consumer preference across a range of potential features and pricing
- Pricing models — test existing and proposed pricing structures, including market tolerance by segment
Unlike quantitative data, qualitative data is squishy. Qualitative research collects abstract conceptual, descriptive findings: how do people feel, what do they think about, what do they like or dislike. While quantitative data can establish trends, qualitative data seeks to get to the heart of the matter by exploring the why behind the numbers.
Qualitative methods we often use include:
- In-depth interviews — one-on-one sessions between a participant and a facilitator lasting 30 minutes to an hour structured around a set of curated discussion questions
- Roundtables — like in-depth interviews, but small-group focused, usually involving two to four participants; while not as comprehensive as in-depth interviews, they provide a collaborative dialogue that mirrors real-world working scenarios
- Focus groups — groups of four to eight participants are shown a product demonstration and then asked to reflect on it through guided discussion and activities
- Participant/behavioral observation— systematic observation and recording of individuals or groups either interacting with a product or participating in target practices in an everyday environment; this method surfaces key insights on behaviors associated with products, workspaces, or any manner of everyday activity
Not all research needs to be designed from the ground up. The foundation of any good research project involves some degree of secondary research. While primary research — e.g., interviews, surveys — seeks to collect new data, secondary research sources existing data — e.g., published studies, journal articles, consumer reports, census data, etc. Researchers bring this data together in a literature review, a comprehensive report on current relevant research.
Secondary research is particularly important when a client wants to conduct primary research that will furnish some novel insight, something “groundbreaking.” To know if a study will be groundbreaking, and whether its questions will be set up to find something as such, secondary research first needs to confirm what has and hasn’t already been done. Without secondary research, you might end up reinventing the wheel.
Spy stuff, but without the ethical implications. Competitor analysis involves a comprehensive review of competitor offerings within a particular market. This can take several forms, including a review of existing competitor services and features, usability testing of competitor products and websites, pricing studies, and win-loss analysis.
Developing an effective brand or go-to-market strategy, or developing a more robust understanding of buyer journeys or employee experience, often benefits from a degree of competitor analysis.
Is Research Right for Me?
Research isn’t easy. Designing effective market research strategies is a complex process, one that demands methodological expertise and a deep understanding of creators and consumers alike. It’s also a bit of a gamble: Both the joy and the anxiety of research is that when you set out, you never fully know what you’re going to find. (If you did, you wouldn’t have to do the research in the first place.)
If you’ve gotten this far, you may be questioning whether your organization should explore market research. If you have a question that impacts the future of your business, then yes. Research will help you along the journey.
Learning is a crucial part of growth. Even so, setting out alone can be daunting. My advice: Don’t go it alone.