Determining the Research Question
The decision to start research without proper planning and finding research question is a common mistake made by all types of organizations.
Unfortunately, a company that starts to research prematurely has probably not even correctly identified the source of a problem. This tutorial explain the how to choose research questions for marketing research.
This failure will lead to one of the most frequent mistakes in marketing research, which is to base the research study on the wrong research question. If this is done, the original problem will remain even if the research is conducted correctly because the researchers asked the wrong question.
A problem can be described as a question for which there is currently no answer. When faced with a problem, it is tempting for an organization to start researching the answer immediately.
The temptation to begin researching right away results from the belief that an organization both understands the source of the problem and that the answer is self-evident. However, time will not be saved if a company starts to research immediately. Instead, time and money – will be wasted, as the first analysis of a problem is rarely correct.
Projective, Observational and Netnography Techniques
Projective techniques are used to encourage communication using nonverbal methods of response. They are used when it is difficult for participants to verbally express their feelings.
They include completion tasks and other techniques such as card sorts and thematic appreciation tests. These techniques elicit information through writing, drawing and a variety of ways other than answering verbally.
These techniques, borrowed from psychology, are gaining increased use in marketing. The aim of such projective techniques is to gain insights from participants of which they may not be totally aware. These techniques can be used alone or as part of another research methodology.
Advantages of using projective techniques
Projective techniques are usually combined with other research methods. An advantage of combining the use of projective techniques with other methods, such as focus groups or interviews, is that they provide an additional means of gathering information.
As noted above, projective techniques have the advantage of obtaining information of which participants may not be fully aware. They also allow shy or quiet participants to take part without speaking.
In addition, they can be used to make other research techniques more interesting and participative. One reason for using projective techniques is to gain information on topics that a participant may be unwilling to discuss. This unwillingness may be due to embarrassment regarding the subject. It also may result simply from shyness.
For example, if the research question asks for opinions on adult-themed entertainment, participants may be reluctant to express either too negative or too positive an opinion.
Having these opinions expressed anonymously by having them written allows participants to express views they might not state out loud. Many of the projective techniques can also be used when conducting online focus groups.
The use of projective techniques makes research sessions more interactive and interesting. In today’s technology-driven world, where people have immediate information and entertainment at the press of a button, sitting still while a topic is under discussion can be difficult.
Unless the research participants are very interested in the topic, they may find an hour-long focus group a bit boring.
Projective techniques can be used not just to gather data that cannot be obtained in any other way, but also to keep the research session more interesting. If participants are bored they will not provide the necessary information, while an interactive environment will result in richer data.
Disadvantages of using projective techniques
Projective techniques do not work well with research subjects who are unable to express themselves nonverbally. The idea of drawing a picture or completing a cartoon may be beyond their ability. Others may feel that they will be judged on their creative talents and will therefore not feel comfortable taking the risk.
Another disadvantage to projective techniques is that they are not used as a stand-alone research technique. They must be used to compare and contrast with other verbal information provided by participants.
Types of completion tasks
Thematic appreciation tests
Word association is simply asking for a participant’s first response to a name, photo or event. The idea is to get emotional, rather than intellectual, responses. Word association can be used with individuals or in focus groups or interviews. One example of its use would be if a business was planning a redesign of their store.
A researcher, rather than just describe the store, may show a photo to a focus group and ask the participants to write the first three words that come to mind. Using this technique, a researcher could also show participants a product or photo of a place.
An example of a sentence completion task would be to have the participants complete a sentence on their motivation for choosing a new product. If the research is being conducted regarding a service, participants might be asked to complete a sentence about a happy or unhappy customer that uses this service.
Sentence completion allows for comparison between participant responses. Some responses to the sentences might express the fact that the Corner Cafe is a fun place where people can socialize. Other participants might answer that the Corner Cafe is a place where people drink too much and make trouble.
These negative views might not be expressed using other methods. Researchers can then compare the demographic profiles of those participants who expressed negative views.
Story completion is a bit more challenging for participants. They will be asked to finish a story that a researcher has prepared. For example, story completion could be used when researching how young people view a university.
The participants in this research would be current students who might have difficulty when questioned about why they decided to attend that university.
A more creative and interesting technique would present them with the following story. To see if opinions about the university would vary because of gender, the name Tom could be substituted.
If researchers wanted to see if the story would change by ethnicity or religion, the names Anu, Pierre, Jacob, or Mohammed could be substituted.
Cartoons can also be used as a means for participants to communicate ideas nonverbally. Cartoons can be used to enable participants to, almost literally, put their words into someone else’s mouth.
This can save a participant from the potential embarrassment of stating opinions in front of strangers who may disagree. Another advantage of this technique is that it can make responding to a question more fun.
The cartoon usually consists of two characters with speech bubbles over their heads similar to those in comic books. One character’s speech bubble will ask a question, the other character will have an empty speech bubble in which the participant will put a response.
One character might be saying ‘Hi Alan, I was thinking of visiting the new dance club. Want to go?’
The survey participants will then put their own answers into the other speech bubble. This allows them to communicate their own ideas through someone else. It also assists participants in responding by helping them to picture the circumstances.
When using cartoon completion, the characters shown in the cartoon can be varied by age, gender or ethnicity. This can be used to see if the responses vary based on the consumer characteristics shown in the cartoon.
In addition, the same characters can be used but the product being shown can be varied. This allows researchers to compare and contrast responses based on demographic or psychographic characteristics.
Thematic appreciation test
Thematic appreciation tests are used to give information to participants by using nonverbal means. Even a very skilled researcher may have difficulty describing people, places or products with which participants are unfamiliar. Using thematic appreciation tests, a researcher will show participants a picture or photo and then ask for a written response.
For example, a researcher may show a picture of a specific psychographic group and then ask which products the participants believe the group would buy. Participants might also be shown a picture of a place, such as a concert hall, and asked if this would be a place they would visit.
Alternatively, they may be shown a picture of a product, such as a sneaker, and asked how it could be improved.
Besides saving researchers the difficulty of trying to describe people, places or products, another advantage this technique provides is consistency.
When a researcher describes people, places or products verbally, there is always the possibility that participants will have actually created different mental images based on this description. If this is true, then their responses will not be comparable.
The process of conducting projective research
Using projective techniques requires preparation just as any other form of research does. First of all, an idea must be created that will help to answer a research question.
Projective techniques should not be used simply to engage the attention of participants. Instead, each technique should obtain the information that will help to answer a research question.
Once an idea has been created materials must be prepared. These might include cartoons, drawings, half-completed ads, cards, or any other suitable material. A little creativity and a computer will allow a researcher to find or create interesting and useful materials.
When projective techniques are used, a researcher must explain the reasons for using the technique without leading participants as to what to create. This can be difficult, as participants may look to a researcher to provide the ‘right’ answer.
While people understand how to answer questions verbally, answering them nonverbally may be a new experience. If a researcher finds a group unwilling to cooperate, she or he must be ready with a different technique for obtaining the required information.
Once the research is completed, a researcher must gather and label all the information. The names of participants aren’t important, but their characteristics and the date of the research should be noted as this will help in the analysis of the data.
The data will be examined for the range of responses provided, with the researcher noting common themes and unusual insights. The completed projective material can be very useful when preparing a final report.
Drawings can be reproduced and used in the body of the report or else included in the appendix, while quotes provided through sentence completion may be used verbatim. These examples of projective techniques provide a unique insight into the research subject’s thinking.
The projective technique research process
Have alternatives available
Record and maintain information
Insert examples of completed materials into the report
Another research method that can be used by organizations is observation. Observational research is based on analyzing what people do rather than what they say. The research is conducted without communicating with people, but rather by noting their behavior.
Observational research is being conducted in new ways as technology is now making it possible to ‘observe’ using the internet, scanner-tracking, video and neuroimaging.
Advantages of observational research
Observational research allows researchers to study behavior without involving research subjects. Using this technique can confirm what people actually do rather than what they say they do.
Observational research can also expand perspectives without spending money on more expensive research. In addition, the research subjects do not need to answer questions about behavior that they might find difficult to recall.
Observational research should be considered when a research question calls for confirming the actions of consumers.
For example, a retail organization might want to know if customers have difficulty following the signage to the fitting room facilities in its stores. Rather than ask, they can station someone near the signs to see if customers appear confused.
Another rationale for using observational research is if there is a research question that would be too difficult or expensive to address with another research technique. A downtown association might wish to know if their store’s holiday window displays effectively engage the attention of shoppers.
While an interesting research question, it might be too expensive for them to conduct a survey to ask people if they visited downtown and, if they did so, how effective the window display was in catching their attention.
It would be much cheaper to conduct an observational study in order to see who stopped by to look in the window and how long they stayed.
An important advantage of conducting observational research is that it will determine what people actually do versus what they say they do. Research subjects may give inaccurate information when surveyed about their behavior because they might recall incorrectly what they did either because of inattention or because of a poor memory.
They may also wish to give an answer they perceive as correct or appropriate. If visitors to a museum are asked how they spent their visit, they might respond that they spent the majority of their time contemplating the art. Observational research may find that they actually spent the majority of their time in the gift shop and cafe.
Another occasion for conducting an observational research study is when the research subjects may not remember their actions. For example, a museum can observe the behavior of specific groups of visitors, such as families, to help their organization determine which exhibits attract the most attention.
This method will often give more accurate information than surveying, as most families on their way out will have tired children to get home and might not remember their visit in detail as a result.
Disadvantages of observational research
The disadvantages of observational research include an inability to accurately profile who is being observed. When conducting observational research, it is not possible to ask potential participants questions about demographic characteristics such as their age, education level or income.
Therefore, the sample selection depends on the ability of a researcher to estimate these characteristics. This researcher is also dependent on who happens to be at the location at the time and date when the research is conducted. For example, they might have planned to observe consumer behavior at the shopping mall.
However, if the weather outside is beautiful many young people might be outdoors playing sports. Thus, the sample observed might be older than anticipated and the research effort may not be as effective as originally planned.
Types of observations
There are three distinct types of observational research. When using the complete observer approach, research subjects will not be aware they are under observation.
Another type of observational research is where researchers will participate in the behavior at the same time as they are observing. A third approach is for researchers to completely immerse themselves in a behavior.
When using the complete observer approach, a researcher will have no interaction with participants. Using this method, the marketing researcher should attempt to be invisible to the participants. This can be accomplished through actually being hidden from view.
In this case, the researcher may be watching from a location outside the sightline of customers. If this is not possible, the marketing researcher will try to be almost invisible by not being noticed by the research subjects.
The researcher can stand behind a counter where they will be thought to be just another clerk.
This type of observation is conducted when the presence of the researcher may change the behavior of those being observed (for example, if a marketing researcher wants to observe children at play, as the presence of an unfamiliar researcher would affect how the children interact).
The complete observer approach does not require a researcher to record the data.
The behavior being researched can be videoed and then analyzed. For example, security camera tapes from a store could be examined not for evidence of shoplifting, but to watch how customers interacted with the displays. Below is an interesting example of the type of information that is collected on a routine basis.
Another type of observation has researchers participating in the behavior that is being observed. This type of observation is used when it is impossible to conceal an observer.
In some social settings, the use of a silent person observing a behavior would draw others’ notice. For example, the manufacturer of sports equipment installed in public parks may want to know how the equipment is being used.
Using a video camera in public would be an invasion of privacy and would certainly raise concerns among people using the park. Even a silent observer taking notes might result in calls to the local police.
In this type of situation, an observer might visit the park and bring a book or magazine to read while sitting comfortably on a bench. While they will seem to be just enjoying the park, they will at the same time be observing the behavior of park users.
The problem is that this participation can interfere with observation, which can be handled by having some hidden means of recording data, such as concealing the observation form in the book or magazine.
Another way of handling this issue is for the researcher to observe for only a short time and then record the notes elsewhere. Of course, if a researcher is noticed and asked about their note taking, they should explain what they are doing and the purpose of the research.
It might be wise for the research firm concerned to supply them with an official letter explaining the purpose of the research and who can be contacted for more information.
A third way of conducting observation is for the researcher to be a complete participant. With this method, a researcher engages in the same consumer behavior as the research subjects.
If an airline wants to learn more about the experience of being a passenger on a shuttle flight, a researcher can travel on that flight as just another commuting passenger.
They will not only be able to observe behavior, they will also be able to overhear comments. Because researchers can blend into the action, they don’t have to worry that their presence is distorting the behavior of the research subjects around them.
Designing the observational research process
Observational research involves more than just watching people. If research findings are to be useful it is important that the research methodology is carefully designed and that trained observational researchers are used.
Once a research question has been written, the first step in the process is to determine exactly what behavior should be observed. This question is just as important as asking what questions should be included on a survey form or writing a script for a focus group.
If the wrong behavior is observed, the findings will be useless. For example, a company that designs clothing might want to know more about the relationship between the clothing they produce and teen consumers.
The research questions they might want to be answered could include why teens chose that company’s clothes, what items they chose and how they decided exactly what to buy.
Each question will require a different behavior to be observed. If the company wants to know why teens chose their brand of clothing, observational research will not be appropriate, as observation can reveal what people do, but not why they do it.
If the research question is what items teens chose, an observer can watch young people at the checkouts at a store where that product line is sold. (While a store might have total sales figures in a computer database, this information will not be broken down by age.)
In fact, the salespeople themselves can be trained to gather this information. If the company wants to know how young people chose the company line, they can be observed while they shop.
How a behavior will be observed also needs to be specified. The research descriptions should describe the sample to be observed using demographic terms. The description should also use psychographic terms if attitudes, values, and lifestyles can be determined by observing behavior.
For example, if a company produces skateboards, they may decide upon observational research to discover what types of tricks skateboarders do.
The research directions might provide a demographic description of young males, aged 16–20, who live the skateboard lifestyle. It will be up to researchers to use visual clues to both estimate age and to determine lifestyle, which could be based on the way skateboarders are dressed.
Observation is difficult. It requires patience, attention to detail and the ability to be unobtrusive. When selecting observers, it is important to consider whether they have the patience to sit or stand quietly while watching others.
If someone does not have the necessary patience, no amount of training will correct this. However, training can help observers to pay attention to detail and learn to be unobtrusive.
A well-designed observation form will help to keep an observer watching what needs to be observed rather than any other more interesting behavior they may notice.
An observation form that uses the systematic recording of specific types of behavior during specific time periods will help a researcher stay focused on the important details that are needed to answer a research question.
Shopping research observation form directions
Once at the store, note your location on the form. If people are already shopping, choose three ‘subjects’ to observe. If possible please try to choose a variety of individuals, groups, couples or families. Record the start of the observation for each subject.
Describe the individual subjects and note their behavior every 15 minutes.
Before the observations occur, a researcher should carefully choose a location for the observer to be stationed. This should be a site where the observer can see the relevant behavior without being unduly noticed.
This could be sitting on a chair in a seating area of a department store set aside for customers. It could be leaning against the bar at a nightclub or pushing a grocery cart in a warehouse store. The location should be as comfortable as possible without being too noticeable.
The researcher should first try out various observation time periods and locations to ensure that they will allow the observer to be successful. They should also accompany the observer for the first observation period to ensure that the instructions have been understood.
Observational research process
1.Select the type of behavior to be observed
2.Select the sample to be observed
3.Select a location based on where the sample and behavior can be found
4.Select the time for an observation
5. Write out an observation form
6.Train the observers
7.Conduct the research
8.Analyze any notes and forms
9. Write up the report
10.Present the report
Ethnography is a research technique originally used by anthropologists and sociologists to gather information on how groups of people interact on a daily basis. Rather than ask questions or simply observe behavior, a researcher becomes one of the members of that specific group for a period of time.
This allows researchers to more clearly understand the values and attitudes that underlie a group’s behavior.
Market researchers use ethnography to better understand consumers’ lifestyles, attitudes and product use. Its purpose is to gain a deeper understanding of consumers by studying how they live rather than only asking for their ideas and opinions.
Ethnographic marketing research studies consumer behavior and can take place in a research subject’s home or at their place of employment, although gaining access to conduct research in these settings may be difficult.
While a researcher is involved with a group, they will be keeping track of behaviors by preparing notes and, if possible, gathering photographic or video evidence. For example, a company that designs office furniture might wish to market a new type of office desk.
Rather than use a survey or focus group to ask what features employees might like, the researcher concerned could conduct ethnographic research to learn how employees use office furniture.
To conduct the study, this researcher would remain in the worksite taking notes, talking to key individuals and gathering visual data. The research might reveal that office workers do not have a convenient place to set their cups of coffee and lack a desk area where they can work jointly.
Ethnography is used to study the behavior of groups that would not, or could not, participate in traditional research studies. These groups might be based on lifestyle or demographic factors such as religion or ethnicity.
Another rationale for using ethnography is to gather details of behavior that are so ingrained into the fabric of everyday life that they are difficult for people to describe.
For example, if researchers want to know how families do their laundry so that a better container for laundry detergent can be designed, they can stay with a family on laundry day.
The company can then use this information to make strategic decisions and also to build a stronger relationship with consumers.
Advantages and disadvantages of conducting ethnographic research
The advantage of conducting ethnographic research is that researchers not only observe a behavior, they also share the experience with research subjects. Ethnography, therefore, provides insights that cannot be gained from merely observing or discussing behavior.
In addition, ethnographic research is a valuable tool to use when researching consumers in other cultures where stating your opinions directly to a stranger is not considered appropriate behavior.
One disadvantage of conducting ethnographic research is that it takes time to develop the necessary trust to gain access to a group or family in order to conduct the research.
In order to allow for a behavior to unfold naturally, the research time will need to be longer than for other types of research. In addition, this process must use researchers skilled in this technique so that useful marketing information can be obtained.
The process of conducting ethnographic research
The first step in designing an ethnographic study is to determine the group and the behavior that are to be researched.
The most important decision will be to decide upon the location where this research will take place. The location might be in a store, at home, in the workplace, or at a place where the research subjects socialize.
In addition, researchers must establish trust with the members of the group that is to be observed. Because the researchers may be entering the private space of the research subjects, taking the time to establish trust is imperative. To establish trust both the purpose of the research and the research process should be carefully and fully explained.
Using ethnographic research, a researcher both watches and listens while the subjects go about the behavior under study. If the observation reveals that there are key individuals in a group that are determining the behavior, informal interviews may take place to clarify issues.
Besides watching and listening, a visual record of photos or videotapes may also be taken. All of the data are then analyzed for common behavioral patterns and why these patterns exist.
Ethnographic research process
1. Decide on the research subjects and behavior to be studied
2.Gain their permission and build up trust
3.Observe the behavior of individuals and the group
4. Informally interview key individuals
5.If needed, photograph or video the behavior
6.Analyze the written and visual data
Participant involvement in ethnographic research
A unique aspect of ethnographic research is participant involvement. This can be accomplished by having participants complete logs or diaries, or using photography.
Research subjects can be asked to keep a log of their behavior that can then be analyzed. For example, a fast-food restaurant chain may wish to know more about the lunchtime habits of office workers.
The restaurant’s management may believe that business is falling because more people are taking shorter lunch periods while working at their desks. One method to gain insights is to ask workers to participate in a study where they log in how long they take for lunch each day.
Diaries will ask for more detailed recorded information. For example, teenage girls may be asked to keep a diary of their clothing purchases that also record how they feel about the items bought.
An advantage of combining logs or diaries with ethnographic research is that it can track a research subject’s behavior over time.
The disadvantage is that it is difficult to have people maintain their interest in recording the data in a timely fashion. If they do not, they are likely to go back and fill in entries for previous days with estimated information.
However, this method can easily be adapted to online use which makes the entire process much easier. A research subject can either log onto a website where they will record the information each day, or they can email the researcher with the information. If they forget, the researcher can email them a reminder.
Another method to have research subjects become involved as researchers is to provide them with either digital or video cameras. They can then record objects or interactions that they feel are important.
For example, children might be asked to photograph their favorite toys at home. This material is then provided to the researchers for analysis.
Ethnographic Research Success Stories
Ethnographic marketing research has gained in popularity because of a growing dissatisfaction with the data that are provided by focus groups. Here are a few examples of success stories.
The German company Miele wanted to know more about the cleaning habits of families where someone has an allergy. What they found was the household member using a vacuum cleaner repeatedly over the same surface. As a result, they developed a vacuum with a light that comes on when a surface is dust free.
The phone company HTC watched people use their cell phones. They found that users were fumbling to turn on their phone quickly when a call was received. To simplify the process, they designed the phone to unlock automatically when a call is received and the phone is picked up.
A research study was conducted of surgeons who all said that the overhead lighting in operating rooms was sufficient. Actually, observation of the surgeons found they were constantly moving their heads as it was blocking the overhead lighting. As a result, new lighting sources were introduced.
People cannot always explain what can be improved, but their actions can show how products can be changed to better meet their needs. Question: What other product use could benefit from this type of research?
Social Media Marketing Research
Social media provide new opportunities for conducting research on consumer insights using product reviews, social networking and netnography, which is research of online communities.
While it does not provide quantitative data to prove a hypothesis, social media marketing research can still be used to gain insight into consumer wants and needs. First, online reviews of products and services can tell whether consumer expectations have been met.
Social networking sites can be used to determine trends in consumer preferences by following discussions about a product type to determine what is recommended. Such types of research are still being developed because new forms of social media are always being introduced.
One of the new uses of social media for research is netnography a new form of ethnography. In ethnography, the researcher traveled to the location where the research was undertaken, often a distant part of the world with cultural differences.
Not only would individuals be studied but also the reactions between individuals and between individuals and the environment would be observed.
With the development of technology, the idea of virtual ethnography, or netnography, developed. Rather than the research studying people who live in a specific location, the connection between individuals is studied while they are online, no matter their physical location.
While some details as to how people look and react are lost, other less obvious relations may become apparent. Netnography uses online technology to study relationships that take place only as virtual relationships.
While research that examines download history and types and numbers of clicks is valid research, a researcher uses netnography in an effort to understand the reason why actions are taken.
For example, a researcher might want to know whose opinions are considered valid when shared on a social networking site dedicated to a specific product.
To do so they will first observe the online behavior by being actively engaged on the site by reading the comments. They will then contact specific people who are on the site to ask questions about their behavior.
Netnography involves the analysis of data but also the skill of the researcher in developing and handling online relationships with people. Netnography is conducted by the researcher joining an existing online community.
First, the research question must be determined, which might be on the decision-making process of young professionals buying autos. Once the question is formulated, the appropriate online community must be found that the researcher will join.
Perhaps there are online social groups of young professionals that discuss new car purchases. Next, a schedule of interaction must be developed. To learn about the behavior of a group will take time. The researcher will then go online to both review current comments and to ask questions of community members.
A decision will need to be made as to whether the researcher will join the group by informing them of the purpose of the research or if they will simply join in the conversation noting interesting research findings as they occur.
One of the advantages of publicly declaring the fact that researchers are conducting research is that they can steer the conversation to the research question.
For example, a group of single young professionals may not think of discussing how their decision will be affected if they were in a relationship. The researcher can ask if the decision process would be different. Whether the answer is yes or no, the online comments and conversations will provide insights into the thinking of the group members.
Netnography is different from conducting surveys and interviews because it includes listening to ongoing conversations over time with the researcher as an active participant, the research is conducted as a conversation rather than question and answer.
Netnography research process
1. Decide research question
2. Identify research subjects
3.Find an appropriate online community
4. Listen and analyze conversations
5.Guide conversation to obtain needed information
6. Analyze the data
1. Projective techniques are methods that allow research subjects to respond to questions in ways other than giving verbal answers. These creative techniques allow for interactive participation in the research process, making the experience more enjoyable for subjects and providing researchers with unique insights.
Techniques include completion tasks, such as thematic appreciation tests. Projective techniques can stand alone or be used as part of the focus group or interview process.
2. Observational research is based on analyzing what people do rather than what they say they do. This method allows for subjects to be the focus of research without directly involving them in the research process. This method is useful when research subjects may not remember past behavior as it is simply a routine part of their daily life.
Observation can be conducted without the knowledge of subjects, or researchers can participate in the behavior while conducting research. The observational research process requires a skilled observer who will follow a process of watching and noting subjects’ behavior.
3. Ethnography is a research technique borrowed from other social sciences. It is used to research group behavior that may be difficult for participants to describe. Therefore it is conducted in the environment of the consumer. Ethnography observes reality rather than relying on a description of reality.
To conduct this type of research requires the permission and trust of research subjects and a researcher skilled in the process. First of all the behavior is observed and then any key individuals are informally interviewed.
4. Social media research provides new opportunities for conducting research on consumer insights using product reviews and social networking.
Online reviews of products and services can tell whether consumer expectations have been met, while social networking sites can be used to determine trends in consumer preferences. Netnography uses online technology to study relationships that take place only as virtual
Critical thinking and faulty assumptions
The most common difficulty faced by organizations when starting the research process is making a faulty assumption about the cause of a problem. Assumptions can be thought of as facts that are believed to be correct without proof. Faulty assumptions are often based exclusively on personal experience, rather than on objective fact.
This rush to judge why a problem exists is naturally simpler and quicker than searching for facts, as it takes little critical analysis. Yet just because the cause of a problem seems self-evident, this does not make it true.
An assumption about a new product opportunity that is acted upon without questioning can lead to expensive failures. Therefore, instead of making assumptions, researchers need to take the time to think critically about the true nature of a problem or opportunity.
If a wrong assumption about the cause of a problem or the potential success of an idea is made, the wrong research question will be asked. The company will then design and conduct research which will result in the wrong answer.
As a result of the wrong assumption, a great deal of research time, money and effort will be wasted. One way for market researchers to avoid this situation is to use critical thinking, which is a process of questioning and evaluating assumptions.
Critical thinking is a difficult skill that requires effort and a creative imagination. However, research results will improve by applying critical thinking to the research process.
The Critical Thinking Process
Critical thinking can be thought of as a three-step process. The first step is identifying the pre-existing assumptions held by company employees regarding the cause of a problem or a potential opportunity.
The second step is to use internal research data to challenge whether these same assumptions are accurate and based on fact. The third step is to explore new ideas about the actual source of a problem and its possible solution.
Unfortunately, the second step in challenging assumptions about the cause of a problem is where the critical thinking process often stops. As a result, assumptions are accepted without being questioned.
The reasons for this automatic acceptance include common patterns of thought among company employees and the natural desire most people feel to conform.
If everyone in a company tends to view that company’s product, their consumers and the external world in the same way, it is difficult for researchers to argue against these beliefs.
However, it is these common patterns of thought that can cause a company’s problem and its solution to seem self-evident. These common thought patterns can also keep companies from seeing opportunities that can be explored by using research.
The more prevalent these common patterns of thinking are, the more important it is to challenge such assumptions. And yet if everyone else is sure of the problem and wants to move forward with corrective action, there is a natural desire to conform to their opinion.
Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of market researchers to ask questions about whether such assumptions are based on fact, even when this is unpopular. Only after false assumptions have been eliminated can new ideas based on true facts be proposed.
For example, a company that produces bulletin boards targeted at university students for use in dorm rooms might be faced with the dilemma of declining sales.
In an initial marketing meeting about the problem, the sales department might suggest that the problem is caused because the product is too expensive for students to purchase. This answer is based on the assumption that all students are on limited budgets and would purchase this item if they could afford to do so.
The sales department may then recommend the product price be lowered. The production department staff might assume that bulletin boards are at the end of the product lifecycle and no longer needed.
They may recommend that the bulletin boards be dropped from the product line. This answer is based on the assumption that students keep all their information on their computers and have ‘paper-free’ dorm rooms. Both answers seem to be based on true assumptions – students do lack significant financial resources and they do use computers.
Using internal data to challenge assumptions
However, in this case, market researchers should challenge the assumption that sales are down because students cannot afford this product – by asking if students’ limited budgets keep them from purchasing other products.
The answer can be found by analyzing internal company data on student spending. The data might demonstrate that students are still spending money on this company’s other product offerings and therefore are able to make such a purchase.
The second assumption (that dorms are now paper-free and therefore bulletin boards are obsolete) could be checked by interviewing the company’s sales staff who will be familiar with student dorm rooms.
Here evidence would be found that bulletin boards were still needed for a variety of uses, such as posting photos or menus from pizza restaurants that deliver.
Internal data found through this process may be sufficient to prove or disprove assumptions at this stage of the research process. While this may seem to slow the process down, time will be saved in the long run because the correct research question will be the end result.
Even large, successful businesses must routinely go through this process. When Disney first introduced its films into the Indian market they were not a hit with audiences.
They realized that their assumptions of what people wanted in a film were based on their American model.
After researching consumer assumptions, they made the decision to produce films locally, in India, so that the content better reflected the local culture. This same model is now being used in China, Russia, Latin America, and South Korea.
Generating new ideas
With the initial assumptions dealt with and any wrong assumptions discarded, it is time for the final step in the critical thinking process. This is to explore new ideas regarding the problem or potential opportunity.
This step in the process demonstrates why market researchers’ knowledge of a product and target market is essential. Using this product and consumer knowledge shortens the process of generating and developing new ideas.
This is because a researcher will have already challenged many of the assumptions and will have a knowledge base about the product and consumers on which to form new ideas.
This is one reason why market researchers will often specialize in conducting research on a product category or specific market segment. If a market researcher does not have this information, additional external secondary research will be needed.
In the example above of why students were not buying bulletin boards, a researcher might check sales figures from the finance office for other products aimed at the university market to see if they have also suffered a decline.
In addition, they might interview employees in the sales department who are knowledgeable about the university’s student market segment. By doing so they might obtain information that students are in fact buying bulletin boards – they are just buying a competitor’s model!
A research question can now be asked as to how to improve the product. The question might be phrased as ‘What additional product features and benefits need to be added to meet the competitive threat?’ A company will now be ready to invest time and money in designing research to find the correct answer.
Making a correct assumption
Not every problem requires extensive critical thinking. Sometimes the assumptions made about the cause of a problem are clear to everyone in a company, including the researchers.
For example, if the owners of a local coffee shop see customers’ cars across the street in the parking lot of the recently opened Starbucks, the problem is clear. Little questioning is needed to challenge the assumption that the customers left because they are buying that competitor’s product.
However, if the coffee shop’s owners, who take pride in their product, conducted additional research, they might find that customers want more than a cup of coffee.
Yet even when assumptions as to the cause of a problem are correct, critical thinking skills must still be used when deciding what research is needed. The next step for the coffee shop owners here would be to plan research to decide what action to take to counter the competitive threat.
For example, the owners might have a number of ideas on how to counter the threat, which could include lowering prices or increased promotion. The problem is that the owners will not know which idea might work.
In this case, research on how other coffee shops have responded to competition should be conducted before a plan of action is devised.
After checking with other local coffee shops, the owners may find that more than one idea can be used to successfully regain customers. However, the owners may only have enough resources to implement one idea.
If this is so, research would be needed to confirm which approach would motivate the most consumers to return from Starbucks.
Obtaining Internal Secondary Data to Help in Critical Thinking
Information which is internal to a company will be needed during the critical thinking process to challenge assumptions and to help define problems. Rather than searching for the ‘right’ answer to a question, at this point in the process, a researcher should realize that there may be several right answers, parts of which must be integrated into the final answer.
Researchers can obtain existing information by analyzing internal company data. To do so they can interview company personnel who have relevant information about the problem.
All companies have at least some available data that can be used by researchers. For example, data gathered together in usable form as the result of previous research may already exist.
The marketing department in a larger company usually routinely conducts consumer research when developing new products or new promotion campaigns. These research data would be kept in a marketing information database in order that they would then be available to assist in answering future research questions.
Also available to the researcher is raw data that come from other departments in a company. For example, even small companies have sales receipts that researchers can use to learn where their customers live. In addition, customer complaint forms will provide useful information on product improvement ideas.
A company’s financial records will also give information on sales activity by time period and region. If a company is large enough to have a customer database, the data it contains will provide information on customers’ purchase habits.
Data on product service requests can provide insights as to possible design problems, while catalog orders display information on customers’ geographic location.
Finally, website hits will let a company know how many people are accessing the information. In fact, companies may have a significant amount of internal data already that could be analyzed.
Obtaining existing internal data from people
There will also be company employees with information that will be useful to researchers. Which employees researchers should speak with is partly determined by the nature of the problem.
If a company is faced with the problem of falling sales revenue, there may be a variety of departments within that company that will have employees who should be interviewed.
For example, interviewing someone in the finance department to provide an analysis of revenue figures may answer the question of whether the decline in sales has been a reoccurring phenomenon or is a surprising event after years of increased sales.
The production department may be able to provide information on any changes in a product’s quality. Staff should be able to answer questions such as if they believe any changes in the production process have affected sales.
The human resources department might not be the first port of call for researchers, but they also might be able to provide the necessary information.
Their staff should be able to answer questions such as whether the increasing difficulty of hiring good sales personnel has negatively affected sales. The sales force can be a wonderful source of information.
They can be asked if they have noticed any changes in the purchasing habits of the consumer segment that usually purchases the product.
Conducting internal interviews
Gathering information from internal sources should be handled in the same professional manner as conducting research outside of an organization. The researcher who is conducting interviews should prepare beforehand a set of questions that need to be asked. The answers should be carefully noted during the interview for later analysis and reference.
To prevent any confusion if it is necessary to go back for additional information, the researcher should record the name and title of the interviewee and also the date and time of the interview.
Besides gathering facts, the researcher should also use the interview questions to learn more about what the company employee feels is the reason for the problem.
If an employee gives more than one reason, they should be asked to prioritize these as to importance. Once the most important problem has been decided upon, the researcher should then ask the employee why they believe this is true and what evidence or insight led them to this conclusion.
Asking for concrete examples of the problem that they have experienced in their department will also help to clarify the issue at hand. Finally, asking the interviewee if they would recommend anyone else that should be spoken with could assist in uncovering additional useful information.
Obtaining existing internal data from social media
Another source of existing internal data is what people are doing on a company’s social media accounts. While having many customers like your social media account may be flattering, these are not the data that are helpful in developing company strategy.
However, demographic and geographic information available through social media analytics can be used to help refine the segmentation of the current customer. Geographic information can describe where current users of social media live. This information can be helpful in deciding where to target promotional campaigns.
If the company notices that its website is getting lots of hits from a neighboring country, they may decide that it could be of use to increase its promotion to that area. If the company is going to expand to a new physical location, geographic information can provide data on where to open a new location.
Social networking sites can provide even more demographic information. For example, they can provide data on gender and age. This will also help to refine the company’s segmentation profile.
Information on income and occupation may also be available. While social media can be used to conduct primary research, there are already existing data that can also be used.
Deciding not to conduct additional research
Conducting market research takes time, costs money and uses staff resources. There are occasions when a marketing researcher will recommend that research is not conducted. It may be that initial discussions with internal personnel regarding an issue have provided enough information to correct a problem.
Perhaps such a problem resulted merely from a breakdown in communication flow within an organization. While this is certainly a problem that must be addressed, it is not one that needs research to be undertaken by a marketing department.
Another reason for research not being conducted is when answering the question will cost more than the problem. A company that produces backpacks in black only might plan a $5,000 research project on what other colors consumers might prefer.
However, the sales department may estimate that offering the product in various colors will result in an increase in sales of only $3,000. In this case, the additional revenue exceeds the cost, and the study should not be conducted.
Use Your Own Internal Data!
Research is an ongoing responsibility, not an occasional activity. Every time someone in the company is in contact with customers, they should see it as a research opportunity. Here are a few situations where research data can be collected:
New Customers: If a customer is new, be sure and ask how they heard about the product or company. If they say that they discovered you on social media, ask which site and what other sites they use.
Returning Customers: You need to be sure and ask what motivated them to return. This way you can determine if any of your marketing campaigns have resulted in purchases.
Sales Calls: While you might be excited about closing a sale, don’t forget to ask who referred the prospect to the company. These individuals should be tracked and then thanked
Product Problems: Rather than only offering an apology and a refund, take this opportunity to do some research. Ask what was wrong, but also ask what went right. This information can be used to improve future products.
Question: If a customer at clothing store is returning a product, what should be asked and recorded?
Determining the Research Question
Writing a research question that clearly states the problem to be researched takes considerable thought. Since this question is the rationale for the all research that will be conducted, it is well worth the effort to make sure that it is focused on the correct problem.
In addition, a research question will need to address what current or potential consumers will need to be asked to learn more about a problem. A well-written research question will make planning the remainder of the research study much easier.
It is sometimes thought that once a question has been written, this step in the process is completed. But the process of determining the question will ultimately affect the type of study that is conducted. Because this is true, considerable thought and reflection are necessary. This is particularly true in qualitative studies.
The question might even evolve once the research is underway as the population is better understood. This may result from learning that the initial assumptions on which the question was based were wrong.
When conducting internal research, researchers may uncover many different possible research questions that could be asked. The following three-step decision-making process of writing, prioritizing and choosing based on cost-benefit analysis can help to clarify which research questions should be asked.
To begin with, after gathering information from internal data and people, a marketing researcher will state the general problem that needs to be addressed. Researchers will then write down the possible research questions that address the issue.
After this has been done, a researcher will prioritize the relevant possible research questions that have been discovered through internal research. Nearly all problems are complex and there will be more than one insight that could be researched.
For example, the problem of declining purchases of carbonated soft drinks by young consumers could give rise to a research question addressing the effectiveness of a company’s current promotion campaign.
Another suggested research question might address the packaging of a product, while a third might suggest that price is the issue a research question should focus upon.
Researchers now analyze the potential benefits of the data that would be obtained from those questions that have been prioritized as most important versus the cost of the research.
The cost of conducting a research study includes not only financial costs but also staff resources and time.
Some of the financial costs of research will include the money spent on determining appropriate participants and designing a research instrument.
Conducting the research will also involve such financial costs as distributing survey forms, making phone calls, paying participants and conducting focus groups. In addition, if the staff does not have the specialized skills required, they will face the expense of hiring extra personnel.
All this activity also takes up staff time which in turn cannot be devoted to other marketing tasks and responsibilities. A research project can take a significant time commitment – anywhere from weeks to months to complete.
Only after taking all these financial and staff factors into consideration, are researchers ready to decide which research question an organization should address?
Purpose of the research question
Good research starts with data, which are turned into information to provide companies with the knowledge they need to solve problems.
Researchers must always remember that research is conducted for the purpose of solving a company’s problems. For research to be useful, researchers must have an understanding of their company’s needs, and not just a knowledge of research methodology.
To provide the necessary information it is important to have the right research question, stated correctly. The research question may be stated in either an interrogative or declarative style.
An interrogative research question identifies the information needed in question form: for example, ‘What type of media are the best means to communicate promotions to college-age males?’
A declarative research question identifies the information needed as a statement: for example, ‘The purpose of this research is to determine the best media to use when communicating promotions to college-age males’. Either form can be used as the start of a research proposal.
Research questions and research approaches
Research issues may be expressed with questions that start with ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’, such as ‘Why have young people stopped purchasing our soft drinks?’ or ‘How can we use online promotion to regain our market share of young soft drink consumers?’ These will most likely result in an exploratory research approach that is qualitative.
This is because researchers do not have enough information to state the question more narrowly. Therefore, they may anticipate that many different answers from participants will result and that the answers may vary greatly.
Research issues may also be expressed with questions that start with ‘What?’, ‘Who?’ or ‘How many?’ Questions such as ‘What is the most popular sport among university students?’,
‘Who is the purchase decision maker in families when a new auto is bought?’ and ‘How many consumers will prefer to have our product sold online?’ are all questions that will result in descriptive, quantitative research.
Researchers should never first decide the type of research methodology and then phrase the question to justify its use. Instead, the research methodology should be determined by the type of question.
Writing the question
For both quantitative and qualitative studies, the question itself needs to be as narrowly defined as possible. To do so, researchers must define the who, where, what, when and how that will be used in the question.
This includes whose behavior is of concern to the researchers. For example, the question as to why young consumers are purchasing fewer soft drinks could be improved by defining what age group is meant by ‘young’ consumers. They also must decide if they want this information on all young consumers or only those from a certain income level.
Researchers should also be concerned about where the behavior under study is taking place. For example, they must decide if they mean all young consumers nationally or only those living in urban areas.
The geographic area might also be defined by where the product is sold. In the case of company expansion, the area might also be where a product will be sold in the future.
Researchers must also establish the time frame for the behavior that is being studied. For example, the research question might ask about changes in behavior in the last month, last year or longer.
In addition, researchers must define what products they are studying. For example, are they interested in the sales of all of a company’s soft drink products, or only a certain brand, package style or size?
The question could be rephrased as, ‘Why are sales of our fruit-flavored soft drinks declining among young, single females, aged 18–24, living in metropolitan areas, and who are financially independent of their families?’ The question could be further improved by more clearly defining the ‘Why?’ in the above question.
It could be clearly stated as ‘due to increased concern about healthy eating’. Of course, this may not be possible if the researchers have not been able to come to this conclusion before the start of the research process.
The question of ‘How can we regain our market share of young soft drink consumers?’ also needs to be stated more specifically because there can be so many possible means to regain market share.
The means could include price decreases, packaging changes, product enhancements or new promotional campaigns. Most companies will not have the resources to plan and conduct primary research to answer all of these questions.
The final decision on which question to research will be based on analyzing the benefits of the research versus the cost.
After considering these factors, the final question could be restated as, ‘What type of promotional message will motivate purchase of our fruit-flavored soft drink by health-conscious females, aged 14–18, living at home in suburban areas, over the next year?’
In India Product Packaging Communicates More than a Brand Message
A KitKat candy bar in India tells people to take a break, but not just for a treat. The package also informs the consumer that there is ‘No Break from Education’. KitKat and other products such as Folgers Coffee have joined in an effort in India to encourage education for girls.
While it is not new for companies to promote social causes, in India it is the law. The law requires that 2 percent of net profit be used on corporate social responsibility.
For the promotion of social causes to be successful, two factors must be considered. First, the company must be sincere about the social cause they are promoting. Second, even if the cause is good, the package branding still must attract consumers.
In 2011 Coca-Cola decided to draw attention to the concern of the declining number of polar bears by selling Coke in an all white can. It is doubtful if the message came across successfully as the product did not sell. The color white simply didn’t communicate the taste of cola in a positive manner.
Question: How would you research consumers to determine what social cause to promote?
There are general rules that should be remembered when a research question is written. First, the question should be an assertion of fact on which the researcher takes a side.
It should not be stated in vague terms such as ‘The reason for declining sales may be a lack of promotion’. The purpose of the research will be to determine if it is, or if it isn’t. Therefore, the researcher must decide which way to state the question – but it cannot be both ways.
In addition, the researcher must state the question so that it argues only one point of fact. The question ‘Are sales declining because of a lack of promotion or because of increased competition?’ is actually two research questions.
Different methodologies and different research participants may be needed for each. Thus if the researcher tries to combine them, the research may answer neither question.
Lastly, a research question must pass the ‘So what?’ test. Does the question generate enough interest from management that they will be willing to approve the research?
The answer must lead to a recommendation that will either significantly increase revenue or decrease expenses, or it will not be approved. Research questions can be developed for any component of the marketing mix and, also, the target market segment and consumer behavior.
1. Too often organizations will start research without critically thinking through the problem that they are confronting. As a result, an organization will make a faulty assumption about the cause of a problem and the wrong research question will be asked. If the wrong question is asked the data will not be helpful to the company.
The time and expense of conducting research will have been wasted. Therefore, marketing researchers must carefully think through all possible causes of a problem.
2. Following the three-step, critical thinking process will help researchers challenge commonly held assumptions to ensure that when the research question is written it will focus on finding an answer to the appropriate problem.
The first step is to identify such commonly held assumptions. These should then be challenged on the basis of internally obtained data. Finally, if the assumptions are proved false, new ideas as to the cause of the problem should be generated.
3. To be able to challenge assumptions, the researchers need to gather as much internal company information from the data and people as possible. They can obtain these data from sources such as sales receipts, databases and service requests.
They can also interview company personnel in production, sales, and human resources to better understand how each department views the problem. In addition, social media are also a source of information.
4. After gathering internal information the researchers will be ready to write the research question. Because the process of gathering internal information may result in more than one research question, the researchers should use the decision-making process to assist in deciding which of these to pursue.
The research question that will be used to obtain this knowledge can be written as a question or as a statement but should be as clear as possible as to what data are needed. It must also clearly define the research problem.
The Research Proposal
How Much Research is Enough?
Research of travelers in the UK, Canada, and the USA studied how they went about the travel purchase decision. It is now common to use online travel booking and review sites to research potential holiday destinations, but no one knew how much research was being done by potential travelers. The answer was, a lot! Who does the most research?
It is Canadians, who make 161 visits to travel sites in the 45 days before booking. Americans make 140 visits, while the British were quicker to make up their minds with only 121 visits. Why does it take so many visits?
Because the research is not just to find details of cost and distance, it is being conducted to find inspiration. People go online feeling the vague need to get away. They then discover online where they want to go.
It might be thought that there is no role for traditional advertising to play in influencing the travel decision. This is not true, as 65 percent of Canadian, 59 percent of British and 47 percent of US travelers recalled seeing a travel ad while researching information online.
The fact that consumers are researching online does not mean that there is no role for advertising. It means that companies that supply products and services to travelers need to know on which online travel sites they should be placing their promotional information.
Question: How would you find information on which travel sites are most used by the people living in your country?
Writing the Proposal
The research process starts when management becomes aware of a general problem. After all, companies do not conduct pure research just for the sake of ‘knowing’.
The problem may become apparent because revenue is negatively impacted due to falling sales. Management may become aware of negative comments about the company or product on social media.
Both cases suggest there is a problem but do not provide enough information in order to correct what is being done wrong. On the positive side, a problem might involve the need to research if a new product will lead to increased profit.
After management, along with researchers, have defined the general problem, the research objective will be stated. Finally, a more specific research question will be asked.
Any organization contemplating conducting research should start by analyzing internal data to help clarify the issue that is causing concern and then should formulate a research question.
Once the decision has been made that primary research needs to be conducted to answer the research question, the organization should write a research proposal.
Writing such a proposal would be a requirement for someone working in a marketing research company. In this case, the proposal will be a formal document that includes all details of the proposed research, along with staff assignments, a timeline for completion and a budget with cost estimates.
A marketing research firm should spend considerable effort in writing such proposals as they form the basis for contracts between marketing research firms and client companies. For large corporations, a research proposal will be written internally and then sent to management for approval.
However, it is also recommended that small businesses and nonprofit organizations planning to conduct research should first write a proposal as well. In this case, the document is for internal use as an informal contract and planning guide.
If there is a concern raised during the research process regarding the cost of conducting research, this proposal will remind everyone concerned of the committee agreed upon.
The proposal also serves as a basis for allocating tasks and assigning responsibility within organizations. The time that is spent on writing a proposal will be saved later on when there is no need to renegotiate resources.
A well-written research proposal will answer any questions that management, other employees or board members might have about the research that is to be conducted. These questions would include:
Why? The subject of the research
How? Which research method will be used
When? The time the research will take
Where? The place or contact method
What? The documentation that will be presented at the end of the research
Reasons for writing a research proposal
In summary, there are important reasons why the research proposal should always be written before the research starts. First, it is the plan of action or the ‘map’ of what is to be accomplished.
Just as it is a good idea to have a road map before beginning a journey to make sure that the desired destination is reached, a research proposal will ensure that researchers end up with the desired information.
Second, it is the basis of a contract. A research proposal ensures that everyone agrees on what is to be accomplished, at an estimated cost, and with the necessary resources. Third, it is a method of accountability that can be used to keep research on track.
Too often managers use research to find data to support a decision they have already made, rather than finding information to help make a decision. The process of writing a research proposal will help clarify management’s thinking. Another reason is that the proposal might be required by the company commissioning the research.
Components of a Research Proposal
A research proposal is essentially a ‘game plan’ of what will be done. It can vary in length from a single page to as many as 20 pages, depending on the size and complexity of a research project. Regardless of the length, a proposal should consist at least of three sections and appendices.
The first section describes a problem by providing an introduction and stating the research objective and research question. The second section describes the methodology including the research approach, method, and data collection plan.
The section on analysis and findings will contain information on how the data will be analyzed and how the findings will be reported. The appendices will contain detailed information on the budget, personnel needs, timeline, and other relevant information.
Components of a research proposal – the problem
The first section of the plan, ‘The Problem’, describes the background to a problem and the rationale for undertaking research.
The information used to define this problem will have already been obtained through internal secondary research and also through interviewing relevant company personnel. The first section of the proposal will also describe the research objective and research question.
The introduction will include information on who is the author of the proposal and who will be conducting the research. It will also state under whose authority the proposal is being submitted.
The proposal starts with this information to provide legitimacy to its contents. It is especially important to inform the readers of the department or official who has requested or who will benefit from the research.
After all, if the research proposal is approved, time and money will need to be spent. It is much more likely that the research proposal will be approved if it is explained how an organization will benefit from the research.
If this is not done, management may believe that a marketing department wants to do the research because of their own interests, rather than any larger organizational need.
However, rather than initiate action on their own, marketing departments will usually view research of such issues as potential product improvement ideas and potential consumer market segments to target as a result of a request from management or from another department in a company.
The research request is usually initiated because of a change in the external environment, such as a threat from a new competitor, or in the internal environment, such as declining revenue.
Once the request to conduct research has been made, it is not uncommon for company personnel to be unable to state the exact cause of a problem. It is the responsibility of marketing researchers to conduct the internal research to clarify a problem so that the right research objective is undertaken.
For example, a department may be facing decreased sales revenue. Management’s first guess as to the reason for this problem may be ineffective advertising. As a result of this belief, management may state the research objective as ‘to determine new, more effective promotional ideas’.
However, after meeting with management and conducting internal research it may become apparent to marketing researchers that the real reason for the decline in revenue is that a competitor is offering a new product that is stealing customers away.
The marketing department might then recommend that a better research objective would be ‘to determine what product improvements are needed to meet the competitive threat’. This new objective will result in a very different research question.
Such information on the objective of the research and the research question is included after the introduction of a report to help readers understand the overall reason for a proposal. The research objective would be the facts or information that researchers hope to find, while the research question would detail the specific data that are needed.
It is important to understand the difference between a general problem, a research objective, and a research question. Management will usually state the problem to the marketing department in very general terms. However, the research objective and question must be narrower in scope.
The research objective section will start with a description of what is currently known about the problem under consideration. This description would result from information obtained through internal secondary research that was conducted by researchers before writing a research proposal.
Internal information, such as financial and sales data (along with opinions from internal experts), would assure readers that the research question was based on accurate assumptions. This section provides the justification for the research.
Once a research objective has been clarified it is the responsibility of marketing researchers to suggest potential research questions.
Using the research objective of the feasibility of introducing a new line of furniture for ‘tweens’, the research question might be to determine the marketing mix for a new line of furniture aimed at the ‘tween’ market.
A researcher might then rewrite the general research question to be more specific. Potential research questions might focus on the consumer, product, promotion, price or place.
Examples of research questions
Consumer: Who is the target market segment for the product?
Product: What type of social media influences the purchase decision of customers?
Promotion: Who should the promotion be aimed at?
Price: What price is the target market willing to pay?
Place: Where should the product be sold?
At this point in the process, there may be more than one research question. A proposal should state which of the research questions are of primary importance and which are secondary.
After all, at the proposal stage, there is no guarantee that an organization will fully fund any research. If necessary, researchers can scale back research by eliminating the research to answer the second question. This will then decrease the cost of the research and lower the budget.
It is also important in a proposal for researchers to clarify what will not be researched. For example, research on the feasibility of introducing a new line of furniture will not take into consideration current product improvement ideas.
There is often a desire by management to attempt to save money by asking too many research questions at one time. However, if too many subjects are attempted all at once, the research findings will become confused.
Components of a research proposal – the methodology
The second section of the proposal, ‘The Methodology’, would explain the research methodology, including the approach and method that will be used to answer the research question and the data collection plan. It should not be assumed that those reading the proposal are familiar with research terms and methods.
Therefore, when discussing the methodology, it is important that a proposal both explains and clarifies the meaning of such terms as ‘descriptive’, ‘exploratory’ and ‘causal’, as these words might be used differently by managers.
If researchers suggest that research should be conducted with more than one approach and method, it is especially important for a proposal to explain the reasons for doing so.
For example, a research problem might state the need to determine why consumers do not use car share services such as Uber.
The proposed methodology might include both exploratory qualitative research to obtain information on the reasons, followed by descriptive survey research to confirm the focus group findings. Consumer research might start with a focus group.
The insights from this research might suggest that people are unaware of how the service operates and may also provide a number of promotional ideas that would build awareness and encourage use.
The next step in the plan might be to conduct descriptive research using a survey to confirm which specific promotional ideas will most likely result in motivating use. It would be important to explain why both approaches were needed to meet the objectives of the research and answer the research question.
Once an approach has been explained, a written proposal should provide as much information as possible about the method.
The more thoroughly a research method is detailed, the more management will feel confident in approving the proposal. In addition, the more planning that is done before the start of the research, the easier the research will be to conduct.
If a company needs to conduct research in another country, a proposal should also address how the methodology will need to be adapted.
This would include the need to partner with local firms to gain access to cultural knowledge. In addition, the timeline may need to be adjusted to allow more time for project completion.
For example, if a proposal suggests focus groups be conducted, the proposal should state the number of focus groups, who the participants will be and the topics to be discussed.
In addition, it should also explain how many people will participate and how they will be chosen. Logistical details such as dates, times and locations should be given. Finally, the choice of moderator for the focus group will also need to be discussed.
Thus the proposal information on focus groups encompasses:
Number of groups
Number of participants in each group
How participants will be chosen
Length of time for focus groups
Names of moderators
Locations where focus groups will be held
Starting date for focus groups
Date when focus groups will be completed
When research involves conducting descriptive quantitative research such as surveys, proposals should include information on both their method and the participants. This would include information on the length of the survey and the type of questions to be asked.
Proposals should also describe the procedure for testing survey forms. Information on sampling plans and how participants will be chosen should also be included. Finally, how researchers will analyze the data should be discussed.
The proposal information for a survey should encompass:
When the survey will be conducted
The length of the survey form
The type of questions to be asked
An example of a survey question
A testing plan for the survey questions
A sampling plan for choosing the participants
A contact method for the survey form
Any technology that will be used to disseminate the form
The number of forms that should be completed
The analysis method for the data collected
What a proposal does not need to include is a detailed description of the research technique. At this point in the process, researchers cannot prepare a final focus group script or survey questionnaire as this will need additional research time. If possible, examples of techniques from previously conducted research should be included.
These would give management an idea of the type of research instruments that will be used without committing researchers to exact questions. If the methodology is new, such as netnography online research, researchers will need to supply additional information as to why the method is being proposed.
Marketing Research Companies and Technology
Traditional marketing research companies have been affected as more research is being done online. Since the technology of conducting an online survey is easy to use, businesses are wondering why they should hire research professionals. Here are some predictions on how traditional marketing research firms will be affected:
More research studies will be conducted internally by companies (DIY research).
Studying online communities will mean research procedures will need to be more flexible.
Short intercept surveys will become more common at the expense of long-term studies.
Answering questions on behavior rather than demographics will be valued.
Data analysis will be the new prized skill.
Finally, as more research will be done internally, traditional marketing research firms will offer new services to solve problems, such as customer advocacy and engagement, rather than just provide the answers to questions.
Question: What kind of research question for a small company would require the services of a marketing research firm? Why is this so
Components of a research proposal – analysis and findings
The final section, ‘Analysis and Findings’, describes how the data will be analyzed and reported.
This section would include information on how the coding of transcripts or notes from focus groups will be used to find common responses and themes. It would also include how survey data will be analyzed, including any software packages that will be used.
A proposal should be very specific about what information will be provided to management and in what format. The research deliverables might include not just a final report but also ongoing feedback.
This might be done informally through phone calls and email. Management may be offered regularly scheduled meetings and weekly reports during the research process.
The more the research costs, the more management will want to be kept abreast of progress. This is also helpful for researchers as any misunderstandings can be clarified and rectified immediately, rather than having disappointed clients at the end of the process when it is too late to make changes to the methodology.
In addition to ongoing feedback, the research deliverables will include written documentation such as a formal report and a verbal presentation. Sometimes the final report may be provided in an alternative format, such as video.
Management may also be provided with completed survey forms, tape recordings or videos of focus groups, and survey data files. For this reason, it is important that researchers be careful to keep all documentation during the research process.
Researchers will also need to make a formal presentation of their findings to management. This will allow management to ask questions regarding the impact the research findings may have on strategy. While it is management’s decision what action to take as a result of the research, researchers can help to clarify the meaning of their findings.
Any final material contained in the appendices of a research proposal could include a breakdown of costs, personnel needs, a time schedule for completion, examples of the research methods and any technical details of the data analysis technique.
It is important that a detailed timeline is provided in the research proposal, as it is not unusual for management to not understand that good research takes time. For this reason, just giving a start and end date should be avoided. A proposal should also provide a breakdown of when each task will be completed.
A sample proposal timeline for a survey could be as follows:
In addition to the timeline, a proposal should contain a budget for expenses. It is not necessary to provide a breakdown of all expenses. If the expenses seem higher than management is willing to pay, researchers might wish to present two research scenarios at different cost levels.
However, a proposal should also explain how the research will be impacted if the research proposal with the smaller budget is chosen.
It is also important that a proposal provides details in the appendices on the personnel that will be needed to conduct research. Not only the number of people but also the number of hours they will be working on the research need to be explained. Labor costs are often a large component of a marketing research budget.
This may be due to the number of people who will be needed to conduct a survey, or it may be the cost of hiring a professional moderator for focus groups. If specific personnel will be needed they should be mentioned by name to ensure their availability for the research project.
The appendices should also contain a statement of confidentiality. This statement would explain that any information about a company discussed during meetings with researchers will be kept confidential.
In addition, a proposal must state whether the research methodology created to conduct the research belongs to the marketing research firm concerned or the company commissioning the research.
Lastly, what will happen to all the resulting documentation will need to be explained. A proposal may state that all documentation such as completed survey forms, tapes or notes will be returned to the company commissioning the research, or will be destroyed.
The issue of confidentially is especially important when the research involves new product development and other strategic issues. The time an outside marketing research company spends on a proposal should be seen as a necessary investment to get the job.
The Research Industry
Marketing research can be conducted internally by company employees or a company may hire an external firm to conduct research. During the process of writing a research proposal, a company must make the decision whether to conduct the research themselves or to hire an external market research firm.
The use of online platforms that can be used to develop survey questions and the ability to disseminate the survey using social media have made it easier for companies to conduct research internally.
The decision to hire an external firm could be based on the fact that that company does not have the staff, expertise or time to conduct the research internally.
If the decision is made to hire an external research provider, it is important to understand the composition of the marketing research industry. It is also important for those making the choice of which firm to hire to understand the general guidelines in choosing a research supplier.
Choosing a research supplier is an important decision that should be given adequate time and attention.
Structure of internal marketing research departments
The marketing research needed to answer a research question can, of course, be conducted by company employees. Who is involved in conducting the research depends on the size of the company? A large corporation, such as Coca-Cola,
Proctor & Gamble and General Mills, has the financial resources to have a specialized consumer research department within their general marketing department. Many large companies are even willing to hire student interns so they can learn more about marketing research.
The place of a marketing research department in an organizational chart varies. It may be a centralized department reporting directly to top management. Or it may be decentralized with separate marketing research divisions for different product lines, consumer market segments, or countries or regions in which a company operates.
Employees who work in these specialized consumer research departments are usually highly skilled with degrees in marketing. In fact, many of these positions require a researcher to have an advanced degree in business or statistics. Even entry-level positions will at minimum require a Bachelor’s degree.
While this is the type of research department of which people may be most aware, marketing research is also conducted in small corporations, small businesses and sole proprietorships run by entrepreneurs.
Small corporations without national or global reach will have a marketing department where employees are expected to handle a number of different marketing functions, including research.
If a company has specialized research needs the employees to feel they cannot handle, jobs will be contracted to external marketing research firms.
Small businesses may not even have a separate marketing department; a single employee may be responsible for all the marketing functions. This employee may have a degree in business but may or may not have taken a marketing research class.
Many people are the sole proprietors of their own business. These business people will perform all the management and marketing functions. These include informal marketing research, although these people may not always think of it in these terms. They might just call it ‘keeping on top of what my customers want’.
External providers of marketing research
The decision to hire an external firm may be made even when a company has a research department. This occurs when an organization feels they do not have the staff available to conduct research or they need expertise that they simply do not have.
This expertise might be in research with a specific target market segment, such as young ethnic males, or may require a specialized research tool, such as observational research. External marketing research providers can be categorized as advertising agencies, syndicated firms, and custom marketing research firms.
Research is one of the many services offered by advertising agencies. They have internal research departments that deal with such issues as finding the correct marketing message and the best image to represent a client company. They also research the best media to use to reach a specific target market.
Syndicated research firms
These companies are in business to collect data on a continuing basis regarding the consumption of a specific product or products or the purchasing behavior of a specific target market segment. These data are then sold to companies, which specify how many data they want and the analysis they require.
The more data and analysis that are requested, the higher the price. What a syndicated research firm does not do is conduct research specifically designed for a single company.
For example, some marketing research companies specialize in collecting information on social media use. Anyone, including the public, can buy the products they sell by visiting their websites.
What Does the Company Want? The Request for Proposal (RFP) Tells You
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) was interested in how it could attract more tourists from China. Specifically, they needed information to further develop the China market for Hawaii, so it sent out a request for proposal (RFP) asking marketing research firms if they were interested in conducting the research.
They were looking for a research firm to conduct focus groups and an online survey targeted at those Chinese living in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong with an income that allows them to afford a holiday outside of Asia (individual income over 6,000 RMB/month).
HTA stated in the proposal that they also wanted the chosen firm to:
Advise on best practice for the collection of research data
Ensure that the data provided were sufficient for analysis purposes
Ensure quality controls
Analyze the data to meet all HTA research requirements
Ensure representative samples and results
The RFP also specified exactly what the HTA required in return for payment. The deliverables were:
A succinct report of the key findings (in English and Chinese, as appropriate)
A dataset containing all key data and a codebook defining variables and any calculations; dataset should be in SPSS Cross-tabulations
Question: How would you write a request for proposal to conduct marketing research to determine student satisfaction with your educational institution?
Custom research firms
Custom research firms will design a unique research project to answer a company’s research question. They will then conduct the research and analyze the findings.
These firms can be further divided into specialized and full-service custom research providers. Research conducted by a custom marketing research firm usually starts with a call from a client.
This client company will have a specific problem which requires research that the firm will design and conduct. There is no reason for a custom research firm to conduct research unless requested to do so by a client to address a particular problem.
Specialized custom market research firms conduct specialized research on a specific product category or market segment. These marketing research firms can be grouped by their area of specialization.
For example, they may specialize in consumer food products or in young people as a market segment. Some firms specialize in designing research for a specific type of company, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Other companies may only research the automotive industry.
Rather than industry, some firms specialize in researching a specific target market segment, such as the young, urban males (or Yummies). These firms focus on a specific market segment but research many different products.
For example, they will have contracts with companies that produce clothing apparel, or soft drinks, or are media and telecommunication companies targeting Yummies.
On the other hand, full-service custom research firms will take on any project no matter what the product or target market segment. These companies that do custom research are able to offer a wide range of expertise and services. They are in effect ‘one-stop’ research firms. However, they may lack the depth of knowledge that has been acquired by specialized custom firms.
Guidelines for choosing a research company
When choosing an external research company, there are general guidelines that should be followed. A company should examine a research firm’s business practices, skills and expertise, and their reputation for quality and ethical conduct.
It is important to interview not just those representing the research firm, but also, if possible, the researchers themselves. In addition, asking for references from other companies who have hired the firm in question can provide information as to their reputation. Hiring a research firm is expensive, so the decision should be made carefully, like when buying an expensive piece of equipment.
The global research industry
Marketing research is a global industry that continues to grow. In 2016 it was estimated to produce US$45 billion in annual revenue (Schmidt, 2016). This is up from US$21.5 billion in 2006 (ESOMAR, 2006). While Europe and the USA are leaders in the industry, China, Brazil, Russia, and India also have seen a growth in marketing research providers.
To be one of the largest marketing research firms now requires a global reach. This is demonstrated by examining the number of countries in which the largest firms have offices. Often this global expansion is through the acquisition of smaller, local research companies in specific countries.
Marketing research associations
There are numerous marketing research organizations that provide an opportunity for those involved in the research industry to both networks and learn from others working in the research industry. Some of the organizations are specific to a region or country.
The Council for American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO) represents research firms in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. Other organizations, such as the Market Research Society with 8,000 members in more than 50 countries, are global in reach.
One of the largest global organizations is ESOMAR or the World Association of Opinion and Marketing Research Professionals. Organizations such as the Advertising Research Foundation focus on a specific area of marketing research. Others, such as the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, focus on a specific type of research.
1. A research proposal should explain the ‘why, what, when, where and how’ of the research. It is necessary because research takes up resources including money, people and time. Although the proposal will take time to write, it is necessary for three reasons. First, it is a plan of action that keeps research on track.
Second, it is the basis of the contract on what resources will be needed. Third, because it has described the tasks to be completed and those responsible, it is a way to ensure accountability.
2. The research proposal has three main sections; the plan, the methodology, and the analysis and findings. The plan will include an introduction and will also state the research objective and research question.
The methodology section will include information on the research approach, the methodology and the data collection plan. The analysis and findings section will describe how the data will be analyzed and how the data will be presented once the research is completed.
The proposal concludes with appendices that provide details on the timeline, budget and personal needs.
3. Who conducts marketing research will vary depending on the size of the organization. A large company may have a specialized research department, while a sole proprietor may need to conduct all the research personally. If an outside research firm is hired, the choice is between using an advertising agency, a syndicated firm or a custom research firm.
Advertising agencies provide research along with many other marketing services. Syndicated research firms collect information on an ongoing basis which they then sell. Custom research firms work with client companies to design proposals that meet their specific needs.