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Consider the unintentional marketing research we came across one day at a client’s office. Someone had brought in a box of assorted cherry confections from a local company and shared them with the team. After an hour, the once-full box looked like this:

At first glance, it was clear that the Honey Pecans, Vanilla Almonds and Truffle Cherries were a big hit. The Raspberry Truffles? Not so much.

It was a complete fluke, but we just did customer research for this local company. We were able to see which product flavors and types resonated with customers, and which ones were less appealing. Had the local company performed this same work, they would now have information to inform future product development as well as current product manufacturing, inventory management and SKU rationalization.

This is what market research does. It gives management teams clear insights into how prospective and existing customers behave so that organizations can make informed decisions about how to run their business. The challenge, however, is knowing what market research to perform, and when. In this post, we’ll review different marketing research methodologies, how they work and when to use them.

Marketing Research Techniques

There are generally five research methodologies used in marketing research. Let’s first look at each of these to understand what sets them apart.

Marketing Research Via Surveys

Marketing research that uses surveys leverages a quantitative approach to capturing information about customers, prospective customers or non-customers. Multiple-choice and open-ended questions are given to respondents, and respondents answer based on their experiences and preferences. Depending on the survey goals, surveys can vary in length from as few as ten questions to as many as sixty five.

Surveys are a powerful marketing research tactic since you can do a wide variety of testing, including understanding customer demographics and psychographics, determining interest in existing or potential product concepts and examining how customers make trade-offs, just to name a few.

Marketing Research Via Interviews

Doing interviews for marketing research means you’re focusing on a qualitative approach to capturing consumer information. Interviews usually take the form of 1:1 conversations between an individual and the organization running the interview, and can happen either by phone or in-person. Generally, interviews last between 30-minutes to one-hour.

When performing marketing research interviews, discussion guides are developed ahead of time to help structure the conversation. By ensuring the same questions are asked of all interviewees, you can begin to see clear patterns in behaviors, perspectives and preferences from distinct groups.

Marketing Research Via Focus Groups

Unlike the 1:1 conversations that you find in interviews, focus groups require conversations with, well, groups! The standard focus group structure includes a moderator and distinct groups of 8-to-10 individuals that meet a certain general profile. A minimum of 2-3 focus groups are generally conducted for any given project, and each focus group lasts about 1.5-2 hours in length.

As with interviews, focus groups also include a discussion guide to help the conversation flow in ways that will inform company decisions. The natural interplay between focus group participants and moderators creates dynamic conversations that often yield unexpected insights.

Marketing Research Via Ethnographies & Observation

Ethnographies are a unique marketing research tactic that lets you observe individuals as they go through their everyday activities. Like interviews, it often includes a 1:1 dynamic. However, this time it’s a researcher following a respondent as they complete necessary tasks. Oftentimes, respondents will be asked to keep journals about particular activities to offer extra levels of insight. Ethnographies usually require a minimum of 3 observations (though often include more), and each one can take several hours, if not several days.

Ethnographies generally require each individual to go through a particular activity. As with discussion guides, keeping the activity constant allows researchers to assess how respondents perform certain tasks to look for clear patterns.

Marketing Research Via Field Trials

Field trials require that an organization has a finished product, or a nearly-finished product prototype, that can be given to individuals to test out. Field trials can include a mix of surveying, interviews or ethnographies. Researchers may ask participants to answer survey questions before and after trying the product, perform face-to-face interviews, or watch participants use the product to gauge their overall experience.

How To Choose The Best Marketing Research Method

With several marketing research methods at your disposal, you’ll need to isolate which one (or ones) are most appropriate for your particular goals. The basic structure and limitations of each method help dictate when to use them…and when not to use them!

When To Use Surveys

Because surveys require you to write out clear questions with fixed answers, they presume that you have a strong understanding of your market, your customers and how they will likely respond. Additionally, the survey format makes it easy to receive answers from a lot of respondents since they can often be distributed digitally. As a result of these dynamics, surveys are fantastic for validating trends or assumptions that have been made based on anecdotal evidence.

Additionally, because surveys capture quantitative data, they allow you a whole host of statistical analyses. This can be everything from cluster analysis to perform customer segmentation work, conjoint analysis to understand trade-off behaviors, or even something as simple as looking for statistically significant differences in how different subsets of your customer population think and behave.

All of this helps illustrate when surveys are a bad choice. If you know little-to-nothing about your respondent base or prospective customers, it’ll be difficult to develop survey questions and answers. As a result, when you’re still in the early exploratory phases, surveying is usually a lesser-used choice.

When To Use Interviews

As a marketing research tactic that allows for structured dialogue, 1:1 interviews are ideal for eliciting deeper insights. Because you are directly speaking with someone, you not only get their answer to a question but you can also probe on why they answered in a given way. This makes interviews ideal when you’re exploring a complex topic that you don’t know very much about. The back-and-forth conversation allows for capturing nuanced details.

However, because interviews are so time-intensive, the respondents base is often quite limited. This means you’ll get strong directional information to understand a situation, but you’ll still be left with some uncertainty as to whether you’re seeing crystal clear trends. It makes interviews great for exploratory phases, but not ideal for gathering concrete data.

When To Use Focus Groups

Focus groups are, in essence, group conversations. While they follow a general structure, they allow for active discussions. By capturing the conversation dynamics, researchers can start to piece together general terms and language used to discuss a certain situation while also capturing broader trends around behaviors, decision drivers, perceptions and even past activities. When you need to understand why people do what they do, or how they assess certain decisions, focus groups serve as a strong research tactic.

However, it’s this group dynamic that makes focus groups a poor choice when exploring a topic where individuals could be influenced by others, or where they may say one thing but do another in practice. Additionally, they fail to offer insight into how an individuals may engage with a product or experience on a 1:1 level. As a result, focus groups, like interviews, are great for sussing out general trends, but don’t offer the concrete findings provided by surveys.

When To Use Ethnographies & Observation

Ethnographies are as close to being the proverbial “fly on the wall” as a researcher can get. As a result, this methodology is ideal when you want to see how individuals behave and want to limit the extent to which they are influenced by the researcher himself or a broader group. This approach works well when you want to see what people do, not just what they say. You can capture their language, their behavior patterns, and how they engage with products or experiences to see what nuanced details drive choices. As a result, ethnographies help you really “get under the skin” of a situation

Arguably, of all the research methodologies, ethnographies and observation are the most time-intensive and allow for the fewest number of participants. This means, once again, that you aren’t getting the sample size needed to get broader, concrete takeaways (unlike surveys). As a result, they are great for early stages of user research, but less effective when you are doing fine tuning.

When To Use Field Trials

As the name implies, a field trial means you’re trialing something. It might be the actual product you’re developing, or a prototype. This makes it the ideal approach when you want to see if the item you’ve developed works as expected, if customers engage with it as expected, and if users derive meaningful value from using it. User experience testing usually falls in this area.

Of course, if you don’t have a tangible product to test, you can’t field trial it. When you’re in the earlier phases of customer behavior testing or early product concepting, the other methodologies we’ve explored would be better fits.

Why Can Marketing Research Be Inaccurate

As insightful as marketing research can be, it can be inaccurate. This often has to do with choosing the wrong methodology for what you’re trying to answer. After all, if you know nothing about your prospective customer, giving them a prototype and asking them to use it is essentially putting the cart before the horse. Similarly, you can give hundreds of people a lengthy survey. But, if you don’t understand them on a basic level, you’ll likely ask the wrong questions.

Of course, inaccuracies also come from not understanding the limitations of each approach. Surveys are only so good as your ability to ask the right questions. If you haven’t done prior work to get at the basic issues affecting your respondents, you’ll likely get these questions wrong. Meanwhile, extrapolating findings from 1:1 interviews is only so good as your willingness to understand that they present potential trends, not definite trends. Not doing follow-up research could mean you’re relying on faulty information to inform your decisions.

In essence, understanding where you are in your customer intelligence process is key to isolating which methodology to use and what to expect as benefits from that methodology. With that under your belt, you can minimize inaccuracies and get the most out of the marketing research tactics you choose.