Consider the unintentional marketing research we came across one day at a client’s office. Someone 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 saw which product flavors resonated with customers, and which ones did not. Had the local company performed this same work, they could inform future product development, 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 to inform and optimize business decisions. The challenge, however, is knowing what market research tactics to perform, and when. In this post, we’ll review different marketing research methodologies, how they work and when to use them.

The Typical Market Research Tactics

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 surveys use a quantitative approach to capturing information about customers, prospective customers or non-customers. Multiple-choice and open-ended questions let respondents answer based on their experiences and preferences. Survey lengths vary from as few as ten to as many as sixty questions, depending on the survey objectives.

Surveys let you do a wide variety of testing, including understanding customer segments, determining product interest, and assessing feature trade-offs.

Market Research Via Interviews

Market research interviews means using a qualitative approach to capture consumer information. Interviews usually take the form of 1:1 conversations, and occur by phone or in-person. In total, they tend to last between 30-minutes to one-hour.

When performing marketing research interviews, you first develop a discussion guide to structure the conversation. This ensures each participants get the same questions, letting you see patterns in behaviors, perspectives and preferences across groups.

Market 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 8-to-10 individuals that meet a certain general profile. We generally conduct 2-3 focus groups for any particular segment, and groups last about 1.5-2 hours in length.

As with interviews, focus groups include a discussion guide to structure helpful conversation flows. The natural interplay between participants and moderators creates dynamic conversations that often yield unexpected insights.

Market Research Via Ethnographies & Observation

Ethnographies lets you observe individuals as they go through their everyday activities. Like interviews, they include a 1:1 dynamic. However, this time it’s a researcher following a respondent as they complete necessary tasks. Oftentimes, respondents 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.

Market Research Via Field Trials

Field trials require a finished product or a nearly-finished product prototype. Field trials often 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 experiences.

How To Choose The Best Market Research Tactics

The best market research tactics align to your particular business goals. The basic structure and limitations of each method help dictate when to use.

When To Use Surveys

Surveys require you to write out clear questions with fixed answers. This presumes 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, use surveys for validating trends or assumptions.

Additionally, because surveys capture quantitative data, they let you perform a host of statistical analyses. This includes cluster analysis for customer segmentation, conjoint analysis for trade-off behaviors, or statistically significant differences across populations.

All of this illustrates when surveys are a bad choice. If you have limited information about your customer base, surveys will likely be a poor solution. As a result, don’t use surveys during early exploratory phases.

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 Market Research Be Inaccurate

As insightful as marketing research can be, it can be inaccurate. This happens when you choose the wrong market research tactics for your business objectives. After all, if you know nothing about your prospective customer, giving them a product prototype means 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.