First Stages of a Market Research Project: Plan & Prepare

As we mentioned in our last post, there are three broad stages of a research project, each building on each other.

Since everything you do at the beginning will impact what you get back at the end, this is where you want to spend some extra time thinking about the goals and objectives of your research. So let’s start there.

What are you trying to inform? (What will change based on what you learn?)

Having a clear sense of what your goals are will impact every other decision about your research. If your purpose is to create new marketing materials that talk about your products or services the way your most passionate customers do, that’s going to be very different from a project where the purpose is to prioritize topics to invest in new training modules for your employees. Are you looking to explore a topic you don’t know much about yet (to answer questions like who, how and why?)? Or are you trying to measure something (to answer questions like which ones, how much, how many, how often?)

Very exploratory topics are going to lend themselves to more qualitative methods, where more concrete topics – or topics that may lead to costly business investments – are often going to lend themselves to more quantitative methods (or at least a mix of methodologies).

Or is there a previous study you want to replicate to trend over time? In that case, your methodology, audience and questions all need to stay as consistent as possible, to ensure trending is possible.

What is your Timeline?

In all our years in market research, we have yet to encounter a project where the answer to that wasn’t initially “as soon as possible.” Realistically though, sometimes what is meant is just “when we reasonably can” and sometimes we have a hard deadline.

As noted, research has multiple stages and considerations. It doesn’t “just happen.” You need time to plan your research, your respondents need time to participate, and you’ll need time to analyze and review the results and determine next steps based on what you learn. So what is your deadline, and what is driving it? Sometimes knowing your deadline will help you determine the full scope of what you can or cannot reasonably accomplish with research, whether a “rush” project is needed (or even feasible) or whether a multi-phased approach to your research needs might be a better fit.

What do you already know?

You want to think about the “knowns” before you begin to explore the gaps with research. You don’t want to invest in research that proves what your organization already knows… but there may be some assumptions that you need to test before your organization makes further decisions. In addition, you want to think about what other insight your business might be able to bring to the table, so that the research helps round out the full picture to inform the final decision, and your organization knows how to act based on what is learned. 

Starting from the project goals, and narrowing down based on what you already know, will help you narrow down the topics you hope to focus on in the research.

Who is the target audience of your research? (Who can provide the insight you need?)

Once you know what you need to know, when you need to know it, and what you already know, you can start to narrow down who can best answer the open questions. This will be your target audience for the research. It’s okay to have more than one audience, but you want to be clear about what each one can reasonably tell you. If you want to understand the onboarding experience for a customer, your recent customers are probably best able to answer questions about that. If you want to know what is (or isn’t) appealing about your product or service, you might want to speak to multiple audiences: both customers (e.g. those who chose your product) and buyers more broadly (those who have not purchased your product). Sometimes you may have a proxy audience – like a reseller channel – who you may want to include also. In general, you want to speak to the audience that will be able to tell you most directly and most knowledgeably about the topic you hope to explore.

Put yourself in their place: Where are your participants (and what privacy law applies)?

Privacy laws vary from country to country, and from state to state. It’s very important that you carefully review how you plan to access the target audience, to ensure you’re going to remain compliant with local law.

Whenever you’re using a list of your own clients or resellers, we recommend you ensure that they are opted-in to receive research inquiries from you. If you’ll need to acquire access to a panel, reputable research and sample partners will have ensured that they have opted-in participants – but may need to verify feasibility in order to quote your project accurately.

You also want to think about how you’ll treat response data after it’s collected. You want to avoid asking for data that could be construed as sensitive or personally identified information (PII). But be transparent with your participants about how you intend to use their responses: Are the results identified to the respondent? Confidential but only reported in the aggregate? Fully anonymous or anonymized? Whichever way you say you will treat the data, ensure you or your research partner are set up to follow through to ethically handle your response data.

Put yourself in their place: What language do your participants speak?

In one sense, this is a literal question: will your survey need to be translated into other languages to ensure your participants can take part?

But even aside from this: every company has its own internal jargon. We use shorthand and abbreviations; we use terms that mean something quite specific to our industry or even to our team. But this might not be the language your participants use – and if they don’t understand your questions, they aren’t going to be able to answer them.

Because of this, you want to make sure that you ask your questions in as simple terms as possible. Having a research team or partner that operates outside your organization may be helpful, so that instances where you are using words and phrases that may not be universally understood can be identified and adjusted.

Put yourself in their place: What do your participants know?

You also want to stop to think about what about your topic the respondents know. If you’re researching in a B2B space and speaking to someone on the vendor management team, they may or may not know what the user experience is like; if you’re speaking to the end user, they may or may not know what the purchase experience was like. This might speak to a need to refine your audiences or your questions, to ensure that every respondent can answer the questions you pose to them.

And related to this idea of different audiences: if you’ll have different groups of audiences: will you need to segment them, so that you can filter or make comparisons between them? Understanding this will help you determine how many responses are needed in order to gain the insights you require.

Put yourself in their place: Will you need to provide an incentive or honoraria?

Again, if your project is going to leverage a panel, costs to incentivize participants will be built into that price. If you have a list of participants, you’ll need to decide whether or what kind of incentives are needed. If you’re asking people to give you an extended amount of their time, you’ll probably need to provide an incentive of some kind. Whether or not you need to provide a “paid” incentive will vary based on your relationship to the audience and the amount of time you expect them to give you. 

Even if you’re not going to “pay” for survey participation, you want to think about your research from the perspective of the participant, who will be asking themselves: “What’s in it for me?” Why should they answer your questions? Will you be paying them? Entering them in a random drawing? Offering a summary of the results? Or enhancing their future experience in some concrete way? You’re going to want to think about what the participants care about, so that your invitation to take part will be effective.

And if you’re going to need to fulfill an incentive, enter the respondent in a drawing, or send them a report after the fact, don’t forget to ensure you have some way to identify participants for that purpose – even if you treat their responses confidentially otherwise. Leveraging a research partner can help ensure a buffer of confidentiality so that you can’t – even accidentally – handle the respondent data in ways other than you promised at the beginning.

Thinking through the knowns and unknowns, and considering the knowledge, experience and perspectives of your participants, will help you narrow down the questions you want to ask, and how you’ll position the research when you want to invite them to participate.

Coming Up: Stage 2 of a Market Research Project

Next time, we’ll continue to expand on the stages of a research project. Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an issue. Do you have a question about market research, or the stages of a research project? Post a comment below, and it may make its way into a future post.

Do you have a question you hope to answer with market research? Contact our team at Coax Insights. We’d be happy to help.

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