Mark Ritson: ‘Backwards’ market research will help you move forward

I have a client who I work for each year helping to run their global marketing training. We send 700 executives a super-sexy iPad Mini at the start of the year, which has uploaded on it case studies, readings and simulations that we will use to train them during the year.

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With just a week to go before we ‘lock down’ the iPad content for 2015, I am still juggling a dozen different articles that may or may not make it into the Library App on the device. One of the great joys of working on this project is rediscovering a treasure trove of readings that I had forgotten I had forgotten.

Top of that list, and which I recommend every marketer reads, is a beautifully simple article published 30 years ago by Professor Alan Andreasen from Georgetown University. The piece ‘Backwards Market Research’ explains why most market research is shit.

Andreasen, a far classier guy than me, puts it more subtly. As he noted in 1985: “Managers tend to define the research problem as a broad area of ignorance. They say in effect: ‘Here are some things I don’t know. When the results come in, I’ll know more. And when I know more, then I can figure out what to do.’ In my experience, this approach makes it highly likely that the findings will be off target.”

His observation is as valid today as it was three decades ago. Most research springs from a binary process in which a marketer decides they need to understand an issue with data, they bring in a market research firm, give them a broad brief, rejoining the process only when the research team returns with its results.

In my experience, the last person on the planet you want designing your research is a research agency. Don’t get me wrong, they have an important place downstream in the process recruiting the sample and executing the data collection.

But when clients ask researchers to design everything they usually get incredibly long questionnaires, aimed at a ridiculously large sample using very expensive approaches that rarely help to answer the strategic question driving the entire initiative.

Andreasen’s solution is as elegant as it is powerful. Backwards market research literally turns the whole process of gathering data to make decisions on its head.

First, work out how you will use the eventual data and the ultimate purpose of the research. Second, work back from that usage to imagine the final report or presentation you need to make in order to convince yourself and others of the right course of action. Third, design the analytic tools needed to create this report and the sample required to make the data robust – only at this stage consult the research firm. Finally, ask them to execute the research.

Too often marketers walk into a meeting with their research agency to see “what the research is telling us” without properly understanding what the research was designed to investigate in the first place and what they are going to do with the outputs. Superior marketers design the research report long before the data has been collected and inspect the subsequent data not to see what it tells them, but how it will drive the ultimate strategic decision that spawned the research in the first place.

That may sound like you’re making assumptions about what the data will reveal long before the research has been executed. But the real skill of backwards market research is visualising the charts and tables you want to see from the research, without assuming what they will reveal when they are filled out with data.

The result is a cleaner, more efficient approach to market research and one that leads to almost immediate strategic outputs.

Too often the traditional approach to market research design results in the client feeling that they already were aware of what the data is telling them or that there isn’t any big message coming out of the data. These are not signals that you are using a shit market research firm, they indicate that you – dear reader – and your approach to marketing is shit.


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