Market research: put it to good use, not misuse

Market research sometimes gets a bad press, but as Rhiannon Price of Northstar Research proposes, could this be because it is sometimes carried out and used in the wrong way?

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The court case between Apple and Samsung has just revealed that Apple does do market research after all. Despite Steve Jobs’ protestations that ‘it isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want,’ it is a relief to hear that the largest technology company in the world feels it too needs to hear what their customers have to say.

In fact, not only does Apple do market research, but it appears its philosophy surrounding research is very sound – ie, like many marketing tools, market research must be used with discretion.

To put it in context, Jobs’ infamous quote was apparently in relation to the development of the iPad for which he – like Henry Ford before him when he stated “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses” – felt it was not in the customers best interests to have a say; ie, that with this type of revolutionary innovation, inertia and resistance to the unknown might set in and muddy the water. The research produced in court, however, was an ‘iPhone Owner Study,’ which surveyed users in multiple countries about why they bought an iPhone – something that Apple could not know on its own, but that is fundamental for its product development.

Therefore, given this context, I like to think Jobs’ statement – which seems to damn market research – was not actually down to arrogance or a disrespect for the discipline, but rather an intelligent approach to market research; one which acknowledges that sometimes talking to the customer might not be the right thing to do.

Now, this might seem like a counter intuitive comment coming from a market researcher, however, I believe that it is when market research is wrongly applied that it gets a bad name and negative press.

In short, as Jobs showed, market research is a tool that needs to be used in the right way, otherwise, the bad workman will of course blame his tool.

The misuse of market research: three ways to sully its name

All market researchers will have to defend the role of market research at some point in their careers – whether it is to advertising agencies which believe we are ‘killing their ideas’, internal stakeholders who feel the report is too reliant on subjective opinion or naysayers who undermine findings because they do not believe a research environment can ever truly mimic a real life situation.

However, charity starts at home, and there are a few ways we – as agencies and commissioners of research – can approach and disseminate market research to help stop its name being sullied.

The comfort blanket should not hold up decision making

Misuse #1: the comfort blanket

Misuse: We’ve all been there: you have been asked to research that design, ad or product just one more time, but by such ‘over researching’, market research is seen as the bad guy who is holding up progress and finding faults. In reality, however,

it is often the case that research is being used as a comfort blanket and a decision will not be made internally until vigorous research has taken place and a gateway has been passed.

Good use: A good research agency will never report on a design, ad or product as an isolated proposition, but will highlight the themes at play that can be reapplied in future development. Stakeholders should try to take confidence from the original findings and – unless there is a dramatic departure – feel ready to move the idea on.

The holy grail: research should guide

Misuse #2: the holy grail

Misuse: Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations placed on a study to provide the definitive answer and, in this instance research becomes seen as the Holy Grail. Understandably, this places unreasonable pressure on the study and leaves market research vulnerable to being blamed for erroneous decisions or for not being willing to provide a black and white answer.

Good use: While a good research agency will be a partner, knowing wider business issues and analysing the research accordingly – market research should be used to help give context to business decisions. It should be used as guidance, not gospel.

Misuse #3: the weapon

Misuse: Perhaps the one misuse which creates the most fear among researchers is when different parties use research as a weapon in internal wars. At worst, this means there is little interest in letting the researcher do their job as an objective and experienced analyst, and instead research is ambushed with any relevant piece of data – no matter how small – being leveraged to gain an advantage.

Unfortunately, this often means the misinterpretation of data. Such warfare leaves the research agency in a very vulnerable position when it brings the actual findings to the presentation as it is either at risk of contradicting what has already been wrongly disseminated or it is caught in the crossfire between the interested parties.

Good Use: Internal custodians of research need to make sure that access to preliminary findings or attendance at groups is carefully managed. Asking the agency to compose a one page summary that can be cascaded immediately after groups or a survey closing will provide the ‘official’ line to all parties involved.

The final dissemination of findings is also important to ensure that a report is not taken out of context.

What can we do to help?

As market researchers, we must take responsibility for such misuse of market research and work with our clients to ensure such problems do not happen. In fact, we must ask ourselves: what do we do to perpetuate the situation? How can we inspire clients to be more confident in using market research in the right way? How can we help clients recognise when research might be ill conceived? Are we helping our clients to manage the expectations of internal teams? And how can we help clients manage and disseminate both interim findings and final reports?

Ultimately, as is proven time and again, a research agency that can act as a consultant to its client, instead of a supplier, will have a stronger relationship and shared understanding of their business needs.

As such, they will have the ability to guide and advise on which research is undertaken and how it is used internally. After all, it’s not much fun being the bad tool!

Rhiannon Price

Northstar Research
Studio D
22 Ebury Street

T 020 7824 9876



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