“The companies that do the best are the ones that do their homework." - Donna Barson, president and owner of Barson Marketing Inc.
What homework?–Market research.
When done right, market research allows you to strategically align your business with current market conditions. Giving you the best possible chance of meeting or beating revenue goals.
In this article, you’re going to learn how, and what, information you need to ensure your sales process is aligned with your market.
Market Reseach Table of Contents
What is Market Research?
Look, I have no idea when market research was invented. And I’m going to make a wild assumption–neither do you.
What we can both safely say is this: sensible business people have always researched their market.
Why wouldn’t you ask your potential customers what they want or if they’re satisfied with their current product/service?
It makes logical sense.
Your customers are the most important part of your business, without them, you have no business. Therefore, market research is the yang to your business's ying.
Yet, market research is more than just keep your eyes and ears open for information, it’s structured and goal-focused–it’s a systematic and objective collection and interpretation of data so you can reduce risk when making business decisions.
You’re not a doctor prodding your patient to see where it hurts. You have a clear design and plan in the hope to uncover the truth behind bias and assumptions.
Market research gives you a deep understanding of:
And helps you to:
And the best market research? Well… the best market research doesn’t stop once the data is collected. The facts, statistics, and opinions need to be converted into actionable information telling you something.
It needs to help you make smart decisions: linking your internal strategies with external market conditions.
When done right, you’ll be able to allocate your resources (people, money, and time), to give you a better chance of succeeding.
Why is Market Research Important? Strategic Alignment, It Starts With Market Research
Your market strategy will inform your corporate strategy, and your corporate strategy will inform your functional strategies. Break, or leave a link out, your whole system falls apart.
Market research is the first link in your chain.
Here’s what you need to answer:
What information do you need to develop your corporate, product/service, marketing, sales, and talent strategy?
Remember: strategy is the allocation of people, time, and money. Start here, and you’ll know your objectives of your market research.
What You Need to do Before Market Research
Before you do any research: HOLD SOMEONE ACCOUNTABLE.
Identify someone within your business who will be accountable to this process. If it’s everyone’s responsibility, then no one owns it.
Here’s what you need to remember:
Holding someone accountable isn’t just about them taking the blame if something goes wrong–it’s about delivering on a commitment and taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.
Here are five areas Harvard Business Blog recommend you provide clarity to ensure a smooth accountability process:
- Clear expectations
- Clear capability
- Clear measurement of success
- Clear feedback
- Clear consequences
For a more detailed explanation, you can see their article on accountability here.
As for who you should choose, It doesn’t matter, as long as they have the resources and it gets done.
The Four Main Points of Your Market Research
These four phases are where you want to be at the end of your market research.
You need to take your broad target market and divide them into common sub-sections of buyers who have common needs, priorities, and solutions.
When you’re segmenting your market, you need to answer the follow questions:
Obvious, right? Yes, it is. You need to understand the potential of your market. If you don’t already have this information, there are a number of ways you can research this (we’ll get to it further down).
Here you want to understand which accounts in your market will generate the most revenue in the shortest time.
You should have a clear understanding of how your target market make their buying decisions.
Gain an understanding of the problems different users in your accounts face.
Important: If your selling multiple products/services, your go-to-market strategy will likely be different for each one. There’s likely going to be different user problems, buyers, and buyer decisions.
In order to do this, you’re going to need to understand the different research techniques used to gather the information.
Understanding Data: Difference Between Quantitative and Qualitative Research
Before we discuss the types of market research techniques, it’s vital you understand the roles of quantitative and qualitative data.
Exploratory research, it’s used to gain a deeper understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, motivations, and problems. Use this approach to uncover trends in thought and opinions, and delve deeper into your audience’s drivers and motivators.
You’re able to obtain insights in order to develop ideas (or hypotheses) for potential quantitative research. Sample sizes tend to be small, and your participants are selected to fulfil a given quota.
You need to put emphasis on the natural setting and points of view of your participants. As well as giving special consideration to whoever the researcher (you or a hired 3rd party). And what I mean, is behind your research is the biography of your gendered researcher: who speaks from a certain class, racial, cultural, and ethnic community perspective.
For example, do not consider what you’re looking for to be red instead of blue, black instead of white. Don’t discount information because it doesn’t fit your theory–it will inhibit progress.
Methods can vary using unstructured or semi-structured techniques. Including:
These qualitative methods examine the why and how of decision making, not just the what, where, when, and “who”. Because of this, analyzing the data can take longer to interpret than quantitative.
Used to quantify your problem by generating numerical data, or data which can be transformed into actionable statistics. You can use this technique to quantify attitudes, opinions, behaviors, demographics, and other defined variables.
Sample sizes tend to be much larger, and can be an excellent way to identify the size of your maker, how much it might be worth to your business, and discover areas for sales growth. You can use the data to formulate facts, trends, and uncover patterns.
Some methods include:
You can’t rely solely on quantitative research because it doesn’t allow for your participants to explain the why behind their choices. However, it is very useful for testing and validating your theories, and because it’s based on measured values, it can be checked by others as the data is less open to misinterpretation.
Types of Market Research Techniques (Secondary Vs. Primary)
There are two types of research techniques: Secondary and Primary. Let’s take a look at each method and the techniques you can use to uncover market research data.
Secondary Market Research
Also known as “desk research” (can be done sat at your desk), this research technique involves the analysis of existing research and data. It’s information already collected for purposes other than your market research, but, has relevance and utility.
For example, you’re able to obtain data from studies performed by government agencies, industry and trade associations, labor unions, media sources, chambers of commerce etc.
Secondary research is simply seeking existing information. You
I know–not particularly glamorous. However, it’s an excellent place to start because it’s often easy to find, and tends to be free or low-cost.
You can split this technique into two categories:
- Internal sources
- External sources
This is valuable information hiding in plain sight. It’s the information you knowingly or unknowingly have already obtained. And it’s highly valued because you’re able to evaluate market trends, capacity, and capabilities.
Here are some examples:
It’s recommended you look to internal data sources first. It’s cheap, easy and fast to obtain useful data exclusive to your business. And, other rival companies can’t benefit from it.
These are market research sources of data which have been collected by organizations outside of your business. Ideally used if the amount of data you’ve collected from your internal sources are not sufficient.
When you perform market research using external sources, you must take a focused and controlled approach. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a large amount of pointless data. Focus your time on looking at highly relevant and credible sources.
Examples of Where to Find External Secondary Research
www.proquest.com - Find information on companies, you can filter the information by industry, location, and size. You’re able to request company profiles, pre-addressed mailing labels, and telemarketing reports.
www.marketingpower.com - American Marketing Association offers information to members on industry topics.
www.thinkwithgoogle.com - Obtain insights into how consumer behavior changes in relation to seasons, holidays, and other events.
www.sba.gov/ - Get free access to information on business and economic conditions, as well as indicators collected by the U.S. government. The site include data and statistics on income, employment, trade, manufacturing, and more.
www.census.gov - Contains a quick and easy-to-navigate monster database of information. Enter a city and state to see multiple options for viewing social, economic, household, and demographic data. This site also includes a cool interactive map, showing you a mash-up of economic and demographic statistics.
www.economicIndicators.gov - Releases daily economic indicators from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau. You can find briefings of retail sales, durable good, construction, new homes sales, manufacturing, and more.
www.fedstats.gov - See data on a wide-range of topics, including crime, education, aviation safety, energy use, health care, farm production, economic and population trends.
Why Secondary Research Alone is Not Enough
It’s true, secondary research tends to be cheap and easy to find information. And although it can be fantastic for understanding your market growth, conditions, and industry trends. There are some big downsides.
Secondary market research is not customized to your needs. For example, you may find out how much companies pay for a SAAS product, when they’re more likely to buy, and how much they spend. But, what your not going to find out, is why they decided to buy a particular service or product.
It’s unlikely you’re going to find data specific to your objectives.
You’re dependent on others researching efforts. You could be getting inaccurate or out-of-date information. You may not also know the limits, parameters, and assumptions by the organization collecting the data.
Because of this, you need to perform primary research.
Primary Market Research
Tailored to your goals and objectives, it’s research conducted by you (or a third-party company on your behalf), without using any information available from other sources.
Primary research allows you to investigate the why. Giving you a deeper understanding of your target market’s values, psychology, attitudes, lifestyle, and interests.
You can investigate specific areas of interest, obtain feedback, assess demand, gauge responses, understanding consumers buying decision, and more–helping to to align your business with current external market conditions.
Although you’re able to obtain accurate and valuable information, primary research is expensive and time-consuming.
5 Common Types of Primary Research Methods
The following are the five most common techniques used to obtain primary data:
Often one of the main ways company’s conduct primary research, focus groups are a way to gather information from selective people in a planned discussion. The idea is to understand consumer perceptions on a particular topic or interesting in a non-threatening environment. And allow members to interact with each other.
Conducted as a series, where the participants vary but the topic is the same, several focus groups can help spot irregular group differences (e.g. one group does not get on with on another).
Designed to identify the feelings, perceptions, and thinking of consumers about your product, service, or solution, focus groups have four key characteristics:
Typically made up of five to ten people, your group needs to be small enough to allow everyone to speak; but large enough to provide a diversity of experience and group interaction.
- Common Levels of Experience
You need to have specific requirements (depending on your topic), for who will be in your focus groups. You should identify who can give you the information you’re looking for.
For example, if you want to understand the buying journey for companies looking to purchase a SAAS product, it may be better for you to recruit members who are involved in the buying process.
- Depth of Information
An effective way of obtaining qualitative data rich in depth (not numerical), you (or your researcher) needs to guide the group to engage in order to uncover ideas, perceptions, experiences, and feelings about your topic.
You need to prepare a discussion guide for the moderator to use to ensure a logical flow of discussion surrounding your topic and provide clear focus.
Serving as a way to get people talking and feeling comfortable, questions should help to produce more information without putting pressure on the group to change their views. What you need to do, is focus your attention on understanding to views throughout the process.
A broad term, covering questionnaires, forms, in-person surveys, telephone surveys, online surveys, mail surveys, and survey interviews etc.
This straightforward research method can help you understand if customers are satisfied with your business’s existing services or products, and if they’d like any changes. The larger your sample, the more reliable your results will be.
If you’re unsure whether doing a survey is right for you, surveys make sense when the following is true:
Surveys do not make sense if:
You can use the following tips to help create a concise, straightforward survey:
- The problem
Why are you researching? What problem are you attempting to solve with the data you want to collect? And how is it going to benefit your product/service, company, and/or customers? When you can answer these questions, you’ll be able to ask the right questions.
- Research Objective
This is your goal–what you’re hoping to achieve with your market research survey. You could position this as a question: “If we alter A, how would customers/prospects react?”
- Set Timelines
Establish the best time for your to send survey, and how many times you’ll send it. The key here is to not annoy your audience. A good time to send your survey could be after they’ve visited your store, bought your product/service, or have been using a freemium version of your product.
- Who and How Much?
Determine who you’re going to send your survey to and how much data you need. You can use SurveyMonkeys sample size calculator to help you figure out the best sample size for your survey.
For more information on conducting surveys, check out the following articles:
Face-to-face or telephone interviews can be effective due to the depth of qualitative data you can obtain. You’re able to conduct a semi-structured discussion (can be tailored during each in-depth interview based on the discussion), where your interviewee is treated as an expert in the field or situation they represent.
They’re useful for understanding the story behind a prospect’s experiences, and can be an excellent follow-up to a quantitative market research study.
Pro Tip: In-depth interviews are best used in place of focus groups when having a group of people with similar characteristics/experience is unnecessary. Use this method when you want to really dig into a specific issue.
The style of the interview depends on you (or your interviewer), and successful interviewers will listen more than they speak.
Coming in different shapes and sizes, observational research can be very interesting. Responses to surveys and focus groups can sometimes be different to how people really behave.
The ultimate benefit of using this method is you’re able to measure behavior–a direct representation of their “real life”. Giving you a more accurate picture of your audience’s habits and patterns.
However, as great as observational research is, there are some downsides.
You have no control over the situations and environments. It’s time-consuming, and you must have great patience to devote time to watching individuals or settings to obtain the information. You (or your researcher) may get distracted during the process, altering the results.
This method can be categorized into six major subdivisions:
Here are some examples of observational research:
You watch your subject using your product, service, or solution (with or without intervention).
An excellent choice if you’re selling from a website. You’re able to track people’s eye movements to create a “heat map” of where they look. You can then use this information to optimize the design of your website.
This method involves both interviewing your subject and watching them as they play or work in their natural environment.
You, your research, or a regular person you’ve hired go into a store and be an everyday shopper. They’ll then report back on their experience.
This can also be adapted to online businesses. You could simply fill out a competitors form, join their mailing list etc. and observe how they sell to you.
Watching someone go through their daily routines in their home could help you uncover some insight into certain pain-points.
Trials and Experimentation (Field Testing)
Utilizing scientific testing, you can test specific variables and hypotheses in controlled environments or out in the field (natural settings like shops or websites) to get quantitative results.
There’s a lot of cr*p online at the moment about experiments and field trials, but there is a simple example to help make it clear.
Let’s say you have a new product, you can use A/B testing to optimize your sales page. Some visitors will see one version of the sales page; others will see a different one. After some time, you can analyze the sales to see which sales pages performed the best.
This is a classic representation of testing specific variables in order to get quantitative results.
Which is The Best Market Research Method?
None of them and all of them.
Look, high-performing companies are more likely to have used a variety of secondary, primary, quantitative, and qualitative methods.
Cintell’s research shows organizations who use more research methods exceed revenue and lead goals.
Your next step is to then use these techniques in order to uncover the right intelligence.
Market Research Methods: How To Obtain The Right Intelligence
Let’s not forget the main goal: market, user, buyer, and account segmentation. You’re attempting to gain insights into each of the segments of the market you’re playing in.
In order to do this effectively, you’ll need to use the research techniques to do:
Let’s take a look at the secondary and primary research techniques you can use for each one:
How to do Customer/Prospect Research
Although customers and prospects are different, I’ve put them together here because many of the research methods you use can be crossed over between the two.
The key here is to gain insights into your customer’s/prospect’s drivers and motivators in order for you to create customer personas.
Your first step can be to look at internal sources:
Seems obvious, but it often gets forgotten. However, previous market research projects may contain useful information on buyer personas, segmentations, competitive messaging, win-loss analysis, and customer analysis.
Customer Interaction Databases
If you’ve got a database with a large percentage of customer/prospect interactions with your company, you can mine these effectively to gain insights on their behaviors and interests–from their first interaction with your funnels and sale cycles.
Here’s an example:
Web Analytics - You have two main types to consider: Traffic source and navigation history.
Traffic source includes referring sites, inbound link anchor keywords, and inbound keywords. This data reveals the topical interests of organic visitors to your website, many of which would be prospects and customers.
Navigational history is about tracking your buyer’s movements on your website. If you can, filter your web analytics data to a segment representing your buyers, then trace the path they took. This can reveal insights about the content they prioritize when deciding whether to buy your product/service.
Marketing Automation Software
This can provide useful information. Here’s how:
Lead Information: Marketing automation systems tend to have rich data on individual leads. Including lead capture form data and interactions with your marketing campaigns.
Prospect Interaction: By seeing how prospects interact with different marketing campaigns and content, you can build hypotheses on the needs and behavior of buyers.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Now, the usefulness of this information can range from ‘kind of useful’ to ‘extremely useful’, depending on the level of detail in your database.
CRM systems are usually organized as relational databases, with records of customer organizations and contacts, info on individual deals, activities and interactions with each contact related to sale opportunities.
Using this data, you can extract data about your customer companies based on their:
Interviewing your employees about their interactions with customers and prospects will uncover additional information you won’t find from CRM data.
Here are the internal role you should interview, and some general questions you should seek answers to:
Remember, every question is directed to your employee about your customer/prospect.
One way to take this further is to also spend a day in the field. Don’t just concern yourself with selling time, but also think about non-selling time.
When you spend a day with your sales team, and see how they interact with customers during selling time, you’ll get excellent market data.
But… during non-selling time, you’ll gain valuable insights into the behaviors of your sales reps:
You’ll be able to see, first-hand, how prospects are responding to your product/services, messaging, etc.
Customer Service Team
Once you’ve completed your internal customer/prospect research, you can start to do external research.
Here are some methods you can use:
You’re able to use all of the standard primary research methods I’ve discussed with you in this article:
Because I’ve already covered these methods (if you want to re-read this section, click here), I’m going to discuss two more methods I think are fantastic and rich in actionable data.
These are excellent sources of data.
Because you’ll uncover more about your alignment with the market than anywhere else–if you lost a prospect, why? If you gained a customer, why?
Here’s what you don’t want to do:
Have a conversation about the features and benefits of your product/service.
Here’s what you do want to do:
Identify where your alignment is with the external market conditions: Are you solving your prospects problems and helping them to achieve their goals?
You can start by deciding who’ll conduct the interview. If you decide to have someone within your company do the interview, make sure they weren’t involved in the sales opportunity. For the best results, hire a third-party.
Third-party interviews will produce the most unbiased, in-depth information because your prospects and customers will feel more comfortable.
After this, you’ll need to build a list of interviewees. Here are some tips:
Keep it Balanced
If you have too many current customers, you’ll skew your buyer insights towards the messaging and value proposition you already provide. And away from what current buyers want or think.
Vice-versa, too many lost prospects and you’re results will be too negative.
No Warm Prospects
Contacting warm prospects can disrupt the current sales cycle and maybe threaten your deal. And even if they did participate, it’s unlikely they’ll give you quality information. In their mind, you could be relaying this information onto your sales team to be used against them.
No Sales Activities
Keep this whole process away from your sales department. If a participant thinks you’re trying to sell them product/services by telling them you’re doing market research, it will undermine the credibility of you, your company, and the data collected.
Pro Tip: When reaching out to buyers and lost prospects, it’s vital you get proper permission. This can be as simple as getting an OK from your VP of sales or customer service, CEO, or clearing each participant with the account executive.
Win-Loss Interview Questions
There are three main types of questions:
Ask a few quick questions to confirm the participant is an appropriate interviewee.
You’re also looking to identify if their a reasonable target and unearth what the interviewee’s involvement was/is/would be in the buying process.
Keep in mind, these tend to be boring questions, so if you’re able to obtain this information through more open-ended questions, don’t ask them. If you haven’t got the information by the end of your chat, ask them.
Here are some examples:
- Open-ended Questions:
The point here is to get your participant to tell their buying process for your (or competitor) product/service. Open-ended questions gives your interviewee an opportunity to reveal insights that direct questions may not.
- Hypothesis Testing:
Remember when I discussed internal interviews? During that process, you’ll amass a lot of knowledge on how your buyers operate. If you don’t cover these areas with open-ended questions, you’ll need to address them.
It’s good to list these questions after open-ended ones if they haven’t been answered, or you need more detail.
If, from your internal interviews, you learn ‘A’ is a key objection to your product/service, and your participant hasn’t bought the subject up, you could say: “How about “A”? Is it a vital obstacle?”
…in most interviews, the best (and most surprising) information comes from your participant telling their story. Don’t get bogged down over covering every specific question. When you create your list of questions, think of them more as a reminder of what information you need to obtain.
Social Media Listening
Do you hang out where your prospects and customers hang out? What are they saying? What industry forums do they belong to? What about LinkedIn groups?
This is very easy for whoever is accountable for your market research to be doing.
Monitoring social media can supplement the traditional market research because the information gathered during those methods are time-constrained, selective, and skewed.
Your participants may not tell you what they really believe. In fact, they may not even really remember what they were thinking at the time. You or your researcher may even ask the wrong questions or misinterpret what they’re saying.
Social media listening is:
You’re able to gain insights like:
Let’s bring this back to strategic market alignment and how you can use this information.
For example, you’ve done research and uncovered Pinterest is “hot” for you right now. But, you look at your marketing budget and see you have almost no dollars in your social media budget.
Remember, this is all about your allocation of time, people, and money.
From your social listening, you know you need to get money into that area because you have proof it’s a valuable way to spend with the current market conditions.
How to do Employee Research
Your employees are a valuable internal resource, it’s likely some of them will have been in your industry for many years, have worked for competitors, or worked in markets you’re trying to penetrate.
The key here is to look internally to obtain market feedback.
Use their knowledge to ethically obtain competitive intelligence and market insights. And don’t discount employees who have worked in other industries–they might be able to help you implement best practices.
Here’s an example:
If you owned a service company, and a you have an employee who previously worked for a SAAS (Software as a Service) tech company. They might have a suggestion on how you can optimize your customer engagement.
You have multiple ways you can obtain this information:
How to do Competitior Research
The aim of competitor research is to gain an understanding of their strategies and how they win. Is it product, price, customer experience?
Here’s how you can do it ethically:
Obtain secondary data from websites like:
You could also use paid subscription services like Hoovers, which provides in-depth descriptions of companies, or Dun & Bradstreet, which sell company reports containing information like history, directors, customers, employees, and recent developments.
You can gather a wealth of publicly held information on your competitors through these sites in order to gain an understanding of your market size, growth rate, and trends.
When it comes to primary research, you can use the Mystery Shop method I previously discussed to gain insights into how they market and sell.
If your competitors have physical shops, you can send some in to report back on their experience. If they’re online, this can be as easy as filling out a form on their website or signing up to their email list.
When you do that, here’s what you need to take note of:
This is valuable information you can easily obtain to get insights on their strengths and weaknesses. You can take this further and link it back to the win/loss interviews I previously discussed.
If you lost a prospect to a competitor–why? Why did they choose them over you? Or vice-versa. Was it messaging? Experience? Etc.
How Often Should You Conduct Market Research?
Continual market research will allow you to quickly track sales, spot trends and product or service issues, determine market size, and stay aligned with the current market conditions.
I know, it may not make financial sense for you to keep conducting interviews. However, social listening and competitor research can be done easily and cheaply.