The Science Behind Market Research
Research. It’s a word with so much meaning and so much variation. There are different forms of research (e.g., basic, applied) and different approaches (e.g., scientific, artistic) and because of this, there are numerous ways to define the word. In the broadest sense, “research is a process of steps used to collect and analyze information to increase our understanding of a topic or issue.” The author goes on to break down the steps involved: 1) pose a question, 2) collect data, and 3) present an answer to the question. What I like about this definition is that and the steps involved seem accessible to anyone.
Once a question is posed, this typically leads to the formation of a hypothesis, a plausible explanation for some phenomenon. The hypothesis needs to be tested, which is where research comes in to play. Hypotheses are at the foundation of any research project, whether it be for a hard science (like physics) or a social science (like psychology). And to that point, I would argue that a hypothesis is also at the heart of any market research project.
The sciences have a bona fide format for stating a hypothesis and describing the research method and analysis used to test and subsequently accept or reject said hypothesis. The business world does not. For example, have you ever seen a market research report that states the null and alternate hypothesis? (If you have, let’s talk.)
The rigors of business demand a less academic approach to research. In many cases, decision makers who are the end users of market research simply want a quick response to the question that initiated the research in the first place. “Should we release this product now?” “Will the new branding resonate with our target consumer?” “Can we expect growth in the next quarter and if so, how much?”
The business world needs a straightforward description of the research objectives and methodology used to address those objectives. Rather than being left to interpret a statistical equation, business leaders and decision makers need a layman’s approach to interpreting the results and implications. Looking at an equation of letters and numbers is meaningless to a non-researcher. On the other hand, looking at a list of things that contribute to high rates of consumer loyalty is. Do decision makers need to know the math behind how that list was derived?
Coming from an academic background, I think of the similarities and differences between scientific research and market research. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more parallels between the two than not, and those parallels are strengthened by a trusted and experienced research partner. The ideal market researcher can formulate a hypothesis based on the business and research objectives.
Based on that hypothesis, he or she can recommend the appropriate methodology. This person knows what analysis is appropriate to run on data and can accurately interpret the results.
But what sets him or her apart from other researchers is what the end user sees: there will be no hypothesis formally stated, no dissection of the methodology, no statistical equation. There will be three main things: 1) the initial question that spurred the need for research, 2) a summary of data and findings, and 3) an answer to the initial question that is actionable to the end user.