Great business decisions aren’t often a result of lucky happenstance. (And if they are, consider how much better they would have been if only some kind of deliberate action had been added to the decision-making process.)

Indeed, to accurately understand and predict behavior (whether it’s that of industries, people or products), companies must adhere to a progression of calculated steps before they make any proclamations or consider any changes to their business practices. Using the standard market research process, companies can kick kismet to the curb and instead garner the quantifiable and qualifiable evidence they need to inform their decisions and sustain profitable outcomes, retaining the policies, procedures and products that work and modifying or getting rid of the ones that don’t.

So, what IS the market research process?

Put simply, the market research process is a form of insurance. It safeguards and, hopefully, improves a business’s overall health by identifying and monitoring critical data points so that the most pressing issues are addressed first. Whether you’re part of a Fortune 500 company or manage a local “mom-and-pop” establishment, you need good information to make good decisions. 

This guide can help you better understand the market research process, which is basically five steps from start to finish:

Step 1: Identify the Right Research Problem

Step 2: Establish the Research Methodology and Design

Step 3: Select and Recruit a Sample

Step 4: Collect and Organize Data

Step 5: Analyze and Report Findings

Read through the entire process or click only on the steps that interest you!



Step 1: Identifying the Research Problem

Frequently, the hardest part of any research project is figuring out what needs to be figured out! It’s also the most important. It’s what will drive your research, steering you towards the data you need. You might start with a list of 20 questions or 100. Queries such as: 

  • Who are our customers?
  • Why do they choose us?
  • Are we fully meeting their needs, or do they want/need something more?
  • What’s our competition doing?
  • Are we marketing ourselves appropriately and/or enough?

The list can go on and on with you positing who, what, when, why, where and how any number or matter of issues exist. And because the list is endless, it’s important for you to identify one key problem you’d like to solve or an opportunity you’d like to explore so that you can come up with the right questions to ask and get the answers you need. If you have too many questions, you won’t be able to get answers for them all. You just won’t have the time or the resources to explore and talk to all the people required to make that happen. On the flip side, however, is the fact that too narrow a topic can prevent respondents from adequately exploring issues you might not have considered, severely limiting the quality (and quantity) of data you collect.  One provides too much information and the other, too little. Limiting your questions to only the ones that can help you solve your problem will enable you to stay focused and on point, digging deep (when necessary) without wasting money and energy needlessly exploring too much.

And don’t be afraid to refine your research objective if needed! You may start with what you feel is a great question, only to find after a bit of preliminary research that it really doesn’t address your problem. Research is an ongoing endeavor, and companies should (or dare we say, must!) adapt accordingly if empirical evidence seems to be suggesting a different direction.


research methodology and design

Step 2: Establish the Research Methodology & Design

Once you have a problem in mind and some questions to ask, it’s time to strategize about how you can get the answers you need: 

  • Do you need statistical data or subjective information?
  • Would asking people about their experiences and opinions help shed light on your problem?
  • If so, which people?
  • How will you identify your sample?
  • What are the demographics of your target audience?
  • Is it feasible to reach them online; in person; through the mail; or a combination of all three?
  • Is an experiment warranted?

The answers to these types of questions should dictate your overall research design, justifying the methods you choose to use for your project. Just make sure it’s not the other way around! Too often budget, manpower and time constraints propel companies to formulate a methodology that might be convenient but really doesn’t address the issue(s) at hand. Instead, use your research objectives to drive your research design, picking research methods that effectively match the two together.

The process isn’t necessarily intuitive or easy. There are a lot of people in the world with a lot of experiences and opinions. Designing a study that adequately meets the right people at the right time in the right place so that you can project meaning to your own problem requires a lot of preliminary thought and work. You will need to carefully consider what you need to know and then figure out the best way to go about getting it.

An example would be a company wanting to better understand how to engage customers in a virtual environment. Due to the subjective nature of the problem, the company might choose to make use of qualitative measures like consumer and expert interviews and focus groups. These research methods provide qualitative data about the things customers like and don’t like, valuable information that can be used to refine subsequent research projects in the future. 

On the other hand, a company wanting to measure the effectiveness of its packaging might choose a quantitative research design capable of statistically describing the number of units sold in one type of packaging versus the number sold in another. Looking at the numbers can reveal correlations, enabling companies to draw conclusions and take action. Surveys, questionnaires and some types of experiments are particularly tailored for answering these types of questions.

Finally, there may also be times when companies can skip the primary research design altogether and instead use secondary research materials such as books, syndicated reports and trade journals or magazines to help inform their decisions. Each of these sources offer a lot of valuable information at little to no cost, saving companies time and money to use in other ways.


recruit a sample

Step 3: Select and Recruit a Sample

The market research process depends on a good question and a good plan of attack. But if you neglect to carefully consider the people best equipped to help you with it all, you’ve wasted a lot of time and energy. To ensure a quality market research project, you must recruit and trust a knowledgeable and engaged group of people. It’s the only way to obtain reliable, timely and relevant information capable of providing you with the insight you need to garner the outcomes you want.

You can identify potential respondents from a variety of sources; just be sure to stay away from audiences that might be too small to be truly representative of your whole audience (like family and friends) or that might feel pressured to tell you what you want to hear rather than what is true (like suppliers, vendors and existing customers). A better option is partnering with a research firm that can capitalize on industry relationships and/or provide telephone and online sampling to engage respondents. Having a trusted partner vetting your sample helps ensure that only the most qualified viewpoints are sought and used, an important skill considering the plethora of professional (i.e., paid) respondents who only want to make a buck, not a difference. 

This is not to say that incentives can not or should not be utilized to recruit your respondents. When used appropriately, rewards can encourage and compensate respondent participation without influencing your outcomes. The key is ensuring that the incentive is reasonable and proportionate to the expense, time and inconvenience of your participants and appropriately expresses your appreciation for their assistance with your work.  Monetary gifts, coupons/discounts, samples and prize drawings are just a few ways companies can boost respondent participation while maintaining the integrity of their data.


organize and collect data

Step 4: Collect and Organize Data

As noted in Step 2 of the market research process, your research objectives dictate your research design. And now’s the time to put pen to paper (figuratively, if not literally, speaking) and turn your plan into action by crafting the survey; assembling your focus groups; examining pre-existing literature; commencing the phone interviews; or any manner of other ways! Collecting your data is exciting (if not just a teeny bit scary). After all, there are a lot of things to consider, not least of which is the route your data collection will take. Depending on your target audience and how and where and when its members would or already do interact with you, you must determine how to get your research instrument in front of them. If the majority of your potential respondents are Millennials, send your survey via the Internet. If you’re targeting older Americans with limited budgets, reach them with a phone call. Chose the wrong method and you could end up with nothing. But chose the right one, and you can watch the data roll in.

A big part of collecting data is having a way to organize it. You can gather all the information in the world, but if you can’t access it when you want and in the ways you want, then it’s meaningless. The capacity for data sets to be bigger and better is made possible by today’s technologies that afford more storage, faster retrievals and advanced labeling and sorting options for the data you collect. Use them. Gather your colleagues and make sure they use them correctly, too. Among many things, the integrity of your data will also depend on the consistency with which all members of your team deal with it, both as it comes in and as it’s filed. Accurate analysis can only occur if your data exists and can be retrieved!


analyze and report findings

Step 5: Analyze and Report Findings

We’ve mentioned that good business decisions are rarely accidental. A lot of hard work has to be applied via the market research process in order for companies to gain the insight they need to make decisions that, in some way, are both meaningful and profitable for consumers, employees, stakeholders and the community alike. Thus, data not only has to be collected, it has to be scrutinized and shared, as well.

Even if you aren’t a seasoned research analyst, sometimes just arranging your data visually in a bar or line graph can help you identify trends over time. Similarly, putting data in a pie chart can quickly reveal the variable(s) with the largest data sets, signifying potential value in some way. Of course, unless you are a seasoned research analyst, you might also want to consult an expert to further explain the data you’ve gleaned. It’s very easy to misinterpret data or get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information. Inferences can be made with too little support and numbers can be miscalculated. If context is overlooked, the results are likewise suspect. Good researchers know how to regard data within a frame of reference, taking in to account the circumstances surrounding data collection as political, personal and cultural variables all play in to how a respondent might think and act on any given day. Likewise, collection techniques (such as the size of your sample or the quality of your survey questions) can drastically affect outcomes, prompting you to reach inaccurate conclusions and, thus, make poor decisions.

By consulting a professional analyst you become privy to a host of material you could not otherwise assess. He or she will understand how descriptive (mean, median and mode) and inferential (such as multiple regression analysis, discriminant analysis, factor analysis, clustering, conjoint analysis and multidimensional scaling) statistical methods can be used to evaluate quantitative data sets, moving past a simple summation of your data to drawing conclusions from it. A professional analyst can even help you examine qualitative data, either by facilitating human or mechanical coding so that textual data can be condensed into numerical data (allowing it to be statistically manipulated) or by helping you weed through transcripts to identify themes and trends.

Methods like content analysis, narrative analysis, conversation analysis, grounded theory and discourse analysis all attempt to make meaning out of personal interactions and communications. The subjective nature of this type of evaluation can provide an insight that strict numerical data lacks, making it an important part of your market research results.

The final piece of the market research process is reporting the research findings. A research report should not be a point by point review of facts and figures. If it doesn’t reference the research goals, or doesn’t take in to account the audience(s) it serves or stubbornly relies on only one type of data display, it doesn’t fully capitalize on the research experience and only serves as an example of wasted time and wasted money.

Instead, good market research reports highlight the insights culled from the research process, the conclusions they informed and the recommendations they inspired. They provide a succinct overview of the market research process and render suggestions for further action.

What the Market Research Process Means for You

Choosing to spend money, especially on something as seemingly esoteric as “market research,” is never an easy decision. For many, paying someone to ask questions amounts to throwing money in the wind. But market research is an investment, securing the intellectual capital you need to bring insight and clarity to business decisions about operations and consumer behavior and industry trends. When approached methodically and managed correctly, the market research process can effect lasting and valuable results for companies of all types and sizes.  It helps businesses: 

  1. Understand Their Consumers
  2. Understand Their Competition
  3. Test Their Ideas
  4. Test Their Relevance
  5. Track Market Changes 

The fruits of the market research process provide context for industry, consumer and product behavior and frequently help uncover the things you don’t know you don’t know. They help generate content, driving engagement and interest and, hopefully, sales!

Our team at Communications for Research (CFR) has over 20 years experience using the market research process to garner actionable results that inform superior business decisions. We deliver innovative services custom-tailored for each of our clients. We can oversee all steps of the market research process for you, or we can administer only the parts of the process with which you need help. We can help you recognize key issues and design a study to address them. We can facilitate the selection and mustering of a robust and representative sample. And we can collect and examine data and report back to you with concrete suggestions for better business practice — all in terms you can comprehend. Don’t continue to rely on dumb luck or chance to effectuate meaningful change. Contact us to learn how we can leverage our experience into calculated insights that better your business decisions.

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