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Professionally conducted market research and great insights can be the key to business success. It can help you reduce the risks associated with possible new ventures , whilst also pinpointing outstanding market opportunities that will give you a competitive advantage. But this raises the question of how you go about buying the market research that is best for you.

David Smith, founder of DVL Smith and author of  The Entrepreneur Mindset: The art of making ideas happen (2023)
looks at seven key questions, the answers to which should guide you through the typical market research buying process.

Question one: Do I need to involve a market research agency in my proposed research and insight project?

Today organisations are able to make use of a vast amount of publicly available evidence and information.

In addition, there has been a massive increase in the availability of high quality and easy to use ‘do it yourself‘ research tools.

So the first question to ask is whether you even need to work with a market research agency on your proposed research project.

This is a difficult question on which to provide a generalised answer.

Different people will have varying levels of expertise when it comes to knowing how the market research process works, how best to intelligently interpret the evidence, and then make informed decisions.

But what we would say is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the art of collecting information about what customers think and how they’re likely to behave, and placing the correct interpretation on this evidence is comparatively straightforward. It is not!

In the hands of someone who is inexperienced in the qualitative and quantitative research process the outcome of a project can be catastrophic.

The end result could lead to poor decision-making because it has been based on erroneous facts and flawed evidence.

So before deciding that you can go it alone, be honest with yourself about how much you really know about the art and science of assessing peoples’ attitudes and behaviour.

This is a craft insight professionals will have spent many years mastering.

Question two: How do I know which market research agencies to consider for my research project?

A key start point is to identify agencies that are accredited by the Market Research Society (MRS ) an internationally recognised and highly respected industry body.

What this accreditation tells you is that you will be working with an agency that
follows MRS Code of Conduct . This means the agency will undertake research that conforms to national and international legislation, including the Data Protection Act.

In addition agencies subscribing to the Code must conduct research that respects research participants’ rights.

Furthermore agencies subscribing to the MRS Code of Conduct need to meet certain quality standards about the way professional research should be conducted.

Specifically by referring to the MRS Research Buyers Guide you will learn about the precise quality standards to which the agency is operating.

Question three: Who do I need to involve within my own organisation in shaping and commissioning a research project?

It’s important that a market research study is conducted within the overall context of what an organisation is trying to achieve.

It’s easy to become obsessed with your own pet project and in a blinked way end up going go down various rabbit holes and blind alleys.

There are several good reasons why it pays dividends to involve relevant colleagues in the research buying process.

Firstly, if you don’t talk to other people within your organisation you could end up re-inventing the wheel by recreating evidence that already exists within the company.

Secondly, as a general rule it’s good to involve internal stakeholders who have a stake in what it is you’re trying to achieve with your market research project.

By involving these key people you will push up the probability of getting buy-in to your project. It will help you get the actions you want to take based on your proposed research implemented.

Thirdly, it’s always good to have a sounding board - a ‘critical friend‘ - who you can talk to as you’re shaping your research project.

So what does this mean in practice. If you are a larger organisation, first check whether you have a procurement system in place. This could be an arrangement to work with particular agencies to provide different types of market research services.

Clearly this is a starting platform for making your decision about which agency to use. There will be rules to follow but usually within these procurement frameworks there will be the flexibility for you to express your agency preferences.

If you are a smaller organisation it’s unlikely you’ll have a formal procurement process, but it remains important to make sure you’ve identified colleagues who have a connection with and/or will be affected by the research project that you’re considering.

It is important to take these colleagues with you on your market research purchasing journey.

Question four: How can I be sure I’m researching the right problem?

When market research projects do not live up to expectations this is often because insufficient time has been put into the problem definition stage of the project.

Organisations then end up working on the symptoms of the problem not the true problem.

So for example against a backdrop of falling sales, research could be proposed on what is wrong with the product, but the true problem lies with a drop in morale and motivation of the sales team. You get the idea.

So you need to have a rigorous process in place for making sure your initial statement of the perceived problem is carefully analysed, verified and substantiated.

This includes ensuring that you have fully understand the wider business context to the problem you have initially posited.

You also need to ensure all the underlying critical assumptions you have made in initially framing the problem have been carefully reviewed - validated.

In the market research industry the typical process for dealing with this issue of defining the real problem is for the client to prepare a written research brief, followed by the agency preparing a written research proposal.

The exact format of these documents will vary dependent on the client organisation, agency and nature of the project .

Sometimes they can be longer documents. But often they will be quite short, concise and to the point.

But generally speaking it is unhelpful for the process of briefing the agency and receiving their response to be a solely verbal exchange - getting stuff down in writing pays dividends. This demonstrates clarity of thinking and ensures critical details are addressed.

Typically the ‘research brief’ will contain the business context to the specific challenge - research problem.

One way of expressing this is to make a statement about what it is you as the client expect to be able to do with the data/evidence once the research project has been completed - what overall actions and decisions do you want to take.

Secondly, the brief would also spell out the precise research objectives -
the particular questions you would like answered about say, customers’ attitudes and /or behaviour and so on.

And thirdly, the research brief will provide some guidelines as to timing, and you may wish to make a statement about the overall budget parameters within which you are operating.

It is also helpful to outline any other relevant logistical or practical considerations.

Then in response to this research brief, the market research agency will prepare a research proposal.

They will begin by helping you refine the presented problem and help you sharpen your research objectives.

In their proposal the agency will also provide an outline of their proposed research design - the programme of research they will follow to answer your business and research objectives.

They will also probably introduce the research team with whom you will be working - and outline their experience.

In the document they will also spell out the project deliverables - the data, evidence, presentations and reports they will be providing.
And , of course, the proposal will detail the costs and fees involved in delivering the project, and also address various contractual matters.

Every client and agency scenario is different, but the general golden rule is not to sleep walk - shuffle - into a research project without getting total clarity about the process.

So you as the client should provide the agency with a clear written statement of your expectation. And you can then expect the agency to respond with a coherent research proposal in writing.

One qualification to the above guidance is that this may not be appropriate when buying self-service DIY style research platforms, tools and applications. Here the buying process will be a simple purchase transaction that is outside of the research brief /proposal process outlined above.

Question five: What criteria should I use in selecting a specific market research agency?

We have already began to answer this question by suggesting that you select an agency from the pool of agencies that are accredited by the MRS - those who will follow the appropriate codes of conduct and adhere to fundamental best practice quality standards.

But your selection criteria will need to go beyond this - you will need to look at what each agency has to say about its specific methodological and technical prowess in relation to the particular issue you’re looking at.

So if you’re thinking of undertaking a market segmentation, do they have this kind of specialist expertise.

Or if you’re looking for an agency to help you measure, and track, your levels of customer satisfaction is this an area of specialism for them and so on.

In addition to establishing an agency’s overall accredited status, their methodological expertise and the experience of the research team, it is also important you also take into account other softer criteria.

Here were talking about whether in your conversations with the agency you felt the chemistry was right.

Did you sense you’ll be working with an agency that genuinely understands and respects your organisation’s culture and how you like to work?

Are the agency people you met the kind of personalities you feel you could do business with?

Does everything add up to suggest this will be a productive and harmonious working relationship - a partnership?

It is this combination of harder quality criteria together with the human relationship dimension that makes for a successful market research project.

Question Six: How do I decide how much to spend on a market research project?

In general businesses that get the most out of their expenditure on market research see this as an investment than produces long term benefits, rather than a short-term cost to the business.

So in deciding how much to spend on market research it is helpful to look at the value the research findings provide.

Look for the return on investment you will get through having insights and information that will give your organisation a competitive advantage in the market place.

Do not see the process of buying market research as about automatically going to the lowest price bid.

Of course keeping your costs down matters but so does getting quality results that will deliver valuable finding that are valid and reliable.

Question seven: What is it reasonable to expect from a market research agency?

Firstly, you can expect the agency to go beyond just taking your ‘market research order’ and to help you define and refine the originally presented research challenge - problem.

Secondly, the agency should spell out the precise research process they will follow - showing the different timings and milestones - so you have a clear understanding of exactly what they are doing in your behalf and when.

Thirdly, it is reasonable for you ask about the exact quality standards to which the agency adheres on critical issues such as their procedures for drawing their samples and/or recruiting qualitative research participants and checking the accuracy of their data outputs.

Fourth, they should provide you with details of the project manager and team who you will be looking after your project and provide you with regular progress reports /communications about the status of the project.

Fifth, they should spell out precisely the deliverables they will provide - what you can expect in terms of the data being provided, a presentation or report.

And finally, it is not unreasonable for you ask to ask the agency for their advice on how to ensure the research study you have commissioned can best actioned in a way that makes your investment worthwhile.

Summary of top tips

One: Do not go it alone unless you have all of the necessary experience to handle the subtleties and nuances of the market research process.

Two: Use a market research agency accredited by the MRS.

Three: Make sure you involve key stakeholders in your organisation when shaping your research project.

Four: Ensure you’re working on the true problem not just the symptoms.

Five: Apply a mix of hard and soft criteria in selecting your research agency.

Six: Treat research as being an investment that provides transformational value - do not just base your purchase decision on who is offering the lowest price.

Seven: Make sure at the outset you get a clear statement of the deliverables and standards of service you can expect from the agency.

This article was written by David VL Smith, Founder, DVL Smith Ltd
Author of  The Entrepreneur Mindset: The art of making ideas happen (2023)


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