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Market Research - A Powerful Business Tool

By Marcia Kaplan

Published in Women In Consulting Newsletter, July 2004
 
Few people would climb a mountain blindfolded. Yet company executives routinely pursue markets with blinders on—ignorant of market characteristics, the competition, and barriers to entry. Good ideas and good products aren’t enough; a variety of factors can prevent first-class concepts from becoming profitable businesses. Opportunities need to be carefully investigated through objective market research. Investing in research can both save a business from making costly mistakes and increase its long-term profitability.

It’s a common misconception that only large companies can afford market research. Just the opposite is true; small companies cannot afford not to invest in research. When resources are limited, mistakes are more damaging. Many small businesses fail because their owners don't do their homework—before starting the business and during the first crucial months. By performing a comprehensive market investigation—on their own or by enlisting the services of professional researchers—business owners can avoid pitfalls, increase revenues, and differentiate themselves from their competition.

Types of Market Research
Customer satisfaction is probably the most common form of market research but other kinds of research are equally important. The main categories are:
  • Competitor analysis – identifies who it is, pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of other firms in the same market, shows where they are having success, and what they plan to do in the future. The objective is to stay a step ahead by taking advantage of their weaknesses, or at least keep up with them.
  • Market opportunity assessment – size, growth rate, trends, barriers to entry.
  • Product analysis – features, price points; determined by talking to potential customers to assess their desires before the product is introduced.
Research can be primary or secondary and quantitative or qualitative. A business needs primary research—which involves direct contact with sources of information—if it is trying to determine very specific, detailed information or is dealing with a technology, product, or service so new that there is a very limited existing body of literature. Customer satisfaction also requires primary research.

Secondary research involves the review of a body of existing literature about a topic. It is most suitable when a company wants a general overview of a broad topic, analyst opinions, and high-level quantitative information of an existing market.

Primary research is usually more expensive than secondary. Costs vary, depending on:
  • Sample size
  • How the survey will be administered – by mail, by telephone, online, focus groups
  • Whether just raw survey results or analysis and recommendations are desired
If resources are limited, a company can do secondary research in-house, provided in-house staff knows what resources are available, where to access the information, and how to interpret it. The Internet makes secondary research much easier and less expensive, because so many agencies have made information available for free. For example, government agencies worldwide furnish a wealth of quantitative information. Company Websites offer much valuable information, such as press releases, annual reports and financial filings, job openings, and product data sheets.

IT analysts and management consulting firms often make a limited number of reports and white papers available for free. Some companies also furnish free white papers, but these seldom are objective assessments.

Syndicated research reports are also available. These reports consist of long-term market forecasts, often segmented by geographical regions or vertical markets. Many businesses rely heavily on quantitative market forecasts to determine whether it makes sense for them to enter a new market or develop a new product. For established markets and products, syndicated research can be quite useful, but in the case of new products or technologies, such reports are less reliable.

Make the Most of Market Research
A business can dramatically improve its chances of getting valid results by clearly defining its objectives. Asking the right questions is crucial—a company should be able to clearly state what it wants to determine. It is not the responsibility of an outside research firm to identify what the client wants from a study. It is the research firm's responsibility to clearly explain its methodology and how it will approach a study.

Additionally, a research request should not be biased in favor of a particular result. Frequently, individuals who commission research have vested interests in a particular outcome. If the results are not to their liking, they try to discredit the study and ignore its results. It is best to have high-level decision-makers who have the best interests of the entire company at heart involved in the research process.

Research should not be based on an untested assumption. For example, a company should not assume there is demand for its new widget and ask a research company to find out how the product should be priced. Before developing the widget, the company should determine if there is a market for it.

Like any other investment, market research should be measured by the return it delivers. Return can be measured both by increased profitability and cost savings derived from not making mistakes. To receive any benefit, a company has to make a commitment to act on the results of a reliable research study. Market research can be a powerful business tool for those companies willing to remove their blindfolds.
© 2004. All rights reserved

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