Time to Redefine Market Research from Process to Outcomes

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I conducted my first class for the Fall Semester at the University of Arkansas the other night. I am teaching a 300-level course in Market Research to a great group of Texans and Arkansans. I am fortunate in that I have a night class and we are spread-out with masks on in an auditorium due to COVID. Not ideal, but I was dreading full “distance learning” as I need the energy of a classroom to keep it interesting for me (and hopefully my students).

What is “Market Research”?

In beginning the year, I always talk about the origin of Market Research (used almost interchangeably with term ‘Marketing Research’ in practice) and crescendo with the “definition” slide. I have been cycling through textbooks over the years, and haven’t found one I am crazy about. Likewise, this year I started looking at different definitions of “market research”. I am not always fond of definitions per se, in that they are confining. They do, however, have utility in that they define scope. What is it? What is it not?

In prepping I started looking up different definitions of Market Research. Here’s a few from Academic texts:

Marketing research is the process of designing, gathering, analyzing, and reporting information that may be used to solve a specific marketing problem” from Burns, Veeck and Bush (2017)
Marketing research looks at the different aspects that must be considered when satisfying requirement. It is the process of providing information to assist in market decisions” from Bradley (2013)

And from the online text which I am using “A Practical Guide to Market Research” by Paul Hague (2006)

Marketing research the systematic and objective collection and interpretation of data to help reduce risk in marketing decisions”

As a nearly thirty-year practitioner of market research, or ‘insights’ or “customer experience work’ depending on the decade, there was a lot right with these definitions in my mind. But based on my experience they seemed to come up short to describe what I do. I looked elsewhere turning to practitioners.

I found this one in the Insights Association Glossary

“[Market Research] which includes social and opinion research, is the systematic gathering and interpretation of information about individuals or organisations using the statistical and analytical methods and techniques of the applied social sciences to gain insight or support decision making. The identity of respondents will not be revealed to the user of the information without explicit consent and no sales approach will be made to them as a direct result of their having provided information.“

Notwithstanding the Association’s obsession with anonymity (which is routinely ignored by almost every CX tech provider I know) and the curious affection for anglophile spelling, I thought the definition was good but still left me wanting. It helpfully brought polling under the tent and saluted the social sciences, which is very inclusive in spirit. Still, it is full of describing the ‘what’ but doing little justice as to the specific goal. I mean “support decision making” is so passively vague. I “support” my daughter’s decision making…but she rarely takes my advice.

Undeterred I came across an interesting discussion from Research Rockstar founder Kathryn Korostoff from 2018 discussing the same issue. In her two-slide homage to parsimony, Kathryn helpfully reviewed and discussed and also provided some additional practitioner definitions. Here are two from her video.

Market Research is a systematic objective collection and analysis of data about a particular target market, competition, and/or environment. It always incorporates some form of data collection whether it be secondary research (often referred to as desk research) or primary research which is collected directly from a respondent” – DJD Research appearing on Research World.

What I found refreshing about DJD Research’s definition is the inclusion of “objective” (as did Mr. Hague’s definition). If news is supposed to be objective, we should be Gandalf the Grey. We should make Justitia’s opinion look InfoWars biased in contrast to our findings. But it is important to not confuse unbiased with uncaring. As researchers, we need to actively advocate for truth and specifically consumer truth. We must be passionate (but humble) advocates about the customer. That’s our job.

Here’s long time Market Research publisher Quirk’s Market Research view on the topic:

“Market research the planning, collection, and analysis of data relevant to marketing decision making, and the communication of results of this analysis to management.”

Short and sweet. Looking not too dissimilar to good old Burns, Veeck, and Bush, but skillfully put the “to management” piece of it in there. Nicely played! 

Ok, bear with me, I would be remiss if I did not turn to the perennial halcyon oracle of Market Researchers everywhere…I give you, the American Marketing Association.

“Marketing research the function that links the consumer, customer, and public to the marketer through information – information used to identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve the understanding of marketing as a process”

Well a bit more inclusive than some of the other definitions. They also break out the different functions of market research that I am familiar with; generating ideas, refining them, evaluating them, and monitoring them. Still, there is something missing in all these definitions in my estimation.

Focused on Process vs. Outcome

While market research does involve “the process of designing, gathering, analyzing, and reporting” that is a means to end. If you ask people about what a home builder does, he doesn’t tell you about foundation, and studs, brick and motor. He or she shows the houses he builds.

Sure, I guess we can leave it in the definition, but that’s just the generic steps. And I suppose, if I wanted to get nitpicky, I know plenty of market research firms that only gather data, or analyze data but, I suppose we are talking about the industry as a whole, so I will let that go.

However, I think it is important to say for what purpose in a non-passive voice. “Understanding” and “support decision making” are the equivalent of an intellectual cold fish handshake. Perhaps that passive orientation originates in the more cautious halls of academia. There is no place for meekness in sharing the truth…we must advocate for it. We are crusaders of truth!

Static vs. Iterative

One of the reasons Market Research is so often horribly ineffective in many contexts today, is the process so many suppliers and vendors engage in to find insights. The ‘Write the brief-get a proposal-do the research-report the results-bill the client’ cycle is mechanical and about as passionate as a Swiss actuary. Traditional market research tends to follow a waterfall approach vs. agile. Good market research (or insights) is an iterative process. We learn, we do, we learn some more, we do, we learn some more, we do, ad infinitum. This aspect of what I believe is good market research is missing in all the definitions I reviewed.

“Marketing” Decisions

Here is where some readers will disagree with me (of course you may have already disagreed with me well in advance of this particular paragraph). The type of research I conduct informs way more than just the marketing department. In my career, I have provided insight and recommendations to Public Relations, Engineering, Product Development, Design, Merchandising, Quality Assurance, Human Resources, Finance, Manufacturing, Technical Support, Information Systems, Line of Business Owners, Field Support, Facilities, and almost every organizational unit outside of accounting and audit. 

The researchers I know do much more than support just ‘marketing’ decisions. I think putting marketing research in the marketing department is not a good idea, lest they become the single lens of the customer through a myopic acquisition aperture. They belong in strategy or as an independent group, much like audit and provide a holistic view of prospects and customers. 

Beyond Market Research

This got me thinking, perhaps I should be more humble as my friend advocates. Perhaps those definitions are accurate, but they are describing is no longer needed, if it ever was. Perhaps it is time to evolve. So instead of me trying to convince the AMA, the Insights Association, and other esteemed organizations perhaps I will tender a definition for a new discipline not called market research at all. Here’s my crack at it:

[name of discipline here ] is the iterative process of designing, collecting, analyzing, effectively communicating, behavioral and latent consumer data and advocating a point of view and actions based on that data regarding consumer related business decisions.

Here’s what I liked about this definition. First, the work is done in an agile way. Second, we need to do more than “report” we need to communicate…and do so much more effectively than we ever have, a known weakness in the market research world, so I also stuck an ‘effectively’ in there for good measure.

By behavioral and latent consumer data, I mean things like what kind beer you bought last Friday, how many you bought, what’s your opinion about it, it and how did make you feel. It can also be metadata the follows data around. Anything to do with consumer behavior is fair game in my book.

I took out the wishy-washy “supporting” and “improve the understanding of” and moved to a more aggressive “advocating a point of view”. Mind you, I don’t mean your opinion, I mean your interpretation of the situation based on data. As good ole Mr. Deming once said “without data you’re just another person with opinion”. Also, you may note my use of word “actions”, as noted in an earlier rant, market research suppliers do a woeful job of recommending actions, let alone do anything about it. Let’s pump that up too.

Finally, I don’ think we have a place deciding if something is going to be profitable or not. That’s finance’s job. We are also not a reasonable choice for figuring out how to make it work the way the customer wants it to, that’s engineering’s job. But in both cases, we can partner with those groups to help them. Our swim lane is clear; the customer and what they want. We are here to advocate for better products and services…and…wait for it…experiences. So maybe the name of the new discipline is not new at all. If we allow ourselves to think of prospects as customers who just haven’t fell in love with our brand yet, I might even be tempted to call this discipline…customer experience.

Next Steps

We cannot completely blame market research suppliers who simply comply and fulfill on requirements. They have been trained (and rewarded) to bid to spec, sometimes being punished by purchasing for coloring outside the lines. Also, strategic types aren’t cheap, which likely figures into the paucity of this type of talent in big research firms. Research firms are not always rewarded for going the extra mile (as they see it), and so with an eye toward cost reduction they staff to the operational demands of market research vs. the strategic needs that are really required.

If you are in senior management at a supplier I recommend you start thinking about ways of acquiring talent who can go beyond describing the results and finding and rewarding those who can think about implications and pushing them towards minimally making recommendations. Automate the mundane…hire thinkers.

If you are on the client-side, consider giving your suppliers some more white space to create. Push them to do more than just provide a report. Reward them for thinking about solving your business problem. In this way, we will evolve the industry from report writing to creating meaningful change.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this very thorough and thought-provoking post. I agree that the name ‘market research’ is a problem, many people who do what we do, do not call it market research. I don’t have a good alternative, but I keep trying.

    But, thinking about the definition, and taking your lead on outcomes not process, how about ‘Improving decision making through understanding people’?

  2. Thanks Dave – I like this post, and appreciate both the provocation(s) and the suggestion(s); I also like Ray’s suggestion!!
    Allow me to also recommend reading this years ESOMAR GMR report and an article on the same topic (due to be published soon), which I think you will also enjoy.
    The one element for me that is still missing – and indeed, is difficult to encapsulate – is Rigour. This is an old-fashioned word, but with very relevant and topical importance…..eg if the beer questions you reference were asked at 11pm at night after 15 beers were consumed, then saliency would be distinctly diminished!! That’s Rigour….. its not a rose-tinted rearview mirror decrying the loss of random-route, probability sampling, but its about understanding the difference between good, relevant, (and yes, occasionally representative) data, to inadequate, insufficient and clearly biased data….I’d like to think it is that ability that distinguishes our profession?

  3. Thanks Ray for reading and your comment. I personally feel ‘improving decision making’ is probably not going far enough. Where possible advocating a point of view (based on objective data) and where possible offering (or brokering) solutions is where we can make a different. FWIW

  4. Hey Finn,
    Yea i would agree with you and think that is a topic for perhaps over a few beers! On one hand, I am a huge believer in rigor in research (e.g., quality). I have become increasingly convinced of the power of qual, and in particular, client list based qual over say…panel data, which is (in places) is fraught with fraud and survey-bots. That being said, I have been in some situations where almost any basic research (convenience sample or otherwise) would be preferable just to “go and build it”. So I think making a monolithic research purity test may also distance practitioners from the speed in which they wish to move and the amount of money they want to spend. Right tool for the right job perhaps?

  5. Love the new definition Dave – especially the iterative nature of the work, the span beyond marketing, and the advocacy.

    It is true, more reports from market research consultants still just report numbers, rather than drawing conclusions, and making recommendations, leave alone advocating for a stance.

    Having worked on both the research provider and the corporate side,I believe both sides are to blame – corporate buyers do not advocate for sufficient budgets, are happy to give back money and allow shrinking budgets with each year. We want Bain/McKinsey like results/reports but with a teensy budget. This forces market research providers to staff the project with lowest cost employees.
    On the research provider side, the unrelenting focus on billable hours does not allow project leaders to gain a through understanding of the business situation, s they feel and are inadequate to making recommendations.

    This must change if the industry is to survive. I see too many people saying, just give up on research and let data analytics guide the decisions.

  6. Dave –

    Thoroughly enjoyed the post, the line of discussion, and the responses. A lot to think about.

    From my perspective, the most effective market or marketing research (and acknowledging the difference) is based on an objective, quo vadis (or, where are we going and what are we trying to achieve testing of hypotheses) mindset. Contemporary research techniques and thinking also recognize that deeper levels of understanding and insight are now required to provide management and initiative guidance: https://beyondphilosophy.com/customer-experience-research-morphed-focus-change-cognitive-rational-emotional-relationship-driven/

  7. Sheflai, agree completely. I think you can have high quality, high value firms, without McKinsey prices. Research is at a minimum an insurance policy to avoid massive mistakes, at its best it is a partner to work alongside other discplines (design, engineering, finance, etc). Thanks for reading!

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