How to conduct marketing research like a pro

Written by Adam

May 13, 2020

Web management

Good market research takes effort. Like a scientist, you need to interrogate the facts and pull evidence from a range of credible sources. This is your complete guide to what marketing research is, why you should use it and how to make it work for you.

Primary Vs. secondary research

There are two key types of marketing research to consider: primary research (that you conduct yourself) and secondary research (that has already been done).

Primary research

This is the tough one. The one that takes time, effort and often money. It’s the kind of research that many marketers shy away from or skip. 

But here’s the thing… your business and your customer base are unique

90% of the information you really need will come from primary research. So if you’re serious about building an exceptional brand, it’s a must. The great thing about primary research is that the data you gain is yours alone. Those insights will be your competitive edge. 

There is a large number of methods to use for your primary research. But before we get there, a quick word on quantitative and qualitative research.

Secondary Research

The advantage of secondary research is that you can do it from your desk and on your own. There’s a wealth of detailed research to be gleaned if you know where to look. And with secondary research, that place is generally Google. Just remember to get your information from quality publications and respected sources.

For instance, you might want to know what the most-used social media platform is in the UK—still Facebook (Statistica, 2020). Or you might be interested in what the average email open rate is for advertising agencies—19.3% (CampaignMonitor, 2020). Say you’ve developed a new kind of sports shoe, you may be interested in the number of people who are registered ParkRun athletes in the UK—139,876 (, 2020), or even the best-selling women’s running show on Amazon—HKR (Amazon, 2020).

The best thing about secondary research: it’s quick, cheap and easy. Start here and fill in the blanks afterwards.

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

—Wernher von Braun, Apollo 11 Aerospace Engineer

Quantitative Vs. qualitative marketing research

To make things more complicated, there are another two types of marketing research to use. One helps you analyse trends with statistics, tables and graphs. The other gives you real-world insight into what people really think. It’s worth reviewing them both now.

Quantitative research

Think ratings, checklists and multiple-selections. The goal here is to gain quantifiable answers which can be compiled into statistics. This research is ideal for short customer surveys which the participant can complete on their own.  

These kinds of surveys can be sent out en-masse, letting you understand market trends from a large sample size. Use it to put figures against metrics like awareness, perceptions, marketing channels and satisfaction. This data can then be used to set baseline figures which will help you define, track and monitor KPIs. 

For the sake of consistency, it’s important to get these questions right from the get-go. If you start editing them, you’ll have nothing to compare the data to—and comprehensive analysis is all about comparison.

By profiling respondents by demographics and user types, you’ll be able to filter the data and look for patterns. For instance, say customer awareness of your new web hosting service is at just 40%. On further analysis, you might find that 90% of these people are over 65. Perhaps you need to review your comms strategy.

Qualitative research 

Think opinions, experiences and personal insights. Here you can dig much deeper into your customers’ barriers, motivations and pain-points. Sure, this research requires more effort (which means you’ll want a smaller sample size), but with the right approach, you can gain powerful insights.

Before conducting qualitative research, reach out to your participants and get their permission. Often, an incentive is required. Here, prize draws for shopping vouchers, spa days or doughnuts tend to do the trick. 

Often qualitative research can help you answer the questions drawn from survey results. By talking to that 65+ group about comms, you might find out that they don’t use Twitter, so aren’t receiving your web-hosting ads. They do love a good old email though, so time to switch strategy.

Rocket science and marketing research

As Wernher von Braun, the public face of Apollo 11 once said: “research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” Forget the genius behind Armstrong’s giant leap, the real rocket fuel was research. 

Today, marketers are involved in a new type of space race. We’re not looking to set foot on a moon. Our mission is to be the first to occupy market space. And while our research isn’t rocket science, it’s essential when building our hyper-efficient marketing constructs. 

There are five essential types of marketing research you should be doing.

1) Surveys

A simple survey can provide a large amount of data with minimal effort. You can conduct surveys on the street, via direct mail or online. Where possible, I like to keep them digital.

A tool like SurveyMonkey makes collecting and analysing the data simple. You can set up a series of questions to determine if respondents are eligible to take part. To make the survey both relevant and dynamic, send them on varying paths depending on the answers that they give. 

You can also set up a range of different collectors and send different links of the same survey to different target audience types. This makes it easy to keep track of who’s who when you’re reviewing the data.

In most cases, a survey should only take a couple of minutes to complete or else participants will get bored and move on. You also want to make it as simple as possible, which is why this channel generally lends itself to qualitative research.

2) Interviews

Nothing beats a good old one-to-one at getting to the heart of what matters. These can take 20-30 minutes, so make sure that the participant is willing to take part. 

Recruit a range of participants that represent your community and avoid the temptation to recruit your top customers. You’ll learn far more from your critics. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Ensure your participants know your objectives.
  • Schedule their time rather than calling them on the fly.
  • Structure your questions in a logical sequence.
  • Invite honesty (there are no right or wrong answers).
  • Make the process anonymous and comfortable.
  • Keep them on track and avoid waffle.
  • Beware of leading or weighted questions.
  • Stay silent while interviewees grapple with the question.
  • Always be asking ‘why?’
  • Make notes and take a recording (remember to ask first).

To draw insights from the marketing research, summarise the answers in a research matrix. Structure it with questions/answers along the top and participant names down the side. This will make it easy to look for patterns while filtering the answers by customer type.

3) Focus groups

They say two minds are better than one. A focus group takes this idea and supercharges it. 

In short, a focus group brings together a selection of people to participate in a facilitated discussion. They tend to focus on a particular topic and seek to elicit customer/stakeholder perceptions of it. By bringing anywhere from 6-12 people together in a 90-minute problem-solving environment, you can highlight issues and crunch through resolutions at speed.

Unlike the interview, a focus group invites interaction from participants. This can be revelationary when the group friction starts throwing out sparks, digging into issues you didn’t even know you had. 

But it doesn’t always work out that way.

‘Groupthink’ is the enemy of the focus group. This happens when people don’t feel comfortable airing their opinions and conform to the opinions of whoever has the loudest voice. Here, the structure of the focus group and the ability of the facilitator show their worth. 

The thing is: focus groups are tricky. Setting them up takes time and organisation, and delivering them effectively is an art. 

4) Observations

What if you could walk in your customers’ shoes? Imagine if you could listen to their thoughts as they walked into your shop. Or see your product range through their eyes? 

Next best is an observation—useful if your business owns a shop, facility or catering location. This may sound creepy (and sometimes is), but an observation means following people through the customer journey

The aim is to be discreet. That doesn’t mean hiding behind counters and wearing a disguise, it means observing their behaviour from a distance. Most of the time, you will need to get permission to conduct one. 

You’ll want to take notes on all parts of the journey. For example, if they’re in your shop, what drew them in? What was their initial reaction like once they entered? How easy was it for them to find what they were looking for? Were the staff helpful? How long was the queue? Did they find anything confusing/difficult/annoying/delightful, etc?

Once they’re done, see if you can grab them for a follow-up interview.

5) Social listening

Want to know what people are saying about your brand online? Time for a little social listening. This lets you track your social media for mentions and then analyses the information to draw further insights.

This information can be a gold mine for your marketing efforts, providing (very) honest feedback about concerns and frustrations all in one place.

There are a number of social listening tools that you can use to really dig into customer opinions. Try BuzzSumo and Hootesuite on for size. For many SMEs, a simple review of mentions and a search for relevant hashtags will help you find the information you need to build exceptional marketing content.


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