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The Marketing Research Process in 6 Steps

Marketing research process

When launching into marketing strategy, it’s important to have a marketing research process so that one isn’t going into it unprepared. Your market research process may involve tracking the engagement with social media posts or questioning a focus group about their household spending habits. Whatever the path, companies have long embraced different types of research methods to gain consumer insight, help strengthen a brand, and achieve a competitive edge in the market.

These approaches are part of marketing research, a process that can reveal information about a company’s marketing efforts, such as which products have the highest potential for success or what advertising strategies will be the most impactful. Marketing research is a valuable tool in developing an effective marketing strategy. For example, conducting marketing research helps a business discover key information about its market standing and target customers. It also provides essential details about demographics and where to prioritize marketing investments. Yet, less than 40% of marketers use consumer research to influence their decisions. 

What is marketing research? 

Marketing research is the process of collecting and analyzing data from consumers and competitors to help businesses explore who their target customer is and what they want from the brand. Good marketing research can also provide insight into how effective marketing efforts are, and explore potential areas for growth. Marketing research covers a business’s entire marketing plan—from creating brand awareness to securing brand loyalists.  

To conduct marketing research, businesses collect information from consumers to help identify a product’s target market and how best to reach it. They do this by gathering consumer feedback from product surveys, focus groups, social media tracking, phone interviews, and consumer observation. A company may also complete a competitor analysis to assess market share and check how it’s stacking up against the competition. 

The 6 steps in the marketing process

The market research process is designed to paint a thorough picture of a company’s marketing plan, helping to identify where the weaknesses and strengths exist. The first step in the marketing research process is defining the problem or the question your research is trying to answer, followed by developing a research plan to answer that question, collecting and analyzing the data, and then producing a report. 

1. Identify the opportunity

The first step is to define the problem you’re aiming to solve. Asking specific questions will help pinpoint the most pressing needs or reveal the biggest opportunities to reach your research objectives. Questions you might ask in this initial stage include:

  • How many of our recent buyers are first-time customers? 
  • How can we turn them into repeat customers?
  • Why are sales lower than last quarter? 
  • Are our prices too high?
  • Why do customers put items in their shopping cart but don’t complete the purchase? 
  • How can we make our checkout flow more efficient?

2. Develop a research plan

A marketing research plan can help a business outline how to find the ways to address the questions it seeks to answer or the problems it wishes to solve. How you plan and design this research depends on the budget available, the research method chosen to source data, and the scope of the project.

There are two main research methods you can use to collect your data: primary research and secondary research. Each pulls information from different sources to provide a clear snapshot of your marketing research plan. 

  • Primary research. Primary research involves gathering original data through collection methods such as surveys or in-person interviews, then synthesizing that data into a report. Although potentially time-consuming and costly, it may be among the best ways to accurately collect answers to your questions.
  • Secondary research. Secondary research data involves gathering and synthesizing information gleaned from other sources, such as research reports, websites, or government files. Most research plans start with secondary data since it’s usually less expensive and readily available. You can use the information you gleaned using secondary data to inform how you will approach your primary research. 

The scope and budget for the plan will likely influence the time it takes to complete the research. A smaller sample size, for example, may only need a few weeks, while a larger, complex research project may take months (and more money) to collect the necessary information.  

3. Collect the data

After identifying objectives, it’s important to start collecting information. There are several different data collection methods that you can use to source information.

  • Surveys. Conducting a survey is an effective primary research method that can provide valuable feedback about business practices, marketing tactics, and product demand. Unbiased survey research can help capture the thoughts and feelings of a particular demographic. 
  • A/B testing. This research methodology compares two or more versions of a variable— say, two layouts of the same website (version A and B)—to collect information to test which would result in better outcomes and consumer engagement. In this scenario, the goal may be to see which site attracts more direct traffic to increase the number of monthly visitors.
  • Social media polling. Setting up a social media poll can be an effective and inexpensive way to collect user data. Polling current and potential customers gathers insight from  your target audience, which can impact how the company curates its products and user experiences. 
  • Interviews. Face-to-face or phone interviews can help companies assess consumer expectations from a brand. During these interviews, participants may be asked questions like: How long have you been a customer? Or: Why did you choose this brand over the competitor?
  • Focus groups. Focus groups gather a select group of people together based on demographics, buying history, or other factors to collect non-numerical (qualitative) data about a particular product or service. With focus groups, moderators can capture a variety of opinions and emotions via open-ended conversation or lines of questioning to capture the feelings potential (or current) customers have toward a product or service. 

4. Analyze your data

Analyzing data is a way to uncover trends or patterns within the company or in the marketplace that can impact a business’s market performance. Data analysis transforms raw metrics into digestible information to provide the answers to your initial research questions.

There are four main types of analysis you can use to evaluate data: 

  • Descriptive analytics. Analysis tools that lay out data in charts and graphs, for example, so you can see the big picture are known as descriptive analytics. This type of analysis presents a snapshot of performance in numbers, such as unique users or page views. 
  • Diagnostic analytics. Analysis tools that provide more than a general overview can help you find the “cause and effect” of a problem. For example, if the number of visitors to your website has decreased by 15% within the last six months, you’ll want to investigate why. Are too many pop-ups making it more difficult for users to navigate the site, or is the page load speed too slow and users are clicking out to another website? 
  • Predictive analytics. Based on existing data, predictive analytics help companies establish predictive models to forecast future outcomes more accurately. For instance, if data points to a correlation between the start of the school year and increased clothing sales, your ecommerce company may need additional solutions to help take care of increased web traffic during this time of year. 
  • Prescriptive analytics. This analytics tool combines descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive analytics methods to help companies optimize their best course of action. For example, if predictive analytics show clothing sales go up at the beginning of the school year, prescriptive analytics would assist in prescribing a solution—in this case, finding web hosting plans that upgrade site bandwidth to accommodate increased web traffic.

5. Present your results

Once you’ve done the research and analyzed the data, you can build a research report to present your key findings. You can present your report in a slideshow format, as an illustrated book, as a video, or in an interactive dashboard that allows users to look at the data in different ways. The emphasis should be to present the information in a way that is comprehensible and accessible. 

Marketing research reports contain, at minimum, key company-specific details like customer profiles, target audience buying habits, and market competitors, and address the questions your research sought to answer. Beyond that, reports typically present the findings from the research in a narrative format that incorporates visuals, like charts and graphs, alongside “real people” feedback. You’re not looking to present a stack of numbers—you want to establish a story about real people, how they behave, and their desires (as they pertain to the company or product). The report also needs to present the solutions to these problems—how the company should tailor its strategies to optimize its marketing and target its consumers better.

Other information to include in your report is how you arrived at these conclusions. Which research methods did you use? How long did it take? How big were your sample groups? Once the report is compiled, share these results with all necessary parties, like relevant stakeholders such as the marketing team, company managers, or other people this proposed shift in strategy might affect, like engineering. 

6. Incorporate your findings

Once you’ve presented your data, it’s time to develop actionable plans that put your findings into play, whether it’s developing brand-new strategies or improving existing ones. Some findings may result in big shifts to your marketing plans or small improvements that can help you optimize your company strategy overall. 

For instance, if your marketing report points to an issue with retaining a younger audience, you may need to redesign your entire social media campaign to accommodate a wider demographic. Or, you might only need a smaller shift, like offering extra promotions through social media accounts to entice current young customers to stay loyal. An ever-changing market means that your data won’t stay relevant forever, so turning your info into action can help you improve your business when it counts.

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