As your organization works to recover and grow in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it is likely that the need for market-research data will arise. Market research is an essential part of creating a marketing plan in the best of times, and in the current economic climate it has never been more important. Unfortunately, the current economic climate has also made resources scarce and limited marketing budgets.
To save money, you may decide to do the research in-house rather than use a market-research firm. Sometimes this is a good option, but sometimes it is a bad idea. My career in research has been fairly evenly split between being employed at a market-research firm and working as an in-house researcher for a variety of organizations. Based on that experience, I have a feel for the types of market research a company can usually undertake on its own and situations when they should seek outside help from a dedicated market-research agency or consultant. The determination can be made by answering a few key questions.
Is there secondary/syndicated research available that addresses your needs? This is a question that should be asked anytime the need for research comes up. It’s not always necessary to conduct your own original research to answer the questions at hand. Oftentimes, relevant data has already been collected on the subject by government agencies, trade organizations, nonprofit groups, academia, or syndicated research companies. This type of data is what researchers call secondary research and you can often access it for a low cost or, in some cases, even for free. It’s always worth searching around for secondary data and reviewing it before you undertake any research project, as it can save a lot of time and money.
Do you have the time and staff resources needed for the project? Research takes time. Depending on the scope of the project, it might take weeks or even months to plan, prepare the appropriate materials, collect data, analyze the data, prepare a report, and present the findings to stakeholders. That can be a big undertaking as a side-project on top of your staff’s normal work duties. If there are staff resources for a dedicated point person to manage the project, it can work. However, unless it’s a fairly small project, it is unlikely to get done in spare moments here and there. At the outset of your proposed project, put together a realistic (not optimistic) assessment about the amount of staff hours required and decide if that is feasible.
In addition to time, you will need to determine if your staff has the necessary collection of skills and experience to conduct the research properly. For example, you may want to conduct a survey. There are a lot of free or low-cost tools like SurveyMonkey that make it quite easy for anyone to create a survey on their own. But writing a good survey requires a variety of learned skills. There are nuances to wording questions the right way to eliminate bias or confusion. It’s important to know the right format of a question to use to obtain certain types of information. The question order and flow of the survey matter. These are not especially hard skills to master, but you develop them through practice. If you don’t have someone on staff with some experience in survey research or the time to learn, you run the risk of composing a survey script that won’t help you collect the data you need.
Once you have data, somebody will need to analyze it. If it is survey data, that requires a basic working knowledge of statistics and comfort level with crunching numbers in a spreadsheet to process the findings and make sense of them. That is well within the skill set of many non-researchers, but it again comes back to determining if someone in your company has the time to do it.
Do you have access to representative samples? You might have the ability to write a great survey and the time to administer it and analyze findings, but can you get it in front of the right group of potential respondents? If you need insights from your own customers, that shouldn’t be an issue; they’re right there in your CRM database. But if you want to know more about competitors’ customers, non-users of the category, or potential customers for a product that might not exist yet, finding an appropriate sample source on your own can be a tough task. Market-research firms will know how to identify and find the appropriate representative sample for those types of projects and turning to one for help may be the best way to avoid asking the right questions to the wrong people.
Can you be objective? I will answer this one for you: probably not. It is incredibly difficult for any of us to be objective about our own business or place of employment. We are just too emotionally invested and too close to the small details to see the situation with the fresh eyes of an outsider.
A better question would be: Is the research required of a nature that your inevitable subjectivity can be overcome? If the research is something straightforward, like reviewing findings from secondary sources or quantitative analysis of existing data, that is pretty safe to do in-house. On the other hand, any kind of qualitative research like focus groups or in-depth customer interviews, where a researcher is required to moderate or guide open-ended feedback, should usually be left to a third party to minimize the effects of researcher bias.
Will you be sharing the findings with a stakeholder that might prefer a third party be involved? In-house research might satisfy in-house needs, but stakeholders outside your organization are likely to be more comfortable with data collected by a third party. Regardless of the reputation of your organization, information from a third-party researcher will be viewed by outsiders as more credible in matters where your firm has a vested interest. This applies to research-based claims in advertising, industry-wide measures, or customer-satisfaction ratings. If you are seeking financing for a new business or initiative, the financing source may actually require third-party research in support of the concept.
Have you fully explored the costs of going with an outside firm? If you have not already solicited pricing information from multiple independent market-research firms, don’t automatically assume that the costs are prohibitive. Some agencies are open to conducting individual components of a larger project to help keep your costs down. For example, a market-research consultant might write a survey script and administer it for you, then provide a raw-data file for you to do the analysis and reporting in-house. Some firms will be more amenable to this type of arrangement than others, but it’s worth exploring.
Also consider that pricing structures may have changed since the pandemic. A firm that was too expensive for your budget a year ago might be more flexible in negotiation now as businesses everywhere seek to maintain cashflow and rebuild their client bases.
If you go through the questions above and are confident that you can do research in-house that will result in good data, that will be a great boost to your marketing and strategic planning. But it’s never worth taking on a project beyond your capabilities to do properly just because that was the affordable option. Bad data is worse than no data at all. In some cases, it’s better to wait until you have the budget for outside help.
Vance Marriner is research director at the Central New York Business Journal and a part-time instructor of marketing at SUNY Oswego’s School of Business.