What is Strategic Market Research?

A book review of Dr. Anne Beall’s latest book by Arundati Dandapani

I remember when cracks in the old ways of work had just begun to force open new structures of conducting business, describing to friends the tautological names so many research houses had: the strategic institute, innovative research, listening research, accurate insights –the list didn’t end! And we squirmed at some of the salaries posted on Glassdoor.com and seriously joked about opting to sell pizza, drive Uber and be hotel concierge and bellboys over doing research for any such firm that kept us away from our phones and beds at night.

And the robots were coming. Great! We could all be human now. It was the easiest job in the world anyway. Then many months later came Dr. Anne Beall’s second book Strategic Market Research in the mailbox and her laser vision for doing research and proposing business value to colleagues, clients and partners with rock solid research (another company name was born!). The book threw all subject matter into practical context. It was a fun and easy read in line with the author’s clear and vivacious personality.

Onur Bodur also determines when to do or skip market research in his book Effective Market Research in Canada

Market Research 101 and Titrating Up the Ladder of Client Needs

Anne Beall begins with the very basics. What is the organization’s overarching strategic question? (What is the major reason people don’t return to your company’s website for purchases?). What are the sub-questions that will help you dissect that business problem? Lastly, what are the hypotheses generated from these strategic research questions?

Beall takes you through a journey of research design exploring the ins and outs of qualitative and quantitative research while sharing the list of best practices in both methods. An infographic excerpted below explains when to use either method alone or combined for the best impact.

This is a comprehensive chart explaining the exact use of qualitative research versus quantitative research. It can be a fumbling block with even the most successful of clients no matter how many times they have bought research.

There are strengths and weaknesses of using mixed methods in research. Mobile and online qualitative research have their advantages but also disadvantage for instance. Physical presence can add a new layer of understanding to the research that you don’t get from digital methods.

Robots at events are a new development in customer experience but also data collection. The well trained ones that aren’t teaching you Tai-chi in one of the booths are now able to collect quantitative data and offer delightful customer service based on user requests (users key in where they want to be taken to in the conference for example). This is a more advanced alternative than having a boring static map or simple direction signs to guide conference goers. Robots’ physical presence is more impactful than a basic form filling interface or motion tracking software / sensor system.

This life-sized robot at the Zoomer Show Expo (a conference aimed at improving the lives of all adults aged 45+ years old) in Toronto by Zoomer Media and CARP (formerly Canadian Association of Retired Persons) walked attendees to their desired locations in the expo hall.

Quantitative Data Analysis

In analyzing quantitative data, according to Dr. Beall, you could adopt two approaches: keep testing the data and letting it see if it can talk, or test certain hypotheses on the data to see what the data says. Her own firm practices the generating hypotheses approach. For example, you could hypothesize that certain gender, income and age cohorts are likelier than others to purchase a certain good or service. You then create cross-tabulations that specifically test these assertions, dividing the data for each group to determine if the hypotheses are supported. They then conduct t-tests to analyze differences across groups. This may lead to further hypotheses and more cross-tabs. Eventually all these analyses reveal a story about the data findings. She cites the dangers of going the opposite route:

Early in my career, I worked at a company with a man who loved statistics and who liked to throw all the variables from a study into different analyses because he assumed that something interesting would appear. He would do correlations and cluster analyses with tons of variables, hoping to find some magical answer. The result was often reams of paper with tons of numbers and no clear story about what the data said.

Dr. Anne Beall, Strategic Market Research: A Guide to Conducting Research that Drives Business. Third Edition.

Brand name testing is a highly interesting topic as well. David Scholz once shared in a presentation that putting “Canada” or infusing “Canadianness” in your brand name instantly skyrockets your appeal in Canada, citing the success of Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s (before the scandals), Canada Goose, CannTrust (before the scandals), Canopy Growth etc. I intuitively knew why Generation1.ca worked as a brand name. Beall shares the history of ticketing and travel agent website Orbitz, making a splash for its totally offbeat name compared to generic yet more appealing names in the target market. The highly polarized response to the name worked because it leveraged the strongest reactions against it to drive interest.

Beall discusses segmentation, conjoint analysis and brand tracking, offering examples of successes and caveats with each method of analysis. Below is a handy table that summarizes when to apply what statistical tool to your quantitative data analyses. Depending on organizational structures and levels of automation in technologies, a lot of modern researchers may not need to use these tools too much but rather deal with departments that conduct such tests based on their needs.

Qualitative Research Considerations

Asking the same questions in many different ways to arrive at the emotional quality of responses from several vantage points, is the point of using qualitative research. You gain a deep understanding of respondent behaviours and attitudes through probing, testing specific hypotheses, and testing potential scenarios.

Beall advocates including an analysis of non-verbal behaviour and communications in the business research process; her own method is called PERCEIVE and relies on its elements of proximity, expressions, relative orientation, contact, eyes, individual gestures, voice, existence of adaptors (fidgety behaviours) to decode situations and people.

The PERCEIVE framework helped her firm understand chronic overdrafting and her social psychological understanding  of two biases – unrealistic optimism and the self-serving bias, provided a deep understanding of this behaviour.

Unrealistic optimism is the belief that positive future events are more likely to happen to us than negative future events. Most people see the future as rosy. (Example: “nothing bad can happen to us”).

Self-serving bias is the tendency for us to excuse our failures and take credit for our successes. In general, we see ourselves as better than the average person. (Example: “nobody makes better decisions than we do”).

Dr. Anne Beall, Strategic Market Research: A Guide to Conducting Research that Drives Business. Third Edition.

The ABCDE (acquaintance, buildup, continuation, resolution or deterioration, ending) model of Levinger’s relationships was also a framework her firm used to understand the consumer-brand relationship journeys while offering ways to intervene, analyze and correct relationships where necessary.

Caveats and Conclusions

There are many common mistakes that researchers make, which are described in this slim book. But some major ones include: measuring everything, making questionnaires too long, lacking sufficient qualitative research before launching surveys, relying on respondents to solve a business problem, having unrealistic expectations of market research, and assuming software is smarter than humans

In all of these chapters, Beall offers clear examples of how to effectively optimize time, scope and budget with each type of business research project for achieving the best insights and call to action. As someone who has worked with several well-known and varied organizations in Canada’s market research industry from the outside (ie., as an independent business), the range of expertise shared in the book is well-affirming.

Finally, Beall leaves us with a template for designing business research projects; it’s nothing we don’t know, but is a vital reminder to solidify our scope quickly:

  1. What is the overarching question the organization needs to answer?
  2. What are the various sub-questions that will need to be addressed in order to arrive at that final answer?
  3. What are the current hypotheses about the overarching question?
  4. What actions will the organization take based on your results presented?

Strategic Market Research is an extremely handy informative book for every stage of researcher, filled with strong use-cases, inspirational honesty about successes and misses, and it is written by an author who has curiosity, passion and a deep desire to make market research better. I will strongly recommend this book to all those who take pride in doing great work.

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