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What is Market Research? - Understanding the market research machine: a company's greatest tool to reading their customers.

Market research - how it began

1914. The automobile industry needed more fuel. Purchasers were starting to become picky over the vehicles they bought, and dealerships could only afford to buy cars that they knew the consumer wanted. Charles Coolidge Parlin was hired to check the tires of the US automobile market and discover what was happening; by all accounts, he was a charismatic individual, with a flair for speaking and an unrestrained, enthusiastic energy. Armed with only his teacher training, he travelled the width and breadth of the USA to interview hundreds of car dealers. The result was a humbly described 2,500 page document that dissected the US car market, ultimately kickstarting the market research profession and introducing an incredibly useful tool to businesses at large.

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Market research, in a nutshell

Put simply, market research is an investigation into the habits and behaviours that drive a target audience, but it’s even more complicated than that. In its essence, market research can direct a company towards worthwhile investments, protect them from bad decisions, provide necessary insight into what people want, and highlight areas for improvement. MRFGR have managed and assisted in numerous market research projects for over 15 years; we’ve listened to many types of consumers, engaged in all kinds of markets, and thus we have a lot to say on the great market research machine: What is it? Why is it useful? Where does it go from here?

The Great Confusion

The term ‘Market Research’ is often confused with its older (and slightly more popular) sibling, ‘Marketing’, and rather than being interchangeable titles, both market research and marketing have entirely different meanings. Like two presses along the same conveyor belt, market research and marketing perform different duties within the same process: the gaining and retention of customers.
Market Research - Taking investigative steps that will inform your marketing strategy

Marketing - The promotion or selling of products or services

While we have a lot to say on marketing as well, this article primarily concerns itself with the act of market research.

The Great Divide

Market research is split into two territories:

Qualitative Research
Exploratory research which seeks to understand opinions, reasons, and motivations of a particular target audience.

Quantitative Research
The generation of numerical data that can be translated into useful statistics.

Qualitative research delves deeper into a respondent’s thought process and encourages creative thinking; less focused than its quantitative counterpart, it leaves market research respondents with some control over how the narrative advances, and concentrates on opinions that they give in a relaxed and informal setting.

Quantitative market research collects data in response to specific questions for further analysis, with the emphasise here being on numbers, measurements and statistics.

Opting for the right approach

Selecting the best research method for your study is vital, but it entirely depends on the required output. There isn’t a ‘better’ option; both are equally useful for different scenarios. You should ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve? If you want to discover how many people think/say/do something, or measure a target audience, then you should angle towards a quantitative research study, but if you want to spot emerging trends and learn more about what your respondents are thinking, qualitative is the best approach.

Eyeing The Methods

Market research offers a Lernaean Hydra of methods, an endless collection of approaches for gathering data, and the strategies at a company’s disposal are continually growing; ambitious technology is providing new opportunities for understanding consumer perceptions, the internet boom has created an effective and affordable means of market research data collection, and increased knowledge of the industry has vastly improved the quality and reliability of traditional market research methods.

Focus Group - The bread & butter of market research

By definition, the focus group is a group of demographically diverse individuals, all retaining a similar set of characteristics that qualify them for the market research study (economical status, employment position, spending behaviour, custom for a particular business, interests, etc), coming together for a discussion on a specified topic which is led by the market research moderator.

Members are often recruited and screened by a professional market research agency.

First reportedly used in 1946 to assess the effectiveness of propaganda during World War 2, the focus group methodology has a long history. Rooted in sociology, the belief is that interaction within a group environment can spark a lively discussion, generating alternative views and counter-points that open new avenues for discovery that allows for latent issues to manifest. Focus Groups are particularly useful during the exploratory phase of market research, as it can conveniently identify emerging trends or ignite new ideas.

“In early 2016, MRFGR worked with a client who wanted to raise engagement with their target audience. We arranged two focus groups of potential customers to hash out their thoughts and feelings on our client’s products, packaging, website, marketing materials, and overall offering."

The target demographic was older, health conscious, and primarily female, but in their interpretation of our client’s brand, one word kept coming up: sporty. It quickly became apparent that respondents had withdrawn interest in our client’s product because of the perception that it was aimed at a much younger audience. We dug a little deeper, and soon discovered that there was a whole list of developments that could renew their interest in the product; prioritise the advertisement of quality over sales in marketing materials, focus on informative aspects, and create a less cluttered and more spacious website design. It was clear that our client’s target audience were still passionate and interested in the brand, but the products and website had failed to capture their excitement upon initial discovery, and through our market research, the client walked away with in-depth knowledge on how this could be done.”

Depth Interview - Going one on one with the respondent

The depth interview singles out respondents into a 1-on-1 discussion with a market research moderator so that they can engage on a particular topic. It’s effectively a move away from the general commentary of the group and into the focused detail of the individual; ultimately allowing them to ‘hold the microphone’ for longer, and have a larger span of time to give their opinions.

While it’s more convenient to schedule hard-to-reach respondents for 1-on-1 depth interviews (as opposed to focus groups), they can also be a beneficial way of exploring sensitive topics that wouldn’t flow well within a group, or obtaining a more granular understanding of a respondent’s ideas and perceptions.

“In 2018, MRFGR worked with a client who wanted to identify upcoming trends within the international car market; they were attempting to establish the best areas for investment and learn which opportunities would be worth pursuing. MRFGR recruited regular drivers from a number of countries across the globe for 1-on-1 interviews, which we also helped to moderate. The idea was simple: talk cars and spot patterns."

Of course, there was more to it than that. We created a discussion guide - one that covered current driving habits, perceptions of brands and models, the future of cars, and the environmental impact of driving - and asked our moderators to glean as much data as they could from respondents on these respective topics. We didn’t envision a specific outcome, but what we revealed was surprising.

All drivers seemed hopeful when it came to the future - we were making advancements towards a more environmentally clean outcome with electric vehicles, and we were getting more convenient and cost-effective travel options as a result of brands like Uber and Lyft. However, despite this, there were a lot of concerns amongst 90% of respondents over the technology that would eventually allow for more self-driving vehicles; the bad press these had received - as a result of the fatal accident which led to the death of a woman in Arizona - had caused a larger strain of trepidation than we had imagined.”

Eye-Tracking - through the eyes of the consumer

The term ‘Eye-Tracking’ is a befitting moniker - defined by the tracking of eye movements to establish the patterns in which a person processes certain information on a website, document, or page, it can tell you:

  • what a person focuses on
  • the duration of their focus
  • the order of their focus
  • what information or media they ignore
  • The output is often regarded as unbiased and inclusionary of subs-conscious data that the respondent wouldn’t be able to tell you themselves.

    Although it was invented in the early 1900s, eye-tracking has only really hit its stride in the market research industry within the past decade. By seeing what a customer sees and what they ignore, companies gain vital insight into a user’s perspective and, as a result, can ultimately fine-tune their marketing campaigns to ensure maximum impact.

    Online Communities - an e-gathering of like-minded individuals

    Online Communities are incredibly useful when dealing with respondents who are geographically dispersed, or are required to perform multiple tasks (both independently and collectively) over a long duration of time in the name of market research.

    Over 90% of UK households are connected to the internet, and 73% of citizens can access it while on-the-go; the percentages have been steadily increasing since the early 2000s, meaning that online communities within market research are becoming a lot more common, and more accessible to respondents at large.

    Product Testing - hands ON the merchandise

    The main goal of product testing is to advance usability wherever possible; the idea is that if you allow a respondent to trial a product, before requesting feedback with an online survey, or a self-recorded video, you can gain comprehensive insight into how your target consumers will live with, handle, and cope with whatever merchandise you’re planning to put out toon the market. It’s an informative halfway house between the phases of conception and launch; there may be convenient (but simple) design choices that you haven’t considered, whereas a regular user can identify these a lot more quickly, before it’s too late for you to make any changes.

    “In 2017, we worked with an ice manufacturing company who were exploring the possibility of expanding into the frozen treats market; however, did their product ideas hit the mark? We put these to the test with respondents from across the width and breadth of the UK, and participants were able to provide specific feedback on what made the products great, and what needed to change to ensure their continued support, via 2 minute recorded videos trialling each of the client’s offerings.”

    Mystery Shopping - undercover respondent

    Mystery shopping requires a participant to visit a designated retail destination, complete the process of an average customer, before providing feedback on their experience (usually in the form of a survey or recorded visit). Mystery shops are the perfect way to capture fresh experiences and evaluate staff performance, your competitor’s competency, or your general retail space.

    In September, 2018, trade magazine, ‘The Grocer’ carried out a mystery shop on Tesco’s newly unveiled discount store, Jack’s, and identified a whole variety of strengths and weaknesses within the new chain. While visiting the retail outlet, the shopper perceived the staff to be helpful, the layout to be spacious, and a good choice of produce at the deli counter, but also highlighted a low number of checkouts and a lack of high-end products as aspects that would need improvement.

    Online Survey - ticking the boxes

    Online surveys are now incredibly common, and with the market for online survey software companies predicted to experience serious growth by the year 2025, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing a lot more of them. Online surveys provide a fast and cost-effective means of reaching hundreds (or thousands) of members from your target audience. Normally viewed as the first port-of-call for quantitative studies, online surveys are ideal for general consumers and some b2b professionals, although many high-level individuals may not be readily available on a market research companies panel.

    Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews - a scripted discussion

    Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews (or CATI, for short) are usually no longer than 1 hour in duration and require the interviewer to complete an online survey on behalf of a market research respondent, who is sitting on the other end of the phone. Hard-to-reach audiences are more conveniently contacted through this method, which normally relies on cold-calling and ‘semi-recruitment’ tactics to gain responses.


    Market research is detective’s work, but it’s far from the deerstalker and tobacco pipe routine we’re used to seeing in fiction. In truth, it’s an incredibly useful technique for learning about your consumers, and it has continued to gain traction over the last 60 years, and evolved into the mighty machine it’s known as today. The customer is always three steps ahead, and even the greatest marketing professionals cannot keep pace without the necessary market research data to back them up. Listening to what your consumer wants isn’t just important, it’s necessary.

    There’s a lot to gain from good market research - inspiration, motivation, understanding, knowledge, and all will ultimately lead to bigger profits.
    Market research can help you to establish:

  • Upcoming trends
  • Inspiration for business growth
  • Company/employee performance
  • New opportunities
  • Knowledge to inform investments
  • Necessary product developments

  • MRFGR have worked on thousands of market research projects with a vast number of clients, and have experienced first-hand the potential benefits there are to glean from mining your own audience for insight. If you have a market research project that we can help you with, get in touch via our contact page for more information on how we can help. Same day feasibility and quotes available.

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