The market research process

By Heidi Dietzsch

Amid the multitude of changes and fluctuations within businesses, one thing remains constant:  businesses will always need market research. For market research to be successful and worthwhile, a systematic process with definitive steps needs to be followed.

At the start, it is important to clearly identify and define the problem. Businesses usually approach market researchers when they are facing a problem – for instance, sales are not increasing. The purpose of the research is thus to find a solution to this problem. This step in the process should include defining the research objectives. It is imperative that the first step is done properly, otherwise the rest of the research process could be futile.

After defining the research problem and the objectives, the research design should be developed. A hypothesis needs to be generated and the researcher must determine how the research will be conducted and which methodology will be used. The researcher must ask: Who should be interviewed? What information should be obtained? When should the data be collected? Where should the data be collected? Why should the data be collected? In what way should the data be collected?

Of course, during this stage other variables such as the project timeline, budget and scope also need to be considered. These variables can pose limitations. For instance, in-depth interviews might be ideal for the specific project, but due to budget constraints, interviews might need to be conducted telephonically.

Questionnaire design is the third vital step in the process. Designing a good questionnaire is an art and no research can achieve success without a concise, well thought-out questionnaire. The questionnaire has a great impact on completion rates, data quality, the experience of the respondent and the eventual research results.

Before a questionnaire can go live it needs to be thoroughly tested. The researcher needs to ensure that the questionnaire doesn’t exceed the intended length, but should not omit any questions. Questionnaire routing should work properly. Spelling and grammar errors are taboo. If it is an online questionnaire, it should be visually appealing with a good layout.

The next step is the sample design. It is not possible to examine an entire population and therefore researchers need to use a sample, which is a smaller but accurate representation of the greater population. Based on the results that are required, researchers need to establish the target population, the number of respondents that need to be surveyed and how the respondents will be chosen. The sample will be based on hypotheses and assumptions.

Once the sample design is in place, the data collection phase can begin. Data collection methods can be qualitative or quantitative.

Qualitative methods are by definition exploratory and generate non-numerical data. It helps researchers to understand attitudes, opinions and motivations that are grounded in respondents’ real experiences, told in their owns words. Qualitative data are usually collected through in-depth interviews and focus groups.

In contrast, quantitative research is conclusive in its purpose and characterised by large sample groups. Quantitative research is an organised process that involves measuring numerical information. Data can be analysed through statistical methods and captured into spread sheets and are typically collected through computer-assisted telephonic interviews and online surveys.

A research study may consist of one type of data collection method, or it may be a combination of two or more, depending on the desired outcome. The data collection phase of a research study is usually subjected to strict timelines and researchers will have to consider this during planning. This stage is imperative to the overall success of the research study.

Once the data collection phase is complete, it is time to for the data processing and analysis. During this stage it is important to ensure that the data are accurate. The data should be transformed into useful information and insights that answer the research questions. Formatting, cleaning and editing of the data are part of the process and the authenticity of the data should also be validated.

This stage also requires the running of summaries with software packages such as Excel, SPSS or Minitab. Researchers will need to build tables and graphs, segment data by groups that make sense and look for major trends in the data.

The last step in the research process is the documentation of the results in the form of a report. It is important that the final conclusions meet the objectives that were established at the beginning of the process. The report needs to be visually attractive, with research findings communicated in a clear, accurate and effective manner. It should be presented in such a way that it is easy for the client to make decisions.

Although the above steps will usually be applied in the majority of market research projects, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be followed. Every study is different and thus needs to be personalised. However, researchers need to give every step in the process the attention it deserves and ensure that they are executed correctly. If this is done, studies should be successful, helping businesses to make informed choices.

What is the Market Research Process?