The modern world is unpredictable, and things change very quickly in the digital age. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with trends, customer needs, popular opinions, and competitors—and at the same time, staying at the forefront of the market is vital to success.
So, how can you keep your brand current and ensure you are meeting your customers’ needs?
The answer is to conduct market research. Market research helps you make informed business decisions. It involves systematically gathering, recording, and analyzing data about customers, competitors and the market, and turning this data into insight that can drive marketing strategies and campaigns.
Online market research is the process of using digital tools, data, and connections to glean valuable insights about a brand’s target audience. In other words, it’s the process of learning about your audience by engaging and observing them online. Technology plays a key role in gathering data and connecting with research participants, and makes the whole process quicker and easier to manage than traditional offline research methods.
Traditional and online market research have the same goals and underlying principles, but online market research has the benefit of using digital technology, which provides a range of benefits:
· The internet is always on, meaning that data are readily available at any time.
· Many of the processes for finding, gathering and storing data can be automated. For example, you can get an automatic email alert if someone mentions your brand, or you can set up self-administered digital surveys.
· You have access to a large number of participants around the world at the click of a button.
· A lot of the information you will use is already being automatically collected (such as web analytics and social media data). All you need to do is access it.
· People are often happy to share their own research, insights, and methodologies online, so you can access this trove of resources to inform your own research.
· Online market research can be much more cost effective and quick to set up than traditional research techniques.
There are many reasons to conduct regular market research:
· gain insights into your consumers
· what customers want and need from your brand
· what customers like and dislike about the brand
· why customers buy the brand’s products or services
· why potential customers might choose your brand over another one
· why (or why not) customers make repeat purchases
· understand the changes in your industry and business
· discover new market trends on which you can capitalize
· find new potential sales avenues, customers, products, and more
· find and engage new audiences
· allow customers to help steer your business
If you are able to understand your customers and the greater business context, you will be able to market more effectively to them, meet their needs better, and drive positive sentiment of your brand. All of this adds up to happier customers and, ultimately, a healthier bottom line.
While the research field can be full of complex terminology, there are four key concepts you should understand before conducting your own research:
· research methodology
· qualitative and quantitative data
· primary and secondary research
A research methodology is the process you should follow in order to conduct accurate and valuable research. Research should involve the following steps:
1. Establish the goals of the project.
2. Determine your sample.
3. Choose a data collection method.
4. Collect data.
5. Analyze the results.
6. Formulate conclusions and actionable insights (for example, producing reports).
Most often, market research is focused around specific issues unique to a business or brand. It is therefore not always possible to get hold of comparable information to aid decision making. This is why it can be useful to start from a specific research problem or hypothesis.
Your research question should guide your entire process and will determine your choice of data collection method.
Research can be based on primary data or secondary data. Primary research is conducted when new data is gathered for a particular product or hypothesis. This is where information does not exist already or is not accessible, and therefore needs to be specifically collected from consumers or businesses. Surveys, focus groups, research panels and research communities can all be used when conducting primary market research.
Secondary research uses existing, published data as a source of information. It can be more cost effective than conducting primary research. The internet opens up a wealth of resources for conducting this research. The data would, however, originally have been collected for solving problems other than the one at hand, so they may not be sufficiently specific. Secondary research can be useful in identifying problems to be investigated through primary research.
The internet is a useful tool when conducting both primary and secondary research. Not only are there a number of free tools available for calculating data like sample size and confidence levels (see the section Tools of the Trade for examples), but it is also an ideal medium to reach large numbers of people at a relatively low cost.
Research based on secondary data should precede primary data research. It should be used in establishing the context and parameters for primary research in the following ways:
· The data can provide enough information to solve the problem at hand, thereby negating the need for further research.
· Secondary data can provide sources for hypotheses that can be explored through primary research.
· Sifting through secondary data is a necessary precursor for primary research, as it can provide information relevant to sample sizes and audience, for example.
· The data can be used as a reference base to measure the accuracy of primary research.
Companies with online properties have access to a wealth of web analytics data that are recorded digitally. These data can then be mined for insights. It’s worth remembering, though, that it’s usually impossible for you to access the web analytics data of competitors, so this method will give you information only about your own customers.
Customer communications are also a source of data that can be used—particularly communications with the customer service department. Committed customers who complain, comment, or compliment are providing information that can form the foundation for researching customer satisfaction.
Social networks, blogs, and other forms of social media have emerged as forums where consumers discuss their likes and dislikes, and can be particularly vocal about companies and products. These data can, and should, be tracked and monitored to establish consumer sentiment. If a community is established for research purposes, these should be considered primary data, but using social media to research existing sentiments is considered secondary research.
The internet is an ideal starting point for conducting secondary research based on published data and findings. But with so much information out there, it can be a daunting task to find reliable resources.
The first point of call for research online is usually a search engine, such as www.google.com or www.yahoo.com. Search engines usually have an array of advanced features, which can aid online research. For example, Google offers the following:
· advanced search (http://www.google.co.za/advanced_search?hl=en)
· Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.co.za/schhp?hl=en)
· Google Book Search (http://www.google.co.za/books?hl=en)
· Google News Archive (http://news.google.com/newspapers)
Many research publications are available online, some for free and some at a cost. Many of the top research companies feature analyst blogs, which provide some industry data and analysis free of charge. Some notable resources include Experian, Pew Internet, Nielsen, and World Wide Worx.