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Defining market research question

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Once the researcher has received an information request, the researcher needs to carefully define the question to be answered and understand who want to know and why.  On that foundation, the researcher plans the search strategy.

Questions do not come up out of the blue or without reason.  Typically, someone in the organization needs to make a business decision and wants information that will facilitate a good decision. 

Within a company, the executives, the marketing department, the business development department, and the legal department commonly need information. 

Occasionally manufacturing, human resources, and finance also require market or industry-related information. 

Because all these requestors can have different perspectives on the market, understanding who wants to know (your client) is an important step in defining a research question.

Besides simply guiding the search, knowing the client can help the researcher tailor the results or the look and feel of the final report. 

For example, will the client be satisfied with a conclusion drawn from published reports, or will backup tables and data be expected? 

What sources will the client trust, and how much validation and cross-checking will suffice?  Of course, you yourself may very well be the “client,” the person who wants to know. 

But that does not change the steps in the process.  It is still important to think through the purpose of the research.

It would be hard to overstress the importance of communicating with the client.  To deliver usable research results, you must be clear about what is needed, why it is needed, when it is needed, whether there are cost limitations, and what the end product should look like. 

Whether you will use the results yourself or deliver them to someone else, you should think through or get answers to these questions. 

A clear understanding of these points will help focus the search in a most useful and cost-effective way.

The Client Interview
How and when does this communication take place?  The client interview is the best place to get your answers.  A typical client interview includes some version of the following questions:

• Who wants to know?
• How will the information be used?
• When does the client need the information?
• What does the client already know?
• Are there budget constraints?
• What should the end product look like?

How you organize the client interview depends upon the situation, but as a general rule, face-to-face conversations are best. 

An in-person interview allows you to obtain information not only from what is said, but from body language and demeanor as well. 

Telephone conversations are also effective.  E-mail is useful for keeping in touch, but it does not work as well for the initial conversations. 

If possible, have this conversation directly with the client, rather than with an assistant or other intermediary, to avoid serious miscommunications. 

Working through people other than your client can turn into something like the “telephone game,” where a message starts on one end of a line of people and gradually changes (sometimes disastrously!) as it is whispered down the line.

Do not be afraid to ask questions.  By asking questions you help the client define, think through, and verbalize the information need.  Clients do not always ask for exactly what they need. 

Sometimes they try to help the researcher by “simplifying” the question.  They ask for what they think might be out there rather than what they really need. 

Clients sometimes use broad or general terms because they are afraid you don’t know the jargon or might miss something if they define the question too specifically. 

For example, a client might ask:  “Can you find some articles on bottled water?”  But after the initial questioning you realize that what the client really needs is market share for carbonated and noncarbonated bottled water in the United States! 

To make sure you understand the client’s request, restate it and ask for clarification if you need it.  Don’t worry about sounding uninformed or bothersome. 

Generally, people are happy to explain a topic that is near and dear to them, and they appreciate your interest.

In Building and Running a Successful Research Business, Mary Ellen Bates suggests that you ask the following types of questions to help identify the client’s underlying need:

• What do you mean by     ?
• What do you already know about    ?
• What do you expect me to find?
• Are there any sources you have already checked, or that you would recommend?
• Are there any other terms used to describe    ?
• I’m not familiar with    .  Can you explain it to me?
• If you were writing an article about this, what would the headline be?
• If I can’t find exactly    , what would be second best?

Asking this kind of question during the client interview will help you get the information you need to develop your research strategy. 

Keep in mind that as a result of the interview, you should be able to list the objectives of the research and articulate clearly the questions to be answered.

Define the Research Questions
One way to clarify the research questions is to ask how the information will be used.  Use the client interview to find out what business opportunity is being explored.

What problem or situation is being evaluated in this process?  What are the actions that might be taken as a result?

Suppose this question comes to you from a client:  How big is the market of event-related travel? 

To obtain information that is useful to the client, wouldn’t it help you to know that he or she is thinking of creating a service that would allow conference and meeting goers to book air travel and room reservations online from the event sponsor’s Web site? 

If you know your research will support this decision, you will be able to refine the scope to include a look at air travel to conferences, hotel accommodations at conferences, number of travelers, number of conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions, and so on. 

Knowing what your client plans to do with the information allows you to translate the original question – How big is the market for even-related travel? – into a set of more specific questions – How are travelers currently making these plans? 

How many event-related travelers are there?  If we offer an easy online solution, how many customers are likely to use it? 

This level of understanding will help you realize when to end the search.  You will be better able to determine if the need has been met.

Another way to focus the research question is to ask clients whether they have already done any research on the topic or what experience they may have had in the field. 

Suppose your client is the company’s marketing manager, who previously worked for a competitor and wants to develop a marketing strategy for a new product.  This client already has industry background and is thoroughly familiar with the industry.

Understanding this background will help you formulate your research strategy, building upon rather than repeating what is already known. 

In this case, the scope of the project will likely focus more on details related to the competing products than on a broad overview of the industry.

Identify the Search Constraints
The factors most likely to constrain a given search are time and money.  Your ability to research as deeply as your client requires will depend a great deal on these two factors, so you will need to know up front what the deadline and budget are. 

Of course, it is music to the researcher’s ears to hear “I don’t care how much it costs or how long it takes, just get me that information!” 

But it is the rare project indeed that has no budget and no deadline.  More typically, financial and time concerns guide the project in one way or another.

Sometimes, time and cost concerns are in direct conflict, as time-saving research methods often carry the highest out-of-pocket costs. 

Make sure your client is aware of this, and be ready to discuss at least a rough estimate of time and money requirements for their research request at the client interview. 

You may have to negotiate a bit as the conversation continues, and as the research progresses you’ll need to keep the client informed if it looks like more time or money is required.

Plan for the End Product
Once you have completed a research project and are comfortable that you have either obtained the information you need or that it cannot be found with the resources at hand, you need to convey the information to your client. 

Delivery of information takes many forms.  A quick e-mail or telephone call may suffice.  Some people prefer a “rip-and-ship” approach, where you simply deliver the downloaded material – unedited. 

Some projects require an analysis and summary of the information with conclusions outlined for the reader. 

The end product options range from a short answer delivered verbally to a multipage report with an executive summary, charts, tables, and supporting documentation. 

It is important to understand in advance what kind of end product will meet the client’s needs, so that the search strategy employed and the time allotted for report preparation can be structured accordingly.

After the client interview, put the agreed-upon research objectives and questions and any time and budget limitations in writing for yourself and-or the client. 

This can help to ensure that you are on the right track.  Then, as the project progresses, check back as  needed to review and report on interim results and explore alternative avenues of research, if needed. 

Sometimes a course correction is in order.  Interim results might indicate that some of the assumptions underlying the research are incorrect.


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