Traditionally, market research has been understood as the process of gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data about a particular market—and the products, brands, or services within that market—to help organizations make better business decisions. Finding out what the customer (current, past, or potential) wants lies at the heart of market research. Often organizations think, or assume, that they know what their customers need and want and how their products and services are perceived. Market research can deepen this understanding and can also raise questions about the assumptions that organizations make about their customers. It provides a dispassionate and structured perspective that enables organizations to better understand their customers and, as a result, to develop products and services that more closely match their needs. Data obtained from market research is fed into a broad pool of information, such as sales and economic data, trends, and predictions, which are gathered from a variety of sources. This information pool is used by marketers or strategists within the organization to help develop corporate strategy and consumer communications.
However, over recent decades, the role of market research has broadened, and it has moved away from a purely data-gathering function. Currently, market research is often used to help identify potential opportunities for the future. Instead of data, market researchers are increasingly expected to help develop ideas and concepts that are an extension of the data and that help clients to develop their markets. Many market researchers and clients view research as a creative process, which is useful when developing new products, services, brands, or advertising. It can also be used to help define organizational strategy. Although the core qualitative skills of moderating, analysis, conceptual thinking, and presentation are just as relevant from this creative perspective, they are applied to different methodologies, such as brainstorming, creative thinking sessions, idea generation, and evaluation. Sometimes this approach is called marketing research to differentiate it from market research.
Adopting this broader definition, marketing research is seen as a process of helping clients (whether commercial or noncommercial organizations) to better understand their target audiences; to help create, develop, and fine-tune their products or services; and to more precisely tailor their communications for this target audience. Consumers are involved as active participants in this process rather than as sources of information. They work with the researcher to develop ideas or help shape the ideas developed by the client. At the same time, research has broadened its scope—for example, it may involve input to organizational restructuring, employee communications, and external communications as well as specific products, brands, and services. There is a strong consultancy component that is implicit in this way of understanding market research.
However, there are researchers who would regard these areas as outside the remit of market research. These researchers feel that the role of market research should predominantly remain within the area of data gathering to preserve its authority by providing objective and scientifically based input. This is a time of change for the market research industry, and it is therefore difficult to clearly define the borders of market research.
To a large extent, these two different perspectives reflect philosophical directions in society as a whole. Traditional market research has grown out of a scientific model. Marketing research, which is more concerned with usefulness than scientific rigor, has grown out of social constructionism and postmodernism, with their emphases on context, interpretation, and the speed of change and innovation. Qualitative market research in particular often adopts a social constructionist perspective and has its theoretical basis in phenomenology and ethnomethodology. These perspectives explore how the social world is constructed by people rather than by assuming that social relations are given.
Market research needs to be differentiated from the broader area of research. There are large areas of research, mostly in the academic field, that bear little relationship to market research. Market research implies research that is conducted as a commercial activity by specialist market research practitioners. However, this definition does not necessarily mean that the research is carried out solely for commercial organizations. Although market research techniques were developed largely to cater to commercial-sector needs, they have spread into almost all areas of contemporary life. Commercial research now includes research conducted by professional researchers for noncommercial or not-for-profit organizations; for example, central government, charities, broadcasters, educational, and health services. It is also conducted within organizations, helping to shape corporate change and employee communications, and it is carried out to examine the interaction between staff and customers, with a view to improving staff–customer relations. It has been carried out among almost all occupations, among children, and among different ethnic groups, nationally and internationally.
It is also important to note that the focus in market research is quite different than that of academic research. The value of commercial market research rests largely on the usefulness of the findings themselves—rather than the methodological approach. By contrast, in academic research, the methodological and theoretical knowledge gained through the study is regarded as at least as important as the findings. One consequence of this difference in emphasis, which is discussed above, is that commercial researchers have developed approaches that go beyond research into the area of idea generation, creativity, and consultancy to better meet the needs of their clients. Commercial research also differs from academic research in terms of project size and time scale. A commercial project may be quite small-scale and completed in a month or two—and researchers may be involved in 10 or more diverse projects over the course of a year. An academic study is more likely to be extensive in scope and to take much longer than an equivalent commercial study.
Essentially, a market research project, in very simplified form, involves the following elements:
An organization (the client) identifies a need for information about an external group, such as its current and potential customers or users of a particular product or service. The client believes that this information can be gained by interviewing and/or observational, ethnographic, or other participant data-gathering methods.
A researcher or team of researchers, usually specialists from an outside research agency, is invited in to discuss the issues or problems with the client team at a briefing meeting. The project will be discussed and the research objectives will be refined. A project design will then be decided. This design includes details of the basis on which research participants are selected (the research sample).
In interview-based research (the dominant methodology in commercial research), the research agency will arrange for the appropriate research participants to be recruited. In observational or other field methods, the researcher will engage in detailed observation of people or situations or ask research participants to carry out specified data-gathering tasks, as agreed on with the client. These tasks may include unstructured interviews. These activities are known as fieldwork.
Often, in interview-based work, researchers will use a topic guide, which outlines the key areas that need to be covered in the research. However, this guide is an aide-memoire, not a questionnaire. The researcher will amend and refine their inquiry as the research process develops. The aim is to elicit useful and relevant information, not to produce answers to preprepared questions.
The material that is produced from the research— audiorecordings, videos, notes, drawings, and so on—is then analyzed and interpreted. This process involves intensive immersion in the data to draw out overall meaning and highlight its relevance to the concerns of the client.
The researcher then presents the findings, conclusions, and recommendations to the client in a presentation or debrief and sometimes followed by a written report.
The project may be followed up with workshops within the organization. The purpose of the workshops is to disseminate the findings and encourage different interest groups to draw out the implications of the research for their own work.
There is a host of different market research methodologies, although all of these are rooted in either a quantitative or qualitative approach, as in academic research. Quantitative research is concerned with numbers: the proportion of people who do, say, think, and behave in a particular way—the classic survey research. Qualitative research is concerned to know not only what people do, but also why they do it; not what they want, but why they want it. In this sense, it is the “softer” side of research. Although research projects may be complex, with mixed or hybrid methodologies, they are usually able to classify the various elements of a market research study as either qualitative or quantitative in focus. As qualitative and quantitative methodologies are discussed in detail elsewhere, this section will outline the ways in which market research methodologies differ from academic approaches.
In the past, qualitative and quantitative market research were treated as more or less separate entities. Qualitative research could either be employed as an initial research stage, followed up by quantification, or the two approaches were used separately, depending on the nature of the research problem. Increasingly, qualitative and quantitative approaches have come together, with the realization that they offer different perspectives rather than being opposing approaches. As a result, mixed methodologies are now common.
This mix is part of a general broadening of approaches, which has been particularly marked in qualitative methodologies. Until the past few years, qualitative market research was largely synonymous with focus groups and in-depth interviews and did not have the breadth and methodological focus of academic research. This tendency was driven largely by time pressures— groups are fairly quick to set up, analysis can be carried out fairly quickly by the researchers involved, and groups are easy and convenient for clients to view. However, this emphasis on group work is changing for a number of reasons; for one, it is a result of more marketing-literate consumers due to client demands to experience the consumer firsthand and because of concerns about the artificiality of the interview situation.
Within market research, and particularly within quantitative research, new technologies are having a growing impact. For a start, a whole new field of research topics has been created around internet usage. However, technology has also had a wide impact on methodologies. Online interviewing and focus groups, blogs, self-completion questionnaires online, and so on are changing the relationship between the customer, organization, and, often, the research agency. It is too early to gauge the effects of these changes on the market research industry.
Market research is a fast-moving industry and has become fragmented, with different sectors catering to different client needs. This fragmentation is likely to continue in the future as the market research sector continues to grow and diversify. As Philly Desai points out, we live in a time of rapid social change and declining trust in authority. This cultural change has created challenges for research, which has traditionally relied on relatively fixed categories of identity that are assumed to remain stable over time. From a postmodern perspective, this can no longer be assumed. Market research is going through a process of reassessment in order to deal with these changes.
Association for Qualitative Research (AQR); Ethnomethodology; Phenomenology; Positivism; Postmodernism; Qualitative Research (Journal); Quantitative Research; Social Constructionism
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