9 Methods of Market Research

January 15, 2021

Change is the one constant in consumer behaviour. Researchers must be efficient and agile if they hope to identify significant trends in the market before it’s too late to capitalise on them. 

The ever-increasing rate of technological change, of course, only makes it harder to keep up with consumers’ needs and desires. Thankfully market researchers have a host of methods at their disposal.

In a previous post, we discussed the many different types of market research — from product development to usability testing. Here we will list the various methods of conducting market research— what their characteristics are, and how to choose between them.

Some of the following nine research methods have been around for ages, while others are relatively new. Understanding all of them is critical, however, as each has its unique power — its time to shine.

Primary Vs. Secondary Research

Before we go into the methods themselves, though, we have to take a minute to discuss the two foundational approaches to conducting research.

When an entity conducts its own original research, it is known as primary, or field, research. When an entity relies on the research someone else has conducted, it is known as secondary, or desk, research. 

This distinction exists in all kinds of research, both academic and corporate. In market research, of course, there isn’t much literal “field” involved in field research. Rather, it’s more a question of where the data and insights are coming from — the company’s own work, or another’s.

The Methods

Surveys

Practically everyone is familiar with surveys. When we hear the phrase market research, one of the first things many of us think about is surveys (along with focus groups, which we will discuss next). 

Surveys can happen in person, on the phone or online. The prompts are usually close-ended, such as multiple-choice questions or rating-scale prompts. Less often they are open-ended, such as questionnaires asking respondents to answer in their own words. 

Good questions are key to a good survey. If the questions are clear, concrete and specific, the responses will likely produce useful insights. If the questions are too broad, vague or abstract, the responses won’t produce much at all.  

Focus Groups

Another classic method of market research, focus groups give researchers a chance to ask a group of people questions about a subject. Like surveys, focus groups are only as effective as the questions being asked. Unlike surveys, though, the facilitator of a focus group can adapt and improvise, digging deeper into topics and themes that seem especially fertile. 

Of course, this very advantage of focus groups — their flexibility — can also be their biggest risk. An unskilled, under-prepared or close-minded facilitator can easily lead the group down an unproductive road, wasting precious time and money. 

Still, as long as leading questions are avoided and sensible guardrails kept in place, few methods lead to such a balanced an inquiry — with the breadth of a small-group survey and the depth of a one-on-one interview — as the focus group.   

Interviews

The same technique used by biographers and investigative journalists, seeking to understand human lives and ideas in all full complexity and nuance, can be applied to market research.

In interviews, of course, an interviewer participates in direct dialogue with a respondent. This method of research allows for even more flexibility, improvisation and open-ended questions than focus groups, giving researchers an opportunity to discover surprising insights. 

Like focus groups, however, interviews have their drawbacks. For one thing, they cost a lot of time and money. Any problems in the dynamic between interviewer and respondent, then, can quickly become extremely expensive problems for the company conducting the research. 

Observation

Sometimes researchers want to play a more passive role in their study. It can be useful for researchers to observe their human subjects with as little mediation or interference as possible. 

You’ve probably seen examples of scientists or police detectives watching someone from behind a one-way mirror. This is the type of observation we’re talking about. 

Yet it doesn’t always involve a one-way mirror. Nowadays it’s almost as likely to involve a virtual-reality headset.

The important thing to note about observation as a method of market research is that its purpose is for researchers to study their subject — usually human behaviour in a controlled market situation, such as a mock-up of a store — while interfering as little as possible. 

Social Listening

Like observation, social listening gives researchers an opportunity to remain “behind the scenes” while monitoring and analyzing their subjects. 

Most of us rely on social media to some extent or another. And going forward into a post-pandemic world, we can expect to only rely on it more, using it for everything from business meetings to doctor’s appointments to holiday dinners.

We use social media so often, in fact, that many of us are quite comfortable sharing our opinions, beliefs and preferences with broad audiences, sometimes including strangers, as though we were amongst friends or family members. This gives researchers an excellent chance to learn how people think and behave without the self-consciousness or sense of vulnerability to judgment they might feel in a public or corporate space.

With the assistance of digital tools — especially machine-learning and AI — researchers can scour swaths of the internet in record time, scanning for the topics that interest them. Then, once they’ve stumbled upon promising territory, they can dig dip, essentially eavesdropping on largely uninhibited conversations.

Experiments and Field Trials

Experiments and field trials are not as commonly associated with market research as some of the other methods described in this post. Nonetheless, in the right circumstances, they can be just as effective.

Instead of bringing participants into offices or laboratories, researchers enter the participants’ environment to conduct experiments and field trials. That’s their key strength, in fact — giving researchers the chance to seek causality within environments, situations and contexts as much as within the participants themselves.

Like social listening, these studies give researchers an opportunity to peek inside the lives of participants. However, when the environment contains so many variables beyond researchers’ control, results can easily become biased. This is the primary risk of using experiments and field trials in market research.

Competitor Analysis

This method of research is exclusive to the business world. Academics and scientists don’t usually have “competitors,” much less study them.

This blog post is about market research, though, and survival in the marketplace is every bit as competitive as survival of the fittest in nature.

When conducting competitor analysis, a company sets out to compare and contrast their brand with their rivals’. For the analysis to be constructive, it is essential that researchers carefully examine their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. 

Public Domain Data

Most of the methods described here so far require a good bit of investment. Not so with public domain data.

Governments maintain databases filled with valuable and trustworthy data. Academic institutions and think tanks also provide lots of free information.  

A veritable treasure trove of free and public information exists on the internet. Companies conducting market research would be wise not to overlook it.

Purchased Data

Of course, sometimes the data is worth paying for. 

There are plenty of companies that will sell the data they have gathered — often as part of a subscription purchase. But it’s not just the quality of the data you’re paying for. These companies work to present the information in user-friendly formats. This frees up time for you to focus on putting the insights to work for your company, instead of slogging through reams of raw data. 

How to choose?

Each method listed here has its pros and cons. Some are expensive, some totally free. Some require tons of man-hours, while others can be largely outsourced. Figuring out which one will work best for you means figuring out what you hope to accomplish and how much money and effort you’re willing to put towards that purpose.

Indeed, market research is complex — sometimes overwhelming. But in this day and age, a brand simply can’t survive without it.