Research is the first step to any successful project. It can be as minor as reading and preparing a creative brief or as monumental as conducting a nationwide poll. As important as it is, research is often one of the first things to get cut when budgets get tight. After all, we operate in the fast-moving world of retail which rewards action. So, how do we balance action with evidence?

In our experience, the most important thing to keep in mind with research is to view it as a tool rather than a destination. Approach research with key questions in mind. Otherwise, you can quickly become distracted, diverted or just plain lost in the information. When you have a plan for using data, you can make better choices about the type of research you acquire. This, in turn, allows you to be more strategic with your research budget.

Different Categories of Research and the Merits of Each

There are different types of research, each suited to collecting different data. Here is a quick refresher on the major categories of research.

Primary Research

Information that you personally collect is considered primary research. It’s firsthand learning that you design, execute and own. Primary research can consist of focus groups, one-on-one interviews and surveys. The key differentiation is that the findings belong to you.

Secondary Research

Suppose you need information, data or insights that you can’t collect on your own. In such cases, you may choose to purchase secondary research – data, information or insights obtained by a third party. Secondary research is primarily valuable because it delivers depth and scale, whether it’s a study that reflects a large audience or a sophisticated cross-section of intelligence or covers an extensive period of time.

Quantitative Research

Any numerical information is considered quantitative research. It can include very simple and accessible primary research, such as the price range of a branded cordless drill at three different retailers. On the other hand, quantitative research can also involve complex secondary research, such as the average household income for shoppers who purchase that drill. Concrete, measurable and trackable, quantitative research is critical when you need certainty.

Qualitative Research

Information that is not numerical or represents subjective information is considered qualitative. This includes consumer comments, attitudes, expectations and behaviors. In addition, it encompasses information such as how consumers relate to different brands or the types of projects that interest them. Qualitative research requires that the researcher or user of the information infer meaning from captured data. While less concrete, qualitative research has enormous value. This is particularly true in brand research where perception is so influential.

With these distinctions in mind, we can start to think about how to use research.

Brand Discovery for Any Budget

In the same way that you might check a map to orient yourself before starting on a hike, the same is true for embarking on a project or developing strategy. The difference is that we call this process brand discovery.

All you really need to be successful is some time, curiosity, objectivity and discernment. However, as the following list indicates, the more resources you can allocate to brand discovery, the more you can learn. Bigger budgets can benefit from adding manpower to brand research or focusing on deeper insights.

$ Brand Research: Even the smallest budgets should allocate resources towards basic brand research. This includes conducting a survey of everything your brand has online, from social media and reviews to ecommerce. If you can, assign the same project to more than one person and document their findings as a qualitative data set.

$ Brand Perception: Some low-cost ways to measure brand perception include mining ecommerce reviews and social media for language that indicates how your brand is viewed. Pay attention for language that reflects value and positioning. Some examples might be, “worth the price,” “looks cheap,” “great quality” or “easy installation.” Make sure to document how often those words appear.

$$ Surveys and Incentives: When it comes to understanding how your brand or product is perceived, there’s no substitute for hearing from shoppers. There are a few ways to do this, starting with using the language sourced online in reviews and social media to build survey and interview questions. Next, you can use your budget to incentivize participation. That could be anything from drawings and discounts to cash rewards. 

$$$ Research Campaign: If a mid-size budget affords you a survey sent out in an email, a large budget allows you to design and promote a campaign to drive participation. This could include linking to your survey via ecommerce, social media or SMS ads. More resources might also allow you to hire a campaign consultant to help design and orchestrate your survey.

Competitive Research for Any Budget

It wouldn’t be retail without categories and competition. So, it’s important to understand the other brands and products out there as competition and consumer choices. For obvious reasons, we don’t recommend spending a lot on researching the competition. However, that advice may change if you are launching a product and need to nail your positioning.

Competitive research tactics are available for any size budget, as shown below.

$ Shop the Direct Competition: Go online. Walk stores. Think like a consumer and view the competition as a choice rather than a threat. In our experience, brands that are overly focused on the competition tend to lose sight of the consumer.

$$ Shop Indirect Competition: Consider competition in the larger retail landscape by walking a wider cross section of stores and categories. For example, suppose you make a grill cover exclusive to a single retailer. By shopping the competition more broadly, you can visit other retailers or investigate adjacent categories, such as grill pads, grill accessories or outdoor furniture covers.

$$$ Focus Groups: Particularly helpful to product development and branding, focus groups can allow you to design a scenario particular to your need. An example would be facilitating a focus group to compare the products in your category and help refine your product positioning.  

$$$ Product Testing: It may be that you need to know how your product compares to the competition in use. In this case, you may decide to pursue paid product testing in which you hire an independent testing agency to test the rigors of your product.

Consumer Research You Can Afford

Probably the most valuable of all research projects is understanding the consumers. Thankfully, there may be data available to you for free. The more resources you have, the more sophisticated tactics and human resources you can afford.

$ Owned Analytics: The first place to source information on your audience is data you already own. This includes website analytics, such as site traffic and page popularity. It also includes any marketing data collected, such as email open rates, click-through rates, social media traffic and campaign success rates.

$ A/B Testing: Though often used to test marketing methods, A/B testing can also give you valuable insight into your audience by revealing what they prefer. Depending on the size of your team and available resources, this is a low-cost way to learn more about your audience.

$$ Exit Interviews: Consider face-to-face exit interviews where you interview shoppers as they exit stores. This type of market research is best done by professionals, but it scales easily, meaning that it can expand or contract according to your budget

$$ Online Surveys: Sites like SurveyMonkey and TypeForm offer low-cost plans loaded with features. The good news is that you don’t need to be a research scientist to conduct a useful survey. A few simple, targeted questions can yield valuable insights.

$$ Journey Mapping: Another tactic for primary research at this level is user-journey mapping. This requires facilitation and an investment of time across business units. Refer to our white paper Leveraging Marketing Strategy to Build Buy-In and Improve Content to read more about the benefits of cross-functional, collaborative persona development and user-journey mapping.

There’s more than one way to go about finding the information you need. Whatever the size of your budget, there are tools available. But the most important part of research is knowing what information you’re after. Only then can you hope to use your research budget wisely.

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