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  About the author  

Dave Singleton is Vice President of Marketing Science and Insights at Zyman Group. He is responsible for developing techniques to identify insights into brand architecture and positioning.

Prior to joining Zyman Group, Mr. Singleton served as Director of Worldwide Research for Coca-Cola. He also managed consumer research at Kraft Foods, General Foods, and Johnson & Johnson, developing expertise across a wide variety of research methodologies.

Dave graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a BS in Business Administration, and has pursued postgraduate work toward an MBA at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He also teaches as an adjunct professor of business at Emory University.


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Good Research: The Basics And The Hidden Truths
By Dave Singleton

What is the role of research in the marketing process? A researcher who conducts on-the-ground information gathering and a marketer who utilizes that information are likely to have very different answers to that question. However, both sides would agree on one point - they want and need to compile good research.

But what is good research? That’s the real issue. After 20 years of experience with good and bad research, my colleagues and I developed some theories on how you can tell the difference - and, more importantly, how you can keep the good research coming.

There are several basic truths of good research, truths which could almost be considered "hidden in plain sight." That is, they are straightforward and obvious, but often hard to see for all the day-to-day deadlines and multiple priorities - the business of doing business. It’s time to take a step back and establish the basics of quality research.

What is "Good" research
A judgment on the quality of research depends on who’s doing the judging. What a marketer considers useful research may be incomprehensible - and thus useless - to others in an organization. Therefore, any determination of good research must take into account its end purpose.

From a scientific perspective
, good research is valid and reliable. That is, it accurately measures what it sets out to measure - and, significantly, the measurement device will yield a consistent perspective if used over and over. Validity and reliability are "cost of entry" criteria for good research.

From a marketing perspective, good research leads to an action that has a positive impact on sales and brand equity. It provides an insight that can be translated into a marketing action, which in turn leads to greater purchase frequency, stronger brand equity, and increased volume and profits.

From a user perspective, good research excites and stimulates. It reveals an insight into consumer motivation, attitudes and behaviors. It tells marketers things they didn’t know before, and gives them definitive direction on what to do next.

From the organization’s perspective, good research generates convergence on a common point of view and confidence in the indicated action. If an organization can trust in the quality of its research, it can trust that the research will support to attempts grow volume profitability.
And while no one sets out to do bad research, the success rate of meeting all the criteria stated above is undoubtedly far less than 100 percent. Can you improve your success rate? Absolutely - if you understand a few simple and straightforward rules for generating good research.

What is "Good" research
1. Design is "King"
Most marketers know the importance of getting the right fundamental research design in place. The greater challenge is incorporating into that design the more subtle design elements that reveal an insight into consumer behavior. Battle-tested researchers do exactly this by proceeding from an apparently adversarial position, to wit: Consumers don’t know why they buy what they buy and if they do, they don’t want you to know.

Direct questions alone don’t delve deep enough to reveal the real reasons behind consumer behavior. To truly understand consumers’ motives and actions, you must determine relationships between what they think and feel and what they actually do. This is why "derived importance" and other measures that quantify the relationships between actions and behavior yield such different results than their stated counterparts. There is a reason why researchers call participants "respondents," and not "thinkers." Researchers want consumers to give "gut" responses to questions, not well-thought-out answers to explain - and perhaps justify or obscure - their behavior.

Design your research around "what ifs". That is, ask yourself "what will I do in the marketplace if I learn X about my consumer or my brand?" Go through this "what if" exercise multiple times in order to develop multiple alternative scenarios. When your research provides the data that allows you decide which scenario is more valid, you likely have a good research design - with a potential marketing plan already in place.

2. Content is "Queen"
Content encompasses the statements researchers use to uncover consumer motivations and reveal interest in specific benefits. At Zyman Group, we think of these statements as "mini-hypotheses," reasons why consumers use your brand, product or service. From this perspective, the better the hypotheses, the better the research. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to developing the type of statements that will lead to new insights and better positioning and strategy. Creating such statements requires a combination of empathy and creativity - attributes which can only be learned on the job. It’s also important to include the users of the research when you develop these statements or hypotheses, and review them with the broader group of stakeholders (e.g., upper management, non-marketing functional groups). It’s a creative exercise where ideas can spawn ideas, and ownership in developing these "creative articulations" of brand attributes and benefits brings ownership and advocacy of the results.

3. Knowledge Needs a Plan
If "0" equals the starting point for a research project and "100" equals the point of achieved success (i.e., new insights that lead to a positive impact in the marketplace), the best design and content can only get you to 50! So how do you go the rest of the distance? By using the marketing strategy that is developed from the knowledge the research provides. In sports, war, investing, or any other competitive environment, knowledge and insight are worthless unless you can develop a plan to put them into action.

In sports, war, investing, or any other competitive environment, knowledge and insight are worthless unless you can develop a plan to put them into action.

Planning forces companies to anticipate different scenarios or outcomes. Good research has an analytical plan that anticipates different outcomes and the corresponding actions the outcomes would warrant. Most importantly, this planning occurs during the research design process. If you wait until the data has been collected, it’s too late to add a question that could potentially make or break your ability to drawn definitive conclusions.

4. Know what position your research will play
In some situations, new insights and knowledge are essential because management or managers have become complacent or overconfident. They have compiled, organized, quantified and rationalized reams of research, and are convinced they know all they need to know. In this situation, the new research - more specifically, the research design or technique - plays a key role in bringing credibility to the table when airing new insights. In other situations, the research acts more like a pinch hitter, stepping in when called upon to play a specific, limited, but important role in the overall process. Knowing the position your research will play can increase its effectiveness in proposals, supplier contacts, final presentations, or marketing conclusions.

5. Bad research can look like good research
Most of us know the hallmarks of bad research when we see it. For instance, users can’t follow the logic; the data does not support the findings; the conclusions, if there are any, seem to come out of left field. More insidiously, bad research can sometimes masquerade as good research. This doesn’t necessarily mean sample sizes are inadequate, significance testing is lacking, or questions are misleading.

The worst part about bad research is that it acts like a bad virus.

The problem is far more subtle than that, looking at averages that disguise meaningful differences between different consumer segments. Or using rank order of importance to make choices, when in fact the actual differences between attributes are meaningless. Or assuming the self-selecting sample from your Internet study is actually representative of target (and not skewed on an underlying characteristic that can distort your data).

The worst part about bad research is that it acts like a bad virus.
You don’t know you’re infected with it until it’s too late to do
anything about it.

6. Quick Turnaround – Good Quality – Inexpensive: Pick any two
Remember what your parents told you - if it seems too good to be true, it is. Granted, the Internet has helped cut costs while increasing reach, but only to a certain point. If a supplier promises all three…see number 5.

Good research isn’t as hard to come by as one might imagine. Good research requires discipline, dedication, and an awareness of the full opportunities that quality research can present. By bringing your entire team on board, your company can make your own research less of a task and more of a roadmap.

2004, Zyman Group, Inc.
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