Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Three Kinds of Research

Added on by Tom Webster.

Coastal windmills, Leysdown-on-sea (Warden, Minster) This week is a fun, busy, and altogether typical week for me at my day job (Edison Research.) I'll touch 5-7 projects in one form or another, analyze some data, write a couple of reports, and tinker with a few client presentations. I'll even find the time to write a blog post (regardez!) and polish up my talk for Content Marketing World. It struck me this morning that although the tools, techniques, and methodologies we employ on behalf of our clients are legion, there are really only three types of research. No, I'm not talking about Qualitative, Quantitative, and Cringeworthy (for those of you who have seen that talk); rather, I see three different objectives--reasons for doing any kind of study in the first place.

Since I'll touch all three kinds of project this week, I thought you might enjoy this simple and practical way to think about the types of research you could do for your brand or your clients. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. What Happened?

Sometimes we are engaged to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it. These types of projects are always intriguing, because they present puzzles for us to solve, and the solution to those puzzles often results in happy clients and potentially happier consumers. This kind of project is sometimes how we engage with new clients, and successfully solving their problems often leads to the other two kinds of research, below.

I'm working on one such project now, with a new client that has seen a pretty severe drop in their market share over a fairly short period. In most cases, the client has some idea what caused the "fire," but in this case, there seemed to be no easy answer prior to our engagement. Which makes the answer difficult--my favorite.

While clients sometimes come to these projects under duress, the results can often be transformative. Some fires can be fought with a little water, while others might require a little more engineering. The key, as always, is to use the information from "What Happened?" projects to pivot from reactive to proactive behavior. After all, it isn't enough just to get back to where you were if the market is moving without you. The best of these kinds of projects not only puts out the fire, it also lights one under your competitors.

2. What's Happening?

These kinds of projects are really the bread and butter of a research company--comparative, quantitative research. These are the regular check-ups, the preventative maintenance that all brands and companies need to engage in regularly in order to obviate the need for the first type of research, above.

Comparative research projects are measurement exercises--how many are there, how are we doing against the other guy, and are we growing or not. They can range from simple customer or employee satisfaction surveys to the largest single-day comparative research project in the world: the National Exit Poll, which we've been privileged to conduct for the last ten years and counting.

This week, I'm looking at a significant study of the existing Internet Radio landscape--if you listen to online radio, you'll know the names--and this is doubly exciting as we'll get to share the results publicly soon. One of the real thrills for the consumer researcher is to be able to introduce new facts--things unknown, until we ask them--and often "What's Happening" kinds of projects introduce just that, like our recent collaboration with Netbase on how social media impacts fashion shopping behavior.

3. What Could Happen?

Exploratory research is one of my favorite professional activities--where we turn our attention less towards an individual brand or product, and focus instead on consumer behavior, motivation, and ultimately what the unmet needs of the consumer are. If you've ever read the great book Blue Ocean Strategy, this is "blue ocean research."

Working with clients to determine new areas of opportunity, new markets, and even to collaborate on new products is absolutely one of the joys of my profession. If you think market research projects are "look-backwards" exercises, well, you just haven't been exposed enough to the insights that professional exploratory (particularly qualitative) research can offer. Nike+, for example, was a product that was driven by exploratory research into how people used iPods, and took Nike into an entirely new product line (and jump started an entire category, for that matter.)

I'm fortunate this week to be working with a great client who came to us with an idea, and we are working with them to translate that idea into a product with a variety of consumer insights. Helping them realize their vision of "what could happen" is more than "work," it's a passion.

So there you have it--the three types of research you could do (nay, must do) to conquer markets, vanquish competitors, and delight customers profitably. In the words of Alec Baldwin, from Glengarry Glen Ross, "go and do likewise."