Market research on a shoestring: How to get big insights from small budgets

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Startup culture has embedded the idea that budgets don’t need to be sky high to get great results. Companies big and small are learning that not all research needs to come with an eye-watering price tag.


Marketing Week explored six ways marketers can make the money work harder when it comes to exploring the market, without sacrificing quality.

1. Invest in your question

Asking the right question may seem like stating the obvious, but the difference between a question that opens up the market and a question that establishes you as an also-ran can be very subtle indeed.

“We went out and asked people how they bought their cars and they told us ‘Autotrader’,” explains Al Campbell, founder of car search engine Carsnip.com. “But all that told us was where they bought the car, not how they found it. We should have been asking how they found the type of car they wanted to buy. Autotrader was just the last step after a lot of other research.”

Rephrasing a question based on what you’re looking to achieve can therefore save a lot of time and money.

Rob Donovan, co-founder and CEO of HR software platform Charlie HR, believes you have to delve to get an accurate view.

“The biggest challenge with customer development is understanding whether they actually behave the way they say they do. We get to not only have conversations with them, but also track their usage of the product to understand whether the problems they think they’re having are the same as what they’re actually finding.”

Jane Frost, CEO of the Market Research Society (MRS), cautions brands to avoid the ‘echo chamber’. For small startup brands, particularly in digital, she says the core idea tends to be “based around their own usage habits”, so it can be useful to hire an expert at the outset of any research project to help formulate the methodology and avoid any wasted spend.

2. Check your channel

Frost suggests that if brands invest anywhere, it should be in formulating what and how they are going to research because it’s where many inexperienced marketers fall down.

She cites the problem of social media. It may have massive reach but, she warns, does it reach the people you need to?

“Social media is only a small part of the whole. There is a certain type of person who is active on social media and a whole range of people who are not. If you’re after a particular target market or one with specialist knowledge or high net worth, you may well find they’re not in the digital channel at all,” Frost explains.

Even online-only businesses recognise the value of stepping into the real world for research. “I was the most boring person in the pub. I kept asking people for their car buying stories. But it brought up all sorts of nuggets of information,” Campbell reveals.

3. Speak to customers

Kate Madden, head of marketing at new car buying website Hellocar, explains that as they are the end dealer they get face time with every customer and use it for research as well as customer service.

“Finding out what our customers really value about our service helps us make sure we invest our resource in the elements of the business which will have the biggest impact on delivering the best service. Meeting each and every one of our customers is invaluable.”

Frost agrees that getting the customer involved in the research process is both a great way to generate insight as well as a cost-saver. “The data will never show you the roll of the eyes when customers hit a snag.”

Donovan agrees that there is nothing more valuable than having real customers who can feed back on what you do regularly: “This will get you there far faster than you ever could before.”

4. Use online tools

Adventure camera company Go Pro uses a number of mainstream, high budget research tools, alongside online tools like SurveyMonkey, in order to generate some quick sense checks. At a cost of £120, SurveyMonkey’s Audience Survey garners 200 responses, delivering basic, quick feedback on 10 questions in a couple of days.

“It is important to get quality data quickly and do so cost-effectively. Our global brand awareness study in more than 12 countries is run on SurveyMonkey Audience. By being self-serve, this allows us to use it whenever we need to run studies and do it on our own timeframe and with any budget size,” explains GoPro’s head of analytics, Michael Zoglio.

The other advantage of being able to plunge into a self-service tool like SurveyMonkey is flexibility. Companies don’t have to be in a startup phase to gauge the appetite for a new project or quickly test the water on an idea.

“In any company with constantly shifting priorities, it is key that we have this kind of flexibility,” Zoglio adds.

5. Test and learn

Hellocar’s Madden says the business gets online insights from tools like Fullstory and What Users Do, which informs the user experience and marketing communications. “They’re quick, easy and cost effective,” she adds. “We set up a test on Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning we have the insights.”

Neither system will break the bank with Madden revealing that Fullstory costs around £100 a month, with What Users Do coming in at £50 per video covering a single user session of 10 tasks.

6. Bring ideas to life

There’s no substitute for just putting ideas out there. Innocent Smoothies famously parked up at a festival and handed out smoothies, encouraging drinkers to chuck the empties into ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buckets.

Online, Carsnip’s Campbell took a similar approach when testing if customers would actually be interested in a car comparison feature. “We built a button for people to click, we just didn’t build anything behind the button. We wanted to see if people wanted to hit the button first,” he says.

Charlie HR’s Donovan also feels the best tactic is to “get it out there”.

“We launched a free version of the software, which meant that within a year we had thousands of companies using it that we could talk to and learn from. They have a vested interest in helping us improve.”

Marketers also need to be prepared to accept the good with the bad in order to learn fast.

“Brand managers get very precious about negative feedback on experience. But don’t put something in unfinished, put it in ‘unstarted’. Put the button in and if they click it, ask if they like the idea and get their email. Then build it,” Campbell concludes.

Jane Frost, CEO of the Market Research Society, shares her top shoestring market research tips:

  • Start small, but keep it good. Trade size for quality
  • Spend time talking to researchers. Get them to co-design your research
  • Never neglect sitting with the customer
  • Better to analyse 1,000 responses by human than 1 million by machine
  • Design your data collection strategy from the outset; it’ll pay dividends in the future.

Source: Market research on a shoestring: How to get big insights from small budgets – Marketing Week

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