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The planning stage can get overlooked during a research project.

People get excited about the end results, and a lot of time and resource goes into getting on and delivering it. But we don’t always put enough focus on planning our market research.

With more time and effort upfront, the delivery and results get so much better.

Plan well and you’ll get:

  • A better response from the right people
  • Relevant, reliable data
  • Insights that make a difference

Trust me. It’s worth the extra time and energy.

Planning market research projects

I like to keep things simple, so I’ve broken this down into 3 questions. Give them some thought and you’ll soon see a plan coming together.

Ask yourself:

  1. What do you need to ask?
  2. Who do you need to ask?
  3. When do you need to ask them?

Let’s explore each point in more detail.

1. Ask the right questions

Whether you’re setting up a survey or running focus groups, the questions you ask matter.

Imagine what the results might look like at the end. What will they tell you? Will you get the insights you’re looking for?

Take the time upfront to identify the right questions and you’ll have a better chance of delivering on your objectives.

The type of research you’re carrying out will dictate the style of questions you use.

In surveys, for example, closed questions are used to obtain answers that can be categorised and analysed easily.

Closed question types can include:

  • Multiple choice questions, where options might be a simple yes or no, a likert scale (used to measure attitudes) or a wide range of other scales to measure things like performance and feedback
  • Net Promoter Scores to measure customer or employee loyalty on a scale of 0 to 10
  • Pick, group and ranking questions to categorise and order different options

In an interview or focus group, where you want to dig deeper, you’ll need open questions.

Open questions give the respondent the freedom to express their opinions. They’re good for depth, but can be a pain to code and analyse.

Open question styles can include:

  • Simple text entry questions with no structure (What do you think of X?)
  • Word association (What comes to mind when you think of X?)
  • Sentence completion (When buying X, the most important feature for me is…)

Leading questions

When you ask leading or biased questions, you’re never going to have full confidence in your research findings.

This is the same with both quantitative and qualitative methods.

If you’re sending a survey out to local residents to gather feedback on a service, for example, you’d be leading them with a question like this: 

How would you rate the amazing service provided by our friendly team?

Using the words “amazing” and “friendly” is subjective and biased. And it’s not just how you phrase the question, but the options you provide too. They should be balanced.

  • Exceptional
  • Great
  • Good
  • Ok
  • Could be better

This scale is not balanced and won’t show the full picture.

In qualitative research, where you might be working with focus groups or conducting interviews, the same care must be taken not to lead or influence the outcome.

To avoid skewing the findings, use simple, neutral language in your questions and give balanced options for answers.

Learn more: Ask the right questions

2. Ask the right people

Finding the right people and reaching them is the next step. It doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into your questions if you don’t get relevant and reliable responses.

Finding the right people

A question I often get asked at the start of a research project is how many responses do we need?

It’s a fair question, but it’s not just about volume. It’s also about who those responses are from.

With quantitative research, you’re looking for a representative sample that accurately represents your target population. In qualitative research, you’ll work with much smaller numbers, so finding the right people is key.

If you’re carrying out market research on a new range of dog accessories, dog owners would be an obvious choice, but you might also want to reach pet shop owners, groomers or trainers. 

Your sample should be representative of your target audience. When you’re recruiting for surveys or focus groups, you might want to consider some of these:

  • Where they live
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Profession
  • Place of work
  • Magical super power (just checking you’re still with me)
  • Whether they have children
  • Mode of transport
  • Interests
  • Lifestyle
  • Behaviours
  • Values
  • Opinions
  • The list could go on…

With any method of research, you need to think carefully about how you’re selecting your target sample of responses and what impact that might have on the results.

Your own audience of loyal customers might respond more positively to a new product than a random, representative sample of the national population would, for example.

Your findings will only provide valuable insights if you’re asking the right people.

Reaching those people

Next, consider how you’ll reach those people.

There are plenty of options, and the method you choose should depend on what your objectives are.

Online surveys are a common choice. It can be quick to gather responses, and software can produce powerful insights. The software I use, for example, allows you to segment your responses, link response data to other sources such as website experience, tag popular comments, create data visualisations and automate and share reports. 

Where and how you share the survey online can have a big impact on the results.

If you run a short survey on preferred social media channels but only push it out on Twitter, for example, Twitter will probably come out on top.

Consider the objectives of your research and the questions you’re asking.

Beyond online surveys, you might consider commissioning street or telephone interviews, or using recruiters to pull together a focus group.

Online might seem like the easier and cheaper option, but it really depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

The people you’re looking to reach are out there, but it takes effort (and sometimes a bit of help) to find them.

Where will you focus your efforts?

Engaging people

I mean two things here.

Firstly, how will you encourage people to take part in your research?

What’s in it for them? Is it easy? Quick? Informative? Could they win something?

How will you capture their attention and convince them to invest their time?

Want to learn more about this? Qualtrics shared 7 easy ways to boost customer survey response rates, and this post from Maru Blue explores what people like and dislike about doing surveys.

Secondly, how will you encourage them to share well-considered answers?

Market research isn’t just about the questions you ask. There will usually be context and narrative that’s critical to the response.

You can’t expect people to provide a considered response if they’re not given enough information. *Resists temptation to mention Brexit here*

What’s the detail behind your research project and how does it relate to the questions you’re asking people?

Think about how you’ll follow up with them, too. You shouldn’t just spring up from nowhere, ask for feedback, and then disappear again.

If you tell people how you’re using their feedback to make changes, they’ll be more likely to respond in the future.

Related: Give people a reason to respond

3. Ask at the right time

The more you know about the people you’re looking to reach and what matters to them, the easier it will be to pinpoint a good time.

Christmas or summer might not be the best time, for example. Your audience might be on holiday or enjoying some downtime.

If your research relates to a particular event, campaign or launch, consider how you might use the momentum of that to maximise the response.

There might be a similar survey already out. Ever heard of survey response fatigue?

But remember, it’s not all about the numbers. What matters is that you’re asking the right questions, to the right people, at the right time.

You’re looking for relevant, reliable findings. Remember that many factors come into play.

If you’ll be comparing your findings over time, for example, think about what time of year you run your research project.

If you sent out a survey in January, when everyone was cold and suffering from post-Christmas blues, they’re likely to be in a different frame of mind if you survey them again in September, when they’re just back from a relaxing summer break.

And if you ask someone for feedback on a product they only bought yesterday, their experience of using it will be limited. Their answers won’t give you the full story.

To make the most of your research project, consider timings carefully. 

Related: Researching with no budget? Get some tips.

Things to remember:

When you’re planning market research, follow these 3 steps:

  1. Figure out what to ask – What are your objectives and what do you want to find out? How will you design questions that deliver the insights you’re looking for?
  2. Identify who you need to reach – Who can provide you with the insights you’re looking for, and how will you reach and engage them?
  3. Decide on a timeline – When will you have the best chance of reaching these people and sourcing reliable, relevant feedback from them?

What are you asking, who are you asking, and when are you asking.

It’s not rocket science, but there are a lot of factors that come into play.