Test Drive Your Market To Avoid Marketing Accidents

"For a communications program to work effectively, it should include listening, not just telling."

By David P. Kowal

Before buying a car, most of us consult Consumer Reports or AAA, research the car online, talk to other car owners, and test drive as many cars as we can. But when it comes to marketing a business, some companies don't even bother kicking the tires.

Market research is perceived simply as an expense -- and one that can be avoided, at that. Some companies think they know all they need to know about who their customers are and what they need. Marketing communications and advertising agencies sometimes fail to push research for their clients. Research is difficult to sell, not only because it is intangible, but because its contribution to the bottom line is not readily apparent. In addition, many agencies lack in-house research capabilities. So when the client says, "I know my market," the agency or consultant is likely to back off.

But research should be the first step in developing a communications program for any business or organization. "Communications" implies a two-way dialogue. For a communications program to work effectively, it should include listening, not just telling.

A misconception about the market can have costly consequences.

Research is typically used to help define target markets and the decision makers in those markets, the scope of services needed, the company’s message, the perception of a firm among clients and in its industry, and more. In fact, it can be used to answer virtually any question.

Types of Research

Research is divided into informal and formal programs. Many firms use informal research without realizing it. Often, questions are posed to target markets and centers of influence without anyone identifying the process as research. Informal research also includes the establishment of a focus group or ad hoc advisory committee to consider a specific problem or provide input on a new product. A focus group typically meets once and is interviewed in-depth to determine the group's perceptions of a company, and its products or services. For the focus-group approach to work, the group must represent a cross section of the company's customers and interviews must be conducted objectively.

A formal research program typically is based on an extensive direct mail or telephone survey of a scientifically representative sample. Mail typically has a very low response rate, even if an incentive is provided for respondents. Telephone surveys can be effective, but are expensive.

An elaborate formal program is more than some companies need or can afford. Keep in mind that research is just the first step in developing a marketing communications program. If the entire budget is spent on research, nothing will be left to make use of the research results.

For some companies, adequate research may be developed from a handful of personal interviews with existing and potential clients. Research information for your industry may also be available from trade organizations or government agencies. Secondary analysis of available data is more cost effective and quicker than developing a new research program.

Whatever research methods are used, it is, of course, vital that the results are accurate. However, it is also important to remember that the research methodology is less important than the research results and how they are used. Research results that are kept on a shelf serve no one's purpose. Even before research begins, it is important to know how the results will be used.

In many cases, research can expose flaws in a company's perception of its market. In the best-case scenario, research may validate the company's approach to the market. Even then, time and money spent on research is well spent, since the company can proceed with the confidence needed to succeed in the marketplace.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.