Everything you need to know before getting started
Market research is essential to every organization.
According to the latest global market research report by ESOMAR, a global community of market researchers, roughly $45 billion is spent on market research annually around the globe. The majority of these resources are spent contracting full-service vendors and agencies that do your market research for you. But what if you could cut out the middleman and do it yourself? Doing your own market research is much cheaper, faster, and not nearly as difficult as you might think, as long as you know what you’re doing.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to run your own market research programs and get insights to help everyone at your company make business decisions—without costly middlemen.
Market research is the process of collecting information on consumers’ behaviors and preferences, category trends, and/or competitive intelligence. Market research is typically conducted by organizations to inform product development and go-to-market strategy to ultimately drive business growth.
Market research can help companies answer questions like:
Sure, business decisions can be made based on gut instincts alone, but doing so comes with high risk. After all, not all of us can be brilliant visionaries like Steve Jobs, who famously said, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” We beg to differ. Market research provides the necessary data-backed evidence to help you make those decisions with confidence. Here’s why market research is so important:
Market research is a broad term that encompasses several different types of information gathering. It can mean different things to different people and be viewed through a number of different lenses. In order to give you a comprehensive understanding of it, we’ll walk through each of common types of market research, their pros and cons, and how they’re most commonly used. We’ll talk about the differences between:
Fundamentally, market research can be broken down into two major categories: primary research and secondary research.
For the purpose of this guide, we will be focusing on primary research. Once you’re done reading, you’ll be a pro at conducting your own primary market research.
Quantitative and qualitative research can be done individually or in combination to get broader and deeper insights.
|Quantitative research||Qualitative research|
-Large sample size
-Smaller sample sizes
-Aggregates and averages
-Presented in numbers
-Presented in themes
-Faster and easier to analyze results with spreadsheets and statistical software
-Larger sample sizes mean the results are more likely to be statistically significant
-Deep dive into the “how” and “why”
-Exploratory research design provides the opportunity to capture concepts or ideas you hadn’t thought of before
-Less detail around “how” and “why”
-Structured research design means it’s possible the research isn’t capturing all possible concepts or ideas
-Time consuming and difficult to analyze the findings
-Smaller sample sizes mean the results are less likely to be statistically significant
When your organization needs to conduct market research, there are a couple ways to go about it. The two main approaches are do-it-yourself (DIY) market research or to use a full-service market research firm.
Here is a summary of the pros and cons of DIY market research and full-service market research for you to consider when deciding how you’ll conduct your research:
|DIY market research||Full-service market research|
-Complete control over research design and timeline
-All of the work is done for you by the vendor
-No expertise needed
-Requires work internally to set up the research and analyze results
-Takes a long time
-Requires vendor on-boarding to ensure relevant recommendations
Now that you’re well versed in the different types of market research, it’s time to get you off and running! In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to conduct your own market research from start to finish—from creating a project plan to designing your survey to collecting representative responses to turning results into action.
The best practices in this guide span any market research use case, but we’ll focus on the three example surveys you see below: consumer behavior, ad testing, and brand tracking. By the time you’ve finished reading this guide, you’ll be a pro at DIY market research!
How to create a market research plan
Before you get knee-deep in survey design and data collection, it’s important to have a clear plan in place for your market research. Knowing when you need market research, understanding what type of market research is important to your business, aligning with your stakeholders, and scoping out your project ahead of time will ensure you stay on track and deliver actionable results.
So, when’s the best time to do market research? Trick question! Continuously. No matter where you work, you can always tap into the market’s opinions and preferences to be better at your job.
Let’s look at this in the context of a product’s lifecycle:
If the answer to “when should I do market research” is “all the time,” how do companies manage and plan for that? One way is budgeting for large annual studies—like brand tracking and competitive research every year or more frequently. In addition to that, more and more companies have taken a page from the world’s most innovative companies to make their market research more agile.
Agile market research is an approach to conducting market research in which projects are structured in small, frequent “sprints” so you can adapt to challenges on the fly.
Rooted in the Agile Methodology first introduced in the software development space, agile market research takes on a lot of the same characteristics you’d find in startup culture. Agile market research goes beyond just being faster. As SurveyMonkey president Tom Hale described in his piece in Quirk’s, “The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”
“The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”
Agile market research isn’t a brand new concept, but it has spread like wildfire. Even a couple years ago, 78% of researchers were planning to adopt agile market research methodologies, according to a study by GutCheck. With DIY research tools like SurveyMonkey and SurveyMonkey Audience, more people and teams within an organization are able to do their own market research without having to rely on centralized insights teams or full-service agencies, and this allows them to always have the data they need to make decisions faster.
Below is SurveyMonkey’s agile market research framework. It visualizes a cyclical approach to exploring, testing, validating, and optimizing strategies—whether they’re ideas, concepts, campaigns, you name it—all the while continuously tracking progress. It takes what otherwise might be a long, drawn out research timeline and breaks it into sprints of smaller, more manageable projects. The beauty of this framework is its versatility. It shows you how agile market research can help you for nearly any challenge or project you might encounter at your job.
Each research phase fundamentally asks the following questions:
The key takeaway here is that with the right tools and processes, research can be an ongoing activity that any team in your organization can own. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just start conducting research willy-nilly. Having a clear direction and plan will make frequent research that much more strategic and actionable. The first step is defining the business question your research aims to answer.
Starting a market research project from scratch can feel intimidating. If you break it into chunks and have a clear vision of what you’re looking for, things become easier. In order to focus your research, you should lay out the business question and research goals you’re looking to achieve.
The business question is a short summary of the problem you’re solving for and the context of how it fits in to your business. We’re not talking about survey questions here—business questions are high-level goals or challenges that tie directly to your business objectives that can help you make better decisions. A business question might involve:
The research goal is an outline of the specific facts or metrics you hope to learn with your research. In other words, your research goals are what helps you answer your business question, you can map research goals to that question. Writing strong, relevant research goals is important because they will later translate to specific survey questions later on.
A good rule of thumb is to have no more than 3 research goals so you ensure your survey is focused and not overwhelming for respondents.
To bring this to life, here are some hypothetical business questions and research goals:
|Business question||Research goals|
We’re considering investing in a couple video streaming services companies, and we need to understand the existing landscape and perceptions so we invest wisely.
|1. Learn what tech brands and apps are most popular among millenials|
2. Gather proof points around quantity/satisfaction of apps used
3. Understand millennials’ usage and attitudes towards streaming services
We’re very close to going to market with our new dog food, and our designers have come up with several great designs for print ads. How do we choose which design to go with?
|1. Compare consumer appeal and preference for each ad design|
2. Identify which design consumers would be willing to pay more for
3. Assess any differences by consumer demographics
We’re an established brand in the sparkling water category, but a lot of new brands have launched in the last year. What does that mean for us?
|1. Measure brand awareness for all major brands in the category|
2. Assess each brand’s perception and associations
3. Understand brand adoption for our brand and the new entrants
As you go about connecting your business question to your research goals, you should begin thinking about summarizing how your results will be used, what format they’ll be delivered in (a summary in a spreadsheet? a formal presentation to executives?), and who the key stakeholders are for the research (typically those responsible for business decisions). All of this information will be helpful later when you create a brief to help you summarize (or defend) your market research project.
When your objectives are clear, the next step is to outline your project scope. This includes your project budget, who you’ll be surveying and how, and the estimated project timeline.
Okay, so this is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Should the project scope determine the budget or vice versa? The reality is that most teams are given a set budget for the year and need to figure out how to work within it. Earlier in the year (or planning cycle), you might have more unallocated funds to work with, but as the year goes on, things might get tighter. Where you stand with budget will likely determine how you move forward.
Things to consider when figuring out your budget:
Knowing who you need to target with your survey and how you plan to do it will have implications for how you resource your project (both dollars and team members working on it). Try to answer the following questions before getting started:
Not to worry, we’ll go into much more depth on how to answer these questions in the fielding section of this guide.
Understanding how long each step in a market research project takes will ensure you start the work early enough to have actionable insights before you need to make your decisions. Here’s the timeline you can expect for a large scale DIY market research project.
Timing considerations for each step:
Now, these are timeline estimates for a larger-scale research project with several stakeholders. The beauty of agile market research is that it’s frequent and built into your business process. You might follow the above timeline for the first run, but future projects could be done on the fly in a much more accelerated timeline (perhaps even just days from start to finish).
Once you’ve worked through everything above, you should document everything in a research brief. Research briefs are a great way to keep everything in one place. A well-written research brief will be able to tell anyone who’s interested exactly what you will be studying (and what you won’t be) to make sure everyone is on the same page. And if anyone wants to suggest something that’s not part of your experiment, your research brief will help you show why you need to stick to the plan.
And with your plan all set, you’re ready to start drafting your survey!
How to design a successful market research survey
In this section, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about writing an effective market research survey. We’ll start with how to structure your survey, discuss question writing tips, tell you ways to optimize your survey for data quality, provide market research survey templates to get you started, and even share a pre-launch checklist. Let’s get to it!
To start, take a look at the below diagram. It breaks down the anatomy of a good market research survey. We’ll dive into all of these recommendations in more detail in this chapter.
Before you begin writing survey questions, it’s important to know how to structure a good market research survey. While there isn’t a perfect formula, there are several fundamental things to take note of before you get writing:
Now that we’ve reviewed how to structure your survey, let’s look at strategies for writing your survey questions in a way that ensures you don’t bias your respondents.
A lot of things can inadvertently bias your survey respondents—the wording of your question, the sentence structure, how you choose your answer options, and more. Luckily it’s pretty easy to avoid if you adhere to these tips.
No matter the question, the golden rules for writing a good survey question are:
Ordinal scale questions like Likert scale questions are extremely common in market research. They typically come in the form of a 5-, or 7-point scale, which means they include 5 or 7 answer options. The key with these types of questions is balancing the number of positive, neutral, and negative answer options—there should be equal parts positive and negative.
Also, avoid agree/disagree questions. Survey scientists have found again and again that they cause desirability bias, the tendency for respondents to agree more often than they normally would. We recommend using Likert Scale questions instead.
If you’re having trouble coming up with the right answer options, SurveyMonkey’s Answer Genius can help by using artificial intelligence to predict the answer options you should use for a given question.
Make sure every respondent who enters your survey is able to answer the questions in your survey—even if the survey question isn’t relevant to them. Including an “other” or “none of the above” or “never” answer option can help you achieve this.
Jargon, industry-specific terms, acronyms, and slang have no place in a survey. If your respondents don’t understand what you’re asking you may end up with bad data, so don’t assume they know specific terms. Make your question wording as clear and simple as possible, and if you must, explain what technical terms are with examples (either within the question itself or in a survey introduction).
Be careful of words like “and” and “or” in your survey question. It may mean you’re asking two questions in one (double-barreled questions), which could make the results unusable. Make sure you’re sticking to one topic in your question, or split your question into two parts.
You don’t want the way you worded a question or the order of your answer options to influence respondents’ answers. Order bias can be reduced by randomizing your answer options. Note: Don’t randomize Likert scale questions—just make sure the answer options show up in a consistent order (positive to negative or negative to positive). Also, don’t bother randomizing if it makes more sense to arrange answer options alphabetically (e.g. US states and territories).
Screening questions ensure your respondents actually meet your survey criteria. But savvy online panelists have caught on to the fact that failing a screening question means they get kicked out of the survey (and therefore, miss out on the incentive). You’re more likely to get higher data quality when respondents are unaware you’re using a screening question at the beginning of your survey. Avoid obvious screening questions like yes/no questions because acquiescence bias (tendency to answer “yes” to appear more agreeable) may influence respondents to answer dishonestly.
Data quality can be attributed to many things, but optimizing your survey design is one of the most important (and controllable!) ways to ensure reliable results. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do:
If you’ve read this far and you still don’t know where to begin, we’ve got 20+ market research survey templates waiting for you!
We have several market research survey templates to help you get started. All you have to do is customize the survey template for your product/service category and you’re good to go!
Quantify the demand for your product, and pinpoint which market to enter next.See template
Measure awareness, usage, and NPS® for the key players in your category.See template
Gauge the levels of awareness and adoption for emerging product categories.See template
Understand your target market’s behaviors, perceptions, and needs.See template
Learn who, where, and how people shop for your product/service category.See template
Deep dive into the purchase decision making process of your target buyers.See template
Get feedback on your product concepts to learn which one will win in-market.See template
Test to see which packaging designs and messaging will stand out most with buyers.See template
Know what consumers are willing to pay for your product and what’s too expensive.See template
Test company, brand, or product name ideas before launching.See template
Test your advertising campaigns to know which will drive higher purchase intent.See template
Get feedback on your logo ideas to find out which is most appealing to buyers.See template
See which marketing messages or claims resonate most with your target buyer.See template
Learn how many people are aware of your brand plus how and when they heard about it.See template
Capture the entire brand funnel from awareness to consideration to loyalty.See template
See what’s most important when making a purchase and how your brand performs.See template
Once you’re satisfied with your survey design, the next step is to collect survey responses!
How to collect survey responses from the right people
Now that your survey is ready to launch (or as we say, get into “the field”), it’s time to figure out who you’ll target, how you’ll reach them, how many responses you’ll need, and when to send your survey.
When you’re sending out a market research survey, your ultimate goal is to understand the behaviors and perceptions of the target population you’re interested in. In order to do that, you need to know who your target audience is to begin with.
Here are some example characteristics that you could use to define your target audience:
Now, if you’re a well-established company, you probably already have a good sense of who your target market is and the attributes that define it. But if you don’t that’s okay too. With market research there are times when you want to target a broad audience and times when you want to target a narrower group of people.
How you’re going to reach the people you need to survey depends on who you’re surveying. Rest assured there are a variety of options for getting your survey in front of the right people.
Existing contacts could be your friends, family, coworkers, customers, website visitors, social followers - anyone you already have access to. In most cases, you have some way of contacting them to invite them to take your survey.
Common ways of surveying existing contacts:
With most market research surveys, what you need to do is obtain a representative sample of your target market, meaning a group of people that accurately mirrors the population you’re interested in.
Market research panels, like SurveyMonkey Audience, offer a way to access people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.
Survey panels will also do a lot of the work for you, like recruiting a diverse population to join the panel, inviting the right people to take your survey, incentivizing respondents, and monitoring your completion rate.
|Existing contacts (customers, followers, etc.)||Representative sample of your target market|
-It’s low cost since all you have to pay for is the survey incentive, if applicable.
-Respondents are easy to reach since you’ve already got their info or a way to contact them.
-It’s easy to get a balanced, representative sample that reduces bias in results.
-You can get more granular and specific with your survey targeting.
-Panels make inaccessible people accessible.
-It’s fast. You can collect 1,000 responses in a couple days versus the weeks it might take to get responses on your own.
-Existing contacts make an inherently biased sample because they usually already know and like you, so it’s less likely they’ll answer your survey objectively.
-You need to have a lot of contacts to survey in order receive enough survey responses.
-It can take a long time to reach a high sample size. A couple reminders are usually necessary.
-It takes more work on your part to monitor the survey progress, manage reminders, and send incentives.
-Buying responses costs money. DIY options like SurveyMonkey Audience are usually cheaper.
-Finding a niche sample can be challenging for some targets. For example, cardiologists may be hard to reach with an online panel.
If you’re surveying the general population using a survey panel, you’ll still want to make sure that your sample is representative of the population in the location you’re surveying. For example, if you want to survey adults in the U.S., the breakdown of certain demographics like age and gender in your survey sample should match the breakdown of the U.S. population. The U.S. Census is a great source of this information—see the table below.
Once you know what the breakdown of your sample should be, you can specify the balancing criteria for your sample. Balancing refers to the distribution of demographic buckets (e.g.: age, gender) in your survey sample and is specified when you target your audience. SurveyMonkey Audience allows Census balancing as the default, but you can also use our custom balancing capabilities to set your own demographic distribution. This way, your sample won’t skew to one age or gender and throw off your results.
Now, let’s say you don’t want to target the general population, but you have a more specific target in mind. In our dog food example, let’s say the product is specifically for small dogs. If you think about the U.S., pet owners are a subset of the adult population, dog owners are a subset of pet owners, and small dog owners are a subset of all dog owners. If you want to understand the packaging appeal of your product, it makes sense to target this relatively small population.
There are two ways of targeting a narrow population like small dog owners.
1. Choose from pre-profiled targeting options. With SurveyMonkey Audience, we have already asked our panelists questions typically used for targeting a survey sample:
Note: Don’t forget to double check the balancing options. Even when you’re targeting a narrower group of people, you want to ensure the proper demographic balancing. That way, you won’t end up with only female small dog owners instead of a balance of male and female small dog owners.
2. Using custom screening questions. When the available targeting options don’t get you the exact target audience you’re looking for, you can write your own screening questions to disqualify people you don’t need. For example, if we only had a targeting option for dog owners, but you wanted to survey small dog owners, you could use a screening question to disqualify dog owners whose dog is over a certain weight.
When you use screening questions in your survey, you’ll need to estimate the associated qualification rate (also sometimes called incidence rate), which is the percentage of respondents who make it past your screening questions and go on to take the rest of your survey. This will help us calculate the total number of survey invites to send so you get the total number of completed responses you ordered.
It’s important to understand how targeting options and screening questions work together. For example, you could use targeting options to specify dog owners, and then use a screening question to weed out large dog owners. That way, only small dog owners take your survey. When estimating your qualification rate in this case, it would be the percentage of dog owners (who you targeted with the targeting options) that you think own small dogs (who will qualify past your screening question).
Once you know who to send your survey to, the next question is how many people should you be surveying? The sample size of your survey will have an effect on your ability to analyze and draw conclusions from your results, so getting enough responses is key to doing effective market research.
When choosing a sample size for your market research survey, here’s what you need to consider:
Are you doing a quick gut-check, making a strategic business decision, or trying to get your results published? How you’ll be using your results can help determine your sample size. Here are some sample size recommendations:
Margin of Error is an indicator of how closely the survey results from your sample represent the entire population you’re targeting. Essentially, it tells you how confident you can be in your survey results. Here’s how to interpret margin of error: Let’s say you surveyed 400 people, and 50% are aware of your brand. With a margin of error of +/- 5%, you can be confident that between 45% and 55% of the target population is aware of your brand.
If you want a tighter margin of error, you’ll want to survey a larger sample size.
Factors that Influence Margin of Error:
If you’re looking for an extremely specific type of respondent, the panel you’re working with might only have so many in their inventory. The feasibility of your sample can determine the max number of people you can survey at a given time. To get around this, you could loosen your targeting criteria and ask extra questions that can help you identify the respondents you’re looking for. Then, once you’ve collected your responses, you can use filters in your data analysis to see how those respondents answered.. That way, you’ll be working with more data at the total level, but still have a way to see how that specific group answered your questions.
Let’s be realistic: We all have to work within a budget. The good news about DIY market research and online panels is that they are much less expensive than traditional full-service vendors. Even still, your budget will play a role in the number of responses you’re able to collect. But remember, even if you can’t reach the sample size you were hoping for, some data is always better than no data at all.
Sometimes your survey logic will influence the number of people you need to survey. Let’s say you’re testing 2 different ad campaigns and you used our A/B test functionality (or a monadic survey design) so that 50% of your respondents see one campaign and 50% of respondents see the other. If you want 200 responses for each ad campaign, you’ll need 400 total responses.
Is there an ideal time to launch your market research project? Not really. Neither time of day, day of the week, seasons, nor holidays really make a difference for data quality. It’s best to time your project based mainly on your project goals and research plan. However, there are some implications for response volume and data consistency (if you’re running multiple projects or a tracking study) that you should keep in mind.