Everything You Need To Know About Consumer Research

/ marketing
Joanna Jones

If the thought of conducting consumer research seems daunting, or if you're unsure where to start when it comes to finding market research services, this post is for you.

Consumer research is an umbrella term that covers multiple methods, but the main gist of the term is that it describes methods to collect input from your customers to understand how your product and brand is perceived.

Though the field of consumer research is a whole industry of itself, we'll break down the key ins and outs so that you will be armed to use the appropriate methodology.

Whether you're a marketer, work in sales or product development, or are a business owner or founder, you'll be able to use this handy guide to equip your team with the right customer research principles.

First Off, Let's Define What Consumer Research Really Is

As we just mentioned, the field of consumer research is really broad. But to get specific, consumer research refers to methodologies that seek to study consumer behavior and perceptions about a product, service, brand, or experience.

To be even more precise, consumer research is either quantitative or qualitative in nature. Quantitative research includes surveys, polls, or tracking data. In other words: nerdy stuff like counting numbers and quantities.

Qualitative research seeks out themes and patterns, or the "why's" and "how's" behind consumer thinking and behavior. Common qualitative methods include focus groups, ethnographic research, in-depth interviews, and user experience research.

Quantitative research is more about hard numbers. Qualitative research gets deeper into the people behind the numbers and why they make the choices they do.

Even though the methods are quite different, the overarching goal of quantitative and qualitative consumer research is the same: to understand consumer perceptions and learn how customers think about or use products and services. To put it very simply: it's about figuring out why people buy stuff and how they use it.

What Are The Objectives Of Consumer Research?

Consumer research objectives vary, but here are some common scenarios when customer insight research may be employed:

  • A company wants to know if its advertising campaign has resulted in higher brand awareness and brand loyalty. To do so, they may employ a consumer research brand awareness and perception survey or an NPS survey.

  • A startup is working on a new product, but first, they need to understand how consumers perceive the design and use the features in the app. To study this, they would use the consumer research method of user experience research, which typically includes qualitative and quantitative data collection.

  • A B2B company wants to give its sales team information about how their target customers go through the decision-making process when sourcing products. To learn, they could employ qualitative research. For example, interviews with respondents who fit their buyer profiles. Customer journey mapping exercises would be a consumer research methodology that would illustrate a typical buying process.

  • An airline company wants to understand where along the journey customers feel the most stress when traveling. To answer this question, the consumer research method of mobile ethnographies would work well. Customers can track and record their experience on a mobile ethnography app in real-time while they fly.
  • A small business wants to understand if people have a good customer experience while shopping at their store. To analyze this, they could employ a customer satisfaction survey program, and over time, they'll be able to benchmark and monitor customer satisfaction scores.

The above list hopefully shows the diverse ways that consumer research methods are used when seeking to understand customer behavior, demographic differences, and perceptions.

Of course, this isn't a comprehensive list of all the objectives that consumer research can tackle. It would take a book larger than War and Peace to do that. But hopefully, this gives you a good idea of how both qualitative and quantitative methods are used in consumer market research.

The Typical Consumer Research Process

Whether consumer research is conducted quantitatively or qualitatively, the process often starts the same way.

A company or a business owner is stuck. They may want to understand why a product isn't selling, or to rebrand and shift their marketing strategy, but want consumer input on their revamped messaging and designs.

Or perhaps a product team is working on a new idea and wants to know how people use their new widget. The scenarios are endless.

The common theme here is that primary research almost always begins with questions: How? What? How many? Why?

Next, the company or business owner needs to decide: is this something I can figure out myself, or should we bring in experts to help us? Think of it like a crime show on TV. Sometimes the crime can be solved by the local sheriff, but some cases require the help of the big shot FBI detectives. It's the same principle (minus the crime)

As a side note here, it's worth stating that marketing research is best done by outside firms. Why? Well, simply put, it's almost impossible to be objective or set up the right questions when you're so close to your own product or brand.  Sometimes it takes an outside eye to help discover what's right in front of you.

An outside research firm will be able to ask questions without a biased filter, and, if you hire a firm that specializes in market research services, they'll have the expertise to manage the project professionally. Plus, consumer research, when done correctly, takes a lot of time. So unless you have a full-time person who can dedicate months to one project, it's best to let the consumer research experts handle your project.

Once a research firm is selected, the company will work with you to explore your goals and key questions. Based on this, they'll formulate a consumer research methodology to collect the data best – this may be quantitative, qualitative, or a hybrid of both. They'll then design the study, recruit the target market participants, survey or interview people, analyze the findings and package the results into an actionable report that your team can use to make decisions.

To say the do a lot would be a major understatement. Most consumer insights research projects take between one and six months to conduct (longitudinal studies may take longer, but most can be done in as little as 1-2 months). But you can't rush greatness.

The Most Common Quantitative Research Methods

As we've already covered, quantitative market research is statistical in nature. If your question is to answer "how many" or "how much" or "what are the patterns," then quantitative consumer research is the appropriate methodology to employ.

The most widely used quantitative tools used are:

  • Different types of consumer surveys (online survey, mobile, or paper fill-in)
  • Online data collection tools (analyzing clicks, website heat maps, download statistics, and consumer impressions and actions)
  • Secondary research sources (government statistics, scientific journals, and subscription sources for media planning or economic statistics)

Quantitative research can be commissioned (meaning you hire a marketing research firm to find a panel that fits your target audience and surveys them for you), or you can purchase the industry data that will help inform your team's decisions. The former is obviously more custom and specific, while the latter will provide broader marketplace patterns.

Alternatively, you can use Paperform to create your own survey and deploy it to your customers and target audience.

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A key component of quantitative research is that it should follow sound statistical collection methods and be analyzed by specialists who understand data collection. These specialists can also run conjoint analysis or use statistical analysis software, such as SPSS, to run the data through. In order to do this, you'll need to ensure you have a robust enough sample size.

The Most Common Qualitative Research Methods

While quantitative research measures how much or how many, qualitative research seeks to understand why, how, what and when.

These types of questions are hard to pinpoint through closed-ended customer survey style questions. Instead, they're explored through open-ended questions, where a researcher will pose a question. For example: "describe how was your shopping experience in the XYZ store".

The answers gleaned in qualitative research tend to be more diverse than what can be learned in a quantitative survey, so it requires more setup, strategy, segmentation, and time to analyze the responses.

Furthermore, the most effective way to spot patterns is by sorting participants into "persona" segments. This way, the researcher will have a homogeneous sample of each segment and can better explore themes by segment.

Qualitative sample sizes tend to be much smaller than quantitative since the researcher is looking for themes and patterns rather than statistically valid data points.

The most common qualitative research methods to explore questions around "how" and "why" are:

  • Focus groups (in-person or online; typically 5-7 people per group)
  • Ethnographic research (in-person observation or mobile ethnographies used to track buying behavior)
  • In-depth interviews (one-on-one interviews, typically lasting 30 minutes to 1 hour)
  • Dyad or triad interviews (interviews with 2-3 people – essentially a mini-focus group)
  • User experience research (observational research to see how people navigate through digital sites or apps)
  • Customer journey mapping (interviews and observation to see all of the touch-points people go through when accessing a service)
  • Social listening (using tools that comb through social networks, social media posts, and online posts to discern patterns, product sentiment, and perceptions about brands)

As you might have already started to piece together from the above list, mining for consumer insights using qualitative research is no walk in the park. It's a complex process that involves recruiting the right persona samples of participants, designing a discussion guide with open-ended questions, moderating and observing, then going through the data to find themes, patterns, and make conclusions.

How To Analyze Customer Research Findings

The last step in the consumer research process is to take all of the data, whether from questionnaires or from qualitative interviews, and attempt to make sense of it.

As a general rule, a trained statistician is necessary when dealing with survey question-style data. Though if the survey is fairly short and you have a small sample size, you can also use online analysis, or data visualization tools to help you make sense of the responses.

Alternatively, if you have team members well-versed in programs like Excel, they'll be able to make pivot tables and analyze the data through formulaic programming. Make sure you use caution when analyzing quantitative data, as numbers can easily be misconstrued, and data is open to misinterpretation if not analyzed correctly (if you need proof, just look at the polls in the US election).

If your team has consumer data from website or app analytics to analyze, you can often rely on a built-in website or analytic tools to understand the key patterns. Large data sets will require a data analyst to help you make sense of the numbers.

Qualitative data, though very different from quantitative data is just as complicated, if not more, to analyze properly.

Typically, researchers will record interviews, focus groups, and ethnographies with both video and audio, and then turn the recordings into transcripts. An analyst will then go through the transcripts and qualitatively code them, searching for common themes, patterns, and directional cues along the way.

Coding can be done either manually or through software. However, even with all of the advancements in AI and machine learning, most professional researchers still prefer coding manually, as they're better able to discern themes and overarching stories without assistance from machine learning.

Once the process of analyzing the data is complete, the research firm (or if done in-house - your team) will then compile the findings into a report, showcasing the key responses and themes, as well as actionable insights.

Whew. That's A Lot. So Is Consumer Research Worth It?

If you have just read all this you would be forgiven for thinking, 'wow, understanding consumer preferences makes about as much sense to me as quantum physics'. You're not alone - it's a deceptively complex topic because, after all, it involves the study of human behaviour and perceptions. And as well all know, humans are pretty complicated creatures.

So is all this complicated research and data analysis worth it?

In short, yes. When done correctly, with the optimal methodology for the questions you have, consumer research can be absolutely transformative to a business.

If your company is developing products or services that people consume, use, or rely on, there is simply no shortcut to studying how they use it, why they use it, and what improvements and issues they see.

Happy consumer research-ing!


Joanna Jones is the founder of the leading market research firm in the Bay Area, InterQ Research. InterQ specializes in qualitative and quantitative research.

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