Stop Guessing, Start Asking: How to Conduct Market Research Without a Massive Budget

It can seem like only the biggest, richest companies have the time and money to do proper market research.

That’s obvious because marketing research is such a major undertaking. You have to hire a whole team’s worth of people to run the research. You need to find a gaggle of folks that you can convince to come in and sit for some kind of advanced interrogation and polygraph test (that’s how this works, right?). Then you had to have another team that wrote down their answers. And another team had to read through the answers and try to find some kind of useful information.

It’ll surely cost billions. Guess that makes the rest of us totally out of luck?

The nice thing about technology these days is that it democratizes a lot of the stuff that used to only be reserved for those people and brands with the deepest pockets.

Now, we’ve got the internet. And with the internet comes tools like Paperform and access to troves of people who will tell us what they think about different things. With well-crafted surveys, questionnaires, or polls, businesses of all sizes can execute their own market research campaigns without massive budgets or hiring a specialized firm.

Literally any company--from a one-person shop to a multi-billion dollar conglomerate--can conduct proper, insightful research into their current or potential market with just a few simple tools and a good strategy.

Even so, the prospect of conducting your own market research can feel a bit daunting. So we’ve boiled it down into just 6 simple steps. There’s a lot to learn, but now’s the time to start.

Step #1: Define What You Want to Learn and from Whom

The first mistake that many businesses make when they set out to conduct market research is that they begin with the questions they want to ask.

This may seem like an obvious first step, but it can actually backfire in a big way.

Instead, take a step back and start with what you want to learn.

This is often different from what questions you will ultimately ask, because it may not make sense to ask the question outright in your survey. So take a second to really consider what kind of knowledge or insight you’re actually trying to gain by conducting this research in the first place.

You’ve got an aim in mind, right?

Maybe you’re wondering if your pricing is too high or you’re mulling over whether you should expand your product offering to include mullet wigs.

Whatever it is, this is what you want to actually learn.

In step 2, we’ll discuss what that means in terms of crafting what you ask. But, start with the basics.

Secondly, you’ll want to define who you want to learn about. This could be your current customers, past customers, potential customers, partners, or even the public.

These are the people you want to reach with your research.

Put these two pieces together and you can create a clear statement about what you’re hoping to learn and who you’re hoping to learn it from.

Think of this like your mission statement for the marketing research process.

So, if you want to know about your prices and you’re planning to ask potential customers, then you can write that goal into a clear statement:

Our goal is to learn how prospective customers view our pricing compared to our competitors.

Feels nice, right? It gives clarity to everything that will come after this and makes the whole process a lot easier.

Bonus points: Do a quick sanity check and make sure that you’re asking the right question to the right folks. Your past customers may be good to ask about ways you need to improve, but your current customers may all just say that they’re perfectly happy and nothing needs to change.

Step 2: Decide What Survey Data You Need

Next, you need to translate what you want to learn into how you’ll learn it.

It may seem obvious to ask the questions that you defined above. But chances are that you actually don’t want to ask these questions outright. Instead, you want to ask questions that will give you insight from the people you’re polling

For example, you may want to learn how you can improve your service.

In order to learn ways to improve your service, what you really need to know—the data you need to collect—is where your service currently falls flat.

Rather than asking, “how can we improve our service?,” you might want to try asking customers about their specific experience:

  • Can you describe an experience with our service that went well?
  • Can you describe an experience that did not go well?
  • Which parts of the poor experience stand out most to you?

While this may not be a 1:1 fit with the learnings you etched out originally, the findings that come from asking these questions will give you the data that you need to actually answer the question.

The same thing applies to our original example about pricing.

Chances are that asking folks how much your product should cost will not give you the strongest insight about your pricing strategy. But, you can ask about how your product is perceived compared to competitors. Is it higher quality, more valuable, and therefore should be priced higher? Shortly after launch a few year back, we saw a dramatic increase in sales when we increased pricing because the new higher prices matched the high quality of the product. We discovered that a quality product that is priced too low made prospective buyers suspicious of the brand. Asking beta testers what they would pay for our product didn’t return answers that reflected the market - we should have been asking questions about product quality and competitors instead.

Or, do prospective buyers pass you on over on the shelf because they perceive your brand to be a bargain name that’s too expensive?

Again, we can take our original goal and turn it into questions that would give us the data we need:

  • How often do you buy Brand A product?
  • How would you rate the overall quality of Brand A?
  • How would you rate the value of Brand A?
  • How often do you buy Brand B product?
  • How would you rate the overall quality of Brand B?
  • How would you rate the value of Brand B?

With these questions, we can get some data that would allow us to compare shopper preferences for the two brands and their perception about quality, price, and value.

This step can be the most tricky, because you need to balance two main objectives:

  • To create a question that will give you the data that you need
  • Avoid asking questions too directly that may influence the response

Chances are, most survey respondents will be thinking about what you’re trying to learn from while they take your survey. And if the questions that you ask are too on the nose, it my end up skewing what results you get.

Step #3: Writing Your Survey Questions

Once you’ve generally decided what you want to learn and you’ve given some thought to what data you’ll need in order to learn those things, the next step in this process is to sit down and actually write out the questions that you want to ask.

Writing survey questions--good ones--can be hard. There are a lot of small things that can turn a well-intentioned question into a nightmare for whoever’s trying to answer it.

This is where you should do your homework.

There are many questions that outline the fundamentals of writing good survey questions that don’t lead respondents, inject bias, or otherwise lead to a skewed outcome.

To give you a bit of a primer, here are some best practices:

  • Avoid assumptions by wording questions in a way that is still applicable if the answer is “no”, “never”, or “none” (e.g., rather than asking “How would you rate our coffee?,” you should first ask if the respondent has tried the coffee)
  • Be extremely precise in your language and avoid words that may be difficult to understand or interpreted vaguely
  • Avoid adjectives in the phrasing of your question, unless they’re neutral descriptors (e.g., Don’t ask respondents to, “tell us how awesome your experience was.” Have them rate their experience instead)
  • Use consistent phrasing and formatting for similar questions
  • Define clear references and time scales that allow people to answer questions consistently (e.g., “yearly income” vs. “income”)
  • One ask a single question at a time, never use double-barrelled questions or other approaches that may obfuscate the data

Take some time to research here. Botched questions could make this whole exercise pointless.

As you’re writing your survey, also consider what other text elements will need to be written. Do you need an intro? Section headings and introductions? It could also be helpful to write tips or help text that go along with your questions, to provide added context or clarification for respondents.

Step #4: Create a Conversion-Focused Form

Probably the most important part of creating your market research strategy is design.

Even the best-laid plans--or the world’s smartest poll--means nothing if it looks bad, is not usable, or the interface isn’t intuitive.

Nailing the design is critical to success.

In general, you’ll want to create a page that’s easy to read and navigate:

  • Clear and consistent UI
  • Legible colors, fonts, and buttons
  • Trustworthy design and branding

But, when it comes to designing your research, you’ll also want to consider the order, flow, and structure of your questions.

We’ve seen time and time again that well-designed forms and pages can lead to enormous boosts in overall completion rate.

With templates from Paperform, it’s pretty easy to get great-looking surveys and conversion-optimized design in just a couple of clicks.

The majority of the templates we offer are inspired by real user forms with fantastic submission rates. We are fortunate to have an active community who are willing to share their wisdom. The most helpful for conducting this kind of research are the Feedback Form templates.

It’s not just about fonts and colors of course. You’ll need to also consider the survey design itself.  Different types of questions and the overall structure can have a big impact on the results. If you’re not familiar with different types of questions and the types of data that they gather, then it’s worth taking time to familiarize yourself with them.

There are a lot of complex ways to try to measure people’s thoughts and feelings.

But, in general, try to keep your question and survey design as simple as possible.
Our data has found that shorter forms, fewer pages, and lower complexity can significantly improve the completion rate across the board. So, if you want to gather as much data as possible, be sure to make it simple as possible for people to give you that data.

Step #5: Distribute Your Survey

Up to this point, you may have just been thinking about getting a survey made. Writing the questions, figuring out the design--they’re all important steps.

But so is distribution.

If you want to gather data, you have to get people to actually respond. Once you’ve created your survey or questionnaire, you need to put it in front of the right people and then convince them to take a few minutes to provide honest feedback.

Depending on the nature of your business and who you’re trying to reach, there are a few different strategies that you can deploy to get your survey out into the wild.

1. Use your existing audience

If you’re okay with getting data from folks who are already your customers and/or familiar with your business, then generally the easiest way to gather data is to start with the audience that you’ve already built.

Try sharing the survey via:

  • Your email list
  • Your (physical) mailing list
  • Social media channels
  • In-store or on-premises

You’ll probably want to create a roll-out strategy that involves a few different asks.

For instance, if you’re sending the survey to your email list, be sure to send at least 2--maybe 3 or 4--emails asking for people to complete the survey, following up, and reminding them before it closes.

2. Partner up

Is your current audience a bit...lacking?

Not to worry. There are other ways to reach the people you want to hear from. One way to do it is to partner up with another company who already has an audience that consists of the type of folks you’re trying to reach.

For instance, say you run a high-end stereo shop. You could partner with a local record store to reach music fans, run the survey together, and share the results. Of course, if you’re relying on another business to share their customers, you’ll probably need to sweeten the pot by putting up the resources or money to administer the survey.

3. Pay up

If neither of the above options will work, then you can always do things the good, ol’ fashioned way. Just pay to put your survey in front of the right people.

Using platforms like Google Ads or Facebook Ads, you can easily target whatever audience you’re looking to reach and ask them to take the survey. This will, of course, cost some money. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Spending a bit to reach the right audience can be a big boost to your overall campaign. And, it also allows you to reach folks outside of your current audience, even if you have built a strong brand already.

This could be helpful if you want to expand into new markets or roll out a new product or service that targets a different customer.

4. Outsource it

If you’re really just not feeling any of this, you can always pay someone else to take care of it.

While budget is usually a limiting factor for most small businesses, if you have some extra money, you can hire a company or freelancer to promote your survey and generate results.

Most likely, they’ll use paid tactics like those outlined above to get in front of the right people.

Lastly, consider an incentive. It’s awfully difficult to get someone to take time out of their day to give you some feedback. It’s even more difficult if there’s really nothing in it for them. Try offering a small gift ($5 gift card) for participants, or enter them to win one larger prize like a $100 gift card or a free service.

Step #6: Analyze the Results

I could write an entire post on data analysis. Or, more likely, many, many posts on all of the nuanced things that go into turning data into usable information and insight.

But, that ain’t what this post is about. (Sorry, guess you’ll just have to come back for that one.)

This is both a deep and broad topic that spans a lot complex concepts. And, for that reason, I’m not going to wade too deeply into the analysis stage other than to say that it’s the final step here. To get some insight from your data, you need to analyze it.

My number 1 tip: Keep the research simple.

Unless you’ve got an in-house data scientist who can help you analyze complex patterns and perform latent class analysis or whatever super sophisticated regression--whatever--then you need to focus on collecting data that will actually be useful for you.

That means keeping your questions simple and designing a survey in a way that will allow for simple analysis.

It’s easier to draw basic correlations between 2 numbers than it is to recognize patterns in text usage or perform advanced analysis of multiple confounding variables.

In other words: Keep it simple. Seriously--I can’t say this enough.

If you try to make your first research effort too complex, you’ll end up with data that you can’t interpret and it won’t be valuable to you or your company. Start small, gather some data, and grow your capabilities.

When you’re staring at the data, start with the quick wins.

Look for patterns:

  • How many people rated your service a 10 versus a 9?
  • Was there a common theme or difference between those who rated you 7-10 and those who rated it 6 or below?
  • Are there patterns that emerge in terms of the titles, companies, business size, or geography?
  • What kind of language is used

You could literally read a book--or several--on ways to interrogate your data. But you might start with reading a few posts on the basics of the process.

What we covered here are the 6 basics steps that it takes to run a market research campaign. Literally any size company can execute this. It doesn’t take super sophisticated software or highly-trained specialists.

Keep in mind that, like anything in business, getting started is usually the hardest step.

Once you launch your first campaign, it’ll get easier, faster, and better as you go on. Next thing you know, you’ll be conducting research like a pro and your whole company will be wiser for it.

Now’s the perfect time to plan your market research efforts for 2019.

Start conducting your own market research with Paperform. It’s free to try for 14 days.

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