Research: Do It Early, Do It Often

In the world of marketing, nothing is more amorphous than the concept of research.

We all have our predispositions about what research is and what it can do. Some use research as a tool to validate what they think they know. Others use it as a way to find new information that will help steer the proper course of action.

Even when research is used, it is also all over the map: Sometimes it’s brought out prior to a product’s development or during the creative process in developing advertising; and sometimes it’s brought in to find out where things went wrong (probably because they didn’t do the aforementioned research). Alas, some people do no research at all. They feel it’s too expensive or takes too much time.

If you’re a start-up, research should be like voting in a Chicago mayoral election — done early and done often. Start-ups can benefit more from research than an already-going concern. There are no sacred cows, no legacies to tear down — it’s a clean slate. You have the rare opportunity at this early stage to build a foundation on the best information possible — information that could determine the success or failure of your organization. And while it may cost you some time or money, I’m telling you today that you probably can’t afford not to do it.

As you look at your next steps in product development and marketing, consider the following options to conduct research to help you in your process:

  • Product need/concept validation. This is the most fundamental of all research that you can do early on in the formation of your company — determining if the product or service you are offering fills a real demand in the marketplace that people will pay money for. At campsix (the incubator I work at) it’s this critical information that helps us determine if we will even develop a company or not. While there are numerous methodologies for concept testing and validation, we tend to prefer one-on-one in-depth interviews with the primary target audiences for the product.

  • Product features. Once a product or service is validated, the next step is to home in on exactly what features that product should have. Research can be helpful in establishing feature sets. More important, it can assist in prioritizing what might be a long list of features so you can better plan long-term development and bring the most in-demand services to market first.
  • Competitor awareness. While you need to understand your competition to be successful, it’s also important to know how your customers view them. Are they aware your competitors exist? Do they feel your competition offers a good product? Do they use them at all? How would they improve their offering? And so on. This information is invaluable as you develop features and services and your messaging.
  • Product interaction. This may be more commonly known as customer usability, a foreign concept to anyone working in the Palm Beach County elections division. Having your customers interact and provide feedback in the active development stages of a product can be a lifesaver. During my tool days at Zircon, we felt it was mandatory to field-test product prototypes before approving final product specs. While we often had to take the feedback and re-engineer certain aspects of the products (at additional time and expense), the information we garnered from our customers improved the products dramatically and were instrumental in their short- and long-term adaptation in the market.
  • Media usage/influencers. One of the handiest bits of research we do at campsix is on the types of media customers rely on most as well as what other influences are out there in the marketplace (e.g., trade shows, analysts) that impact their buying decisions. Here we tend to find cost-effective tidbits that may go otherwise undiscovered. The goal is to discover the most effective mode of communication to get our message out to the primary target audience.
  • Customer feedback. Even with the best research, nothing is perfect. Once your product or service is out on the market, customer feedback will help you fine-tune future offerings. Why else do you think they are always improving Tide?
  • Marketing message effectiveness. If increased sales aren’t good enough of an indicator, you can research your audience to see how well your marketing messages are being received. The best course of action here is to pretest awareness prior to your campaign to establish a benchmark, then posttest to see what impact you had and for how long. My inclination on this one is it’s a luxury: It’s nice but not necessary. The real number that should move is the sales meter.

Finally, a couple of caveats regarding research. First, garbage in, garbage out. If the research itself is not based on sound principles, don’t trust the results. Second, all information, even numbers, is subjective and held up to individual interpretation. As the old quote goes, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” So make sure you try to maintain objectivity when looking at research results.

The point here is to provide information to create the best products and services possible, not support and validate your personal opinions and directives.

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