The essence of marketing research is ‘reducing business uncertainties by learning more about the markets you participate in’. It’s about improving your odds when you’re trying to predict the future: ”How will customers respond to my new ad message? What message would be more effective?” “Which features of a potential new product are valuable and attractive to customers. How much are they worth, in the price of the new product?” “Who has most / least influence on buying decisions at Company ABC?” “If we do X, how will competitors respond?”
There are 4 essential steps to any successful marketing research project:
1. Collaborate with business leaders to define a significant business problem or opportunity, and describe the information, insights and understanding which will be needed to solve it.
2. Identify the most likely sources of the necessary information, and design a methodology to gather, analyze and interpret the information.
3. Execute the methodology.
4. Use the resulting information, insights and understanding to help decision makers solve the original problem.
The sources and techniques selected in step 2 depend strongly upon the nature of the problem you define in step 1, so there’s no single answer to your question about “…what types of questions they ask and what type of an expert do they seek when performing primary research.” Most projects tap into the experience and opinions of multiple important groups, including:
- Direct customers and non-buying potential customers, always including a spectrum of job functions – R&D, brand management, operations, logistics, purchasing – and management levels.
- The customers of our direct customer, and other companies that operate in the chain of turning raw materials into end products – other guys who play a big part in determining our customer’s success or failure.
- Suppliers of other materials or equipment to our customer
- Competitors (This can be tricky. Hiring a consultant to get information or use techniques that would be illegal for you directly is no protection for you (or the consultant) under US anti-trust, trade and espionage laws.)
- Government employees and academia. For example, people in the Department of Commerce and regulatory agencies are nearly always knowledgeable and helpful, and US government libraries, publications and databases are generally excellent.
The optimum techniques to use and the most productive questions to ask are dictated by the business problem you’re trying to solve and the nature of the groups whose opinions and experience you focus on. Large groups (owners of single family homes, consumers of laundry products, independent auto repair shop owners, for example) might be sampled with statistical survey techniques, while individual in-depth interviews might be more appropriate for smaller groups (for example, makers of kidney dialysis machines, designers of office furniture, or paint chemists). Group techniques (like focus groups) may be great for gathering initial impressions, but are less useful sources for detail and reliability.
In almost all cases, the real value-adding capacity of marketing research comes from its ability to answer questions that impact the future – questions like “What if …?” and “Why?” – NOT from its ability to execute a methodology and answer the more simplistic “How many?” and “Who?”.