The Charlotte FC PSL Story Teaches Us A Few Things About Market Research!

When I opened up this morning’s John Wall Street newsletter, I was pretty amazed to see that Tepper Sports and Charlotte FC were going to be the first MLS team to sell PSLs to their fans.

As I read into the piece, a few thoughts came to mind, but the most important one to me was that if you are basing your decision making on data and surveys from before the pandemic, you are likely setting yourself up for a rude awakening.

That got me thinking about market research, especially during and after the pandemic.

Let’s look at three things quickly:

  1. None of your old research is going to matter much:

Spoiler alert: a lot has changed in the last 18 months.

In general, when working with clients, I advise them to constantly be in contact with their customers through conversations, surveys, and studying how people are engaging with their games, products, and services.

What does this mean?

It means that every year at the latest, we have fresh research that we study and use to make a new set of strategic decisions about the segmentation of our market, the people we are targeting, and how we are positioning ourselves in the market.

What the pandemic has done is created an environment where that cycle of studying the market is broken because fans can’t come to games, salespeople can’t entertain clients, and the normal ebbs and flows of life are disrupted.

That means that anything people said they were going to do or any actions that folks were taking 12-18 months ago likely is as dusty as most of the suits in my closet.

And, to try and base decisions off of that data and research now can be dangerous to the long-term success of your business because if your market reacts poorly to your product launch, they could move on and you won’t have a way to reset the conversation for, potentially, a year or two…if not longer.

2. Any research you are doing right now, won’t matter much once the pandemic passes:

Here’s the thing, we have no playbook for dealing with a pandemic.

We have lessons we’ve learned during this pandemic, but these kinds of things only happen about once every 100 years.

So we can’t fall back on historical performance or historical records like we can with recessions.

Why does this matter?

Because much of the research we are doing right now reflects the immediate situation, but it in no way reflects accurately upon how people will act or react to the world we enter when things start to reopen from the pandemic.

This matters because if you put too much weight on what people are saying or doing now, you can set yourself up for failure in the future because you may have an expectation of demand that doesn’t exist. You may find that pricing constraints change. Or, you might find that people’s purchase patterns during the pandemic solidify in a new way that changes how you have to go to market.

The ultimate takeaway here is that you have to take any of your pandemic related research with a grain of salt because we don’t really know how the pandemic is going to impact folks’ behaviors and attitudes on the other side of the pandemic because we don’t have any historical comparisons.

3. The kind of research you do matters a lot:

If you aren’t familiar with market research, you need to know three terms:

  • Ethnography: that’s simple observation.
  • Qualitative: that’s research with individuals and small groups, typically.
  • Quantitative: that’s research from large surveys and samples, in most cases.

I bring this up because you have to be willing to use a mix of all three kinds of research to get a good portrait of your market.

Going further, most surveys and research end up telling you a similar story because the questions being asked are too general or not asked with a specific point in mind.

A research method that I’ve come to embrace over the years is called “Backwards Market Research” a term popularized by Alan Andreason back in the 1980s.

In using this method, you begin with the end in mind and ask the question: “What am I trying to figure out here?”

Once you know what you are trying to figure out, you decide how you want to present the data:

  • Charts and graphs
  • Numbers
  • Long-form answers

Finally, you design the survey around the answers to the first two questions.

It is a pretty great method and since I started using it, I’ve found that the information I get from surveying markets and my audience has improved tremendously.

The key takeaway here is that you have to begin with the end in mind. What exactly are you trying to discover? Be specific. Then work backwards from there.

Because the danger in doing ineffective research is that you only get the answer you want, not the answer you need.

More likely than not, right now, you are going to get an answer that gives you just as much uncertainty as it does certainty…and that is okay. It is better to be unsure and cautious than certain, wrong, and to botch your launch or rollout.

Will FC Charlotte’s PSL decision be the start of a new trend in MLS or will it be a dud?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that making a decision based on old data can lead to a lot of trouble. And, most of the data we are getting right now isn’t much better.

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