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Is Traditional Market Research Dead?


An interesting article today in The Wall Street Journal (gift link) talks about how large businesses use crowdfunding to gauge demand before they launch a product. 

That brought the question to mind: is traditional market research dead? 

I just got through teaching a class on brand strategy to the Executive MBA students at the Kelley School of Business’s Kelley Direct Program in Milwaukee and one of the topics we spent a lot of time on was market research. 

In December, I wrote a piece on my blog about the market research I’ve done for some of the world’s biggest sports brands over the last year or two and what the process looked like through that lens. 

As I taught my students over the weekend, market research is a lot like a pointalist painting. You might not be able to make much sense of one data point, but as you apply ideas and insights, the picture becomes much clearer. 

So, I’m not going to argue that I think traditional market research is dead. 

In fact, I think it is more important than ever. 

But you have to be able to do it well. 

The way I teach people to do it is to use the idea of backward market research that Mark Ritson teaches in the Mini-MBA in Marketing based on the OG concept that came out of HBR in the 80s.

Where most market research seems to fail today is from the starting point of customer orientation. 

I got a question over the weekend about “guidelines” for effective market research and I said the biggest lesson is that you have to be willing to put your ego aside and listen to the research. 

If I needed to set out some guidelines, here is what they would be:

  • You have to put your ego aside and really listen. I shared the idea in class that the only correct answer when someone asks you a question at the start of a project is, “I don’t know.” 
  • Be careful about relying on data. Data is reactive. If you base all of your decisions on data, you are making a bet that the future will look like the past and nothing will change. Not a safe bet. 
  • Start small. A bit of advice I gave the students: talk to 5 or 6 people, you’ll begin to see patterns if you are listening. From there, you can do focus groups or larger sets of research, but never start big because it is expensive in time and money…and if you are asking the wrong thing, it can burn your ability to do good research later. 
  • Always have a hypothesis. Research is proactive. You guide it so that you are getting useful data. 

What do y’all think? 

Let me know.