A Beginner’s Guide to Market Research


Originally published in INC. Magazine on May 30, 2013

Want to get to know your customers better? Here are 23 topics you should explore to uncover what they love about you, what they hate, and what they want you to do different.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” — Zora Neale Hurston

What if tomorrow your best customers were in charge of your business? That’s right: you’re out, they’re in. Your CEO is now the customer whose loyalty card whizzes like a finely oiled European sports car. And your management team has been replaced by a cadre of heavy users, students of every nuance of your business.

Ask yourself: What would they change? And further: Why? After all, what is it that makes these customers choose you over a bevy of competitors, time and time again? And of greater import: What do you need to do in order to continue to earn their allegiance in an increasingly competitive marketplace?

Far too often, the term “market research” conjurs images of clichéd focus groups from 1980s romantic comedies, which is unfortunate given that there have never been more tools and options available to gain meaningful insights into your relationship with consumers.

So, whether you are considering a formal quantitative study (e.g., online survey) or a more informal qualitative examination (e.g., direct interviews with customers), here are 23 market research topics to help you mine for inspiration.

Key Drivers: Where’s the Love?

Start by taking a “fresh eyes” look at your brand vs. its competitors through the eyes of your customers.

  • Where do you truly excel?
  • What are your best moments as a brand?
  • What are your best stories?
  • How do these look in contrast to your competitors?
  • What adjectives do your brand champions use to describe you — and what role does your brand really play in their lives (beyond just “a product” into deeper, richer meaning)?

Further still, look at the life cycle of your brand.

  • What does the initial purchase look like?
  • How has this changed in the past few years?
  • What new influences are driving this initial transaction and beyond?
  • What (and who) are the key influences on this decision?
  • How does your brand interact with consumers at every point of contact; where are the conversations happening and where (and how) are they truly “feeling the love” in a way that you never want to lose?

Key Barriers: Where’s the Hate?

OK, maybe hate’s too strong a word…or maybe it’s not. So, where are the areas that you’re, well, deficient? Lacking? Frustrating consumers and putting off prospects?

  • What are your worst stories?
  • What does your worst day look like?
  • Where are you clearly “less than” and what direction are the trends in these areas heading?
  • How loud is the noise in these areas (and where and from whom is it coming)?

Dig deep into your competition as well.

  • What are they doing well — and where are their own relationships in jeopardy?
  • Compare and contrast your brand with your competitors at every step of the purchase process and at every interaction point as well. How do you stack up?
  • Why do consumers choose their brands over yours?
  • What are you missing? Is it functional? Emotional? A social force at play? What does it mean to be part of their club?
  • Bottom line, what barriers are standing in the way for greater meaning, and market share, for your brand?

Key Opportunities: Where Are the White Spaces?

Create a culture that doesn’t just seek insights for drivers and barriers, but that also engages consumers in a discussion around “what’s possible” together. While Starbucks has gained a great deal of acclaim for its “My Starbucks Idea” campaign, you don’t need a fancy microsite or social media campaign to ask your customers to help you build a better mousetrap. While consumers are far from experts at predicting their own future behavior, they can certainly be a fountainhead of inspiration for potential white spaces.

  • What if you were just starting up today — without any limitations for how you go to market — what would the ideal offering look like, in every interaction with consumers?
  • How might you do things differently if you doubled your costs? Where would you drive incremental value? What are the implications on how you drive value?
  • Where are the big moments for customer delight that you’re missing? The little ones? What are the lowest hanging fruit?
  • What other brands do your customers and prospects love, and why? What can you learn from them, and these relationships?

Dig deep for incremental gains, large and small alike. And listen hard — because the answers are often found in the spaces between the words.