I still cringe when I think about the time I spent as “part of the problem.” I say that with all sincerity; I was truly part of the problem that has been facing the market research industry over the past few decades. I was fresh out of college, eager to do practical research, and clumsy as a baby fawn learning to walk. When I think back, I wonder how many people I irritated. I’m guessing that number is in the thousands, but we’ll come back to that.
The market research industry has become increasingly un-siloed. Research companies today aren’t as specialized as they once were, but they still need to bring some level of expertise to the table when approaching new work. With an incomprehensible amount of information immediately available to us, secondary research is the path to rapid mastery – and there’s simply no excuse to show up to the client table without having first done the homework. Primary research just won’t be as good without it. That’s part a big part of that problem I just mentioned.
Some folks like secondary research, some approach it as a mind-numbing, monotonous drudgery. I happen to love desk research. Here are some techniques I use to gain rapid mastery:
Get out of my own way
I start by writing down what I think I know about the subject. That might include what the client has already told me in initial conversations or the research request and any preliminary hypotheses I might have about what I’ll learn. I put all of this into a quick outline and stick it on the shelf. I don’t want this stuff act as a filter in research; I need to approach with childlike wonder.
Quickly figure out the dimensions
What’s your scope? I have seen more than a few researchers embark on the journey of discovery only to spiral down the rabbit hole, determine that everything in the universe is related, and forget what they had set out to do. Keep that passion for learning, but don’t forget your scope.
• From a high elevation, look holistically at the body of research that already exists
• Evaluate the body of existing research qualitatively. Is the information recent, reliable, and relevant?
• How broad and deep should my research go in order for me to feel confident in my grasp of the subject matter?
• What relevant/tangential markets, topics, or industries might be important to consider?
Leave a trail of breadcrumbs
As I’m researching, I summarize what I learn in real time because I learn more quickly by writing. This forces me to digest the information on-the-fly so that I can work with it more efficiently later. I cannot stress enough how important it is, in this phase, to note your sources along the way. If you don’t love doing desk research, you’re really going to hate doing it twice to find your sources. Take my word for it.
Go beyond note-taking to create art
Here’s the artistry of desk research. Please resist the temptation to just type up your notes and make a book report to your client. Instead, evaluate what you just learned. What does it mean? What are the patterns? What is the context? How does the context change your understanding?
• Synthesize your findings
• Zoom out, zoom in
• Look at things in a different light, hang the chair from the ceiling
• Recall what you thought you knew before you started
• Identify gaps, fill them in, repeat if necessary
Using these techniques, we can create a market scan, industry analysis, or other contextual assessment in as little as a couple of days. The findings are a jumping off point, whereby we help our client see that we understand their environment, we can help them identify any blinds spots, and we can, together, calibrate more effectively regarding the primary research that comes next. Why is all of that important?
As I mentioned, when I was fresh out of college, I made some mistakes. At that time, online vehicle shopping was a relatively new but established thing, and I was tasked with writing a survey for an automaker to learn more about online shopping and buying behavior. I jumped in with both feet.
Long story short, we mailed tens of thousands of surveys that were overly-focused on shopping techniques, yielding very little insight into behaviors, needs, and values. Much of what we learned could have been gathered by more cost-effective means. Perhaps worse, we burdened our recent car buyers with yet another survey, during a time when new car buyers were receiving upwards of eight surveys following purchase. I don’t honestly know if the data we collected was ever really used in decision-making at any level of the client’s organization. Big cringe.
The problem is this: we rush into primary research, relying on client expertise and skipping the homework, to create an ineffective survey instrument. We then rush that survey into the hands of consumers who are just really, horribly tired of crappy surveys and they’ve been over-surveyed for so many years, they now think of surveys as spam. Doing the desk research in advance leads us to pose more thoughtful questions and, ultimately, to treat survey respondents as if their time and attention matters.