Deciding the data requirement

The first step is to review the information that already exists. In the cinema example, there was already some data about cinema attendance. The present state of knowledge should form the starting point for the search for new information, since it can often guide further research into those areas most likely to be fruitful in producing worthwhile data. Cinema audiences were known to be typically young, and so it was clear that the views of this group must be adequately represented in the survey.

The second step involves generating a list of necessary information. In doing this, it is important to distinguish between what is essential to know, and what it would be nice to know, and to delete the latter. This can be accomplished by going back over the first list of necessary information and deleting from it those bits of information that are inessential. The resultant list of essential information now forms the basis for deriving research survey objectives, and makes it possible to redefine the original problem in marketing research terms.

The cinema chain management realized that although they already knew what kind of people attend the cinema, and how often, the further information they needed concerned people's attitudes and motivations for cinema going. This information would enable them to identify what factors attract people to the cinema.

A 'crunch' question in deciding whether a research survey is really required is to ask, 'What would happen without the information?' If the answer to the question indicates that the absence of research information will not materially affect the decision-making process, then the research programme should not be undertaken. It may well be that other routes to problem solution would be more effective, less costly, less time-consuming, and maybe all three. Wasting money on research is as undesirable as wasting it on any other area of business, and just as easy.

If a research survey is to be undertaken, then a definition of who or what is to be surveyed must be drawn up. All decisions about survey content and coverage must be made explicit. For example, in a survey about farms, the group to be surveyed was 'all farms'. Specifically excluded was 'small-holdings'. This made it quite clear to the researcher how the terms were defined. In this example, the definition of 'farms' would be further improved by greater precision: including the minimum acreage or minimum turnover to be considered, and indicating whether all arable, dairy and mixed farms were included, and how other specific classifications were to be treated.

The outcome of this procedure should be a clear and concise written statement of the objectives of the proposed research survey and its scope. To complete the definition of the research required, any constraints must be clearly spelled out at this early stage, since they are likely to affect materially the nature of the research that can be undertaken.

The two most important constraints are time and money. If the decision for which the research input is required has to be made by a particular deadline, then this must be made clear at the outset, for it will affect the choice of research method. Some methods are more time-consuming than others. Similarly, if the budget available for research is limited, then the amount that can be spent must be stated in broad terms. As with any other commodity, in research one gets largely what one pays for. An organization not prepared to spend much cannot expect to acquire very much good research information. Hundreds of pounds saved in research costs must be weighed against possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds lost in the results of wrong decisions.

The high marketing costs of failure, and the damage done to a company's reputation in the marketplace as a result of wrong decisions, are illustrated by the following rather painful example.

A manufacturer of industrial contract materials produced a new flooring material. The success of the product was very important to the organization because markets for most of their product ranges were in decline. Management had high hopes for the new product, which produced a more durable floor with a better finish than existing materials, although it was more expensive. Laying the flooring required a completely different technique to that of traditional floorings, but it was not a complicated process. The manufacturer felt that an industrial market research survey to predict demand for the new material would be too expensive, but some 'market research' was required in view of the importance of the new product launch to the company as a whole. As a result, six good customers for the company's products were given samples of the new material and asked to try it out. Some time later, one of the company executives called on the customers and asked how they rated the material. The customers confirmed the company's own view that it was a good material. On the strength of this 'research', the product was launched nationally. It was a flop. The 'research exercise' was repeated with different customers. They also reported liking the material, and it was relaunched. Another flop. Finally, in desperation, the company undertook a formal survey of the market for flooring materials to discover whether there was a market niche for this material, and if so, how to relaunch the product into it for the third time.

Their research indicated that the conservatism of the building trade was a major stumbling block. The benefits of the new material all came in use. When a floor was being laid the product was seen as expensive and the differences required in laying technique met with resistance from the floor-layers. The company discovered that to make a success of this product their marketing should be aimed at architects so that they would specify the new material for its good appearance and durability. Builders, to whom the product had been launched, could see little reason for bothering with it. At the same time, the instructions could be vastly improved so as to make it clear that the material was different to lay, but not difficult and no more time-consuming than traditional materials. The message was clear: it was a good product, but needed marketing in ways that the company had not previously been aware of.

If a company cannot afford, or does not wish to pay for, the type of research necessary for a particular decision, then it may be better to have no research at all than an inappropriately small research programme. Beautifully presented research reports have a way of being believed by those who wish to do so, however uncertain the methodology or base data. At least with no research information at all a company knows that its decisions have no affirmative background, and they are therefore more likely to be made with greater caution.

The research required can now be defined in terms of its objectives, scope and practical constraints. This definition forms the framework within which the research will take place. It is therefore essential for the manager to be satisfied that the data requirement is correctly specified. In this situation, more heads are better than one, and it is a useful discipline to discuss the proposed project with others. This has a number of advantages. First, the project benefits from additional input: new and useful suggestions. Second, it benefits from external criticism: any points that are not as clearly defined as they should be will be queried. Third, the very process of articulating and defending the approach to others is most valuable in clarifying and distilling the essence of the research required.

The need for careful consideration at the definitive stage of a research project is emphasized because it is the easiest stage to skimp in practice, and one of the most damaging to the final outcome if not done properly. Research that starts off unsure where it is going is unlikely to arrive in the right place. Defining the research required is a task about which the decision maker personally must be really precise. The main means by which control can be exercised over the execution of the project is through the framework of a clear and correctly expressed statement of research required.

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