Talking to people: still relevant and effective in a digital age

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Guest post by David Bain, Marketwise Strategies

In an age when online, ‘DIY’ market research solutions abound, it can be tempting to dismiss traditional methods such as in-depth phone or face-to-face interviews. Both online and face-to-face research have their place, however, so how do you choose the right research method for the right situation?

Here are some useful points to help you decide:

  • How much do you already know about the issue you’re looking to research? If you want to conduct a customer satisfaction survey or find out what people think of your brand; have you ever researched these issues before? If not, then do you know what is important to your customers? How will they evaluate your service, and how they will judge your brand? We usually suggest talking to a small number of customers right at the start, to get a feel for this, before developing questions for a survey.
  • Can they touch and feel the product? When researching a completely new product there is no substitute for being able to give someone a sample to turn over in their hands. We found this when talking to architects and engineers about a new type of recycled building material – the range of comments people were able to make about its weight and texture, from actually holding the material would not have been possible if they were simply viewing images online.
  • Who is involved in the purchasing process? In our experience, more than one person within an organisation has an input into deciding whether to specify or purchase a product. This might be a specification writer, a senior partner or, in the case of a local authority, a procurement professional. Respondents to phone interviews will sometimes speak to colleagues in advance so they can provide a collective view; or a senior partner might decide to bring in a technical specialist part way through a face-to-face interview.
  • Serendipitous responses: Great ideas can come from discussion in an interview or focus group that would not necessarily be encouraged from a multiple choice questionnaire. We have presented building materials that were designed to be used in a certain way, then found that architects have responded with: “Okay, but have you thought about using it like this?”
  • Reading between the lines: There is nothing like body language and the importance of what someone doesn’t actually say. Depth interviews capture this and enable a skilled interviewer to qualify what is actually being said; or not said!

Of course, you might have researched your customers before and have decided that what you really need to do now is track customer satisfaction or brand awareness over time. In these circumstances it might be clear that what is needed is a short, sharp survey with a large number of specifiers, that you can repeat annually; we would just recommend that you go through some of the above thought processes before you start designing the questionnaire, to ensure you know the right questions to ask of the right people.

A general rule…

Think about the questions you want to ask your clients. If it is ‘how often’, ‘how many’, ‘how much’, ‘how satisfied’; then a survey might be just right. However, if you want to know ‘why’ do our customers think this about us, or ‘how’ do our customers behave, then you might get far more by listening to what they have to say rather than asking them predetermined questions.

David Bain is Research Manager at Marketwise Strategies – a research and strategy consultancy that helps organisations develop new products and services, and build closer relationships with stakeholders. We work in built environment, education and other knowledge-focused industries, with clients that include professional services providers to the construction industry, building product manufacturers, designers, local authorities and social housing companies.

Marketwise strategies

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