How Research Goes Wrong - Marketing Research

We can sympathize with this executive’s complaints, although clearly she must share the blame for poor study design. She neglected to make the undertaking a real collaboration with the researcher, a common fault. Indeed, studies of research successes and failures point again and again to close collaboration between researcher and client as the most important factor predicting a good outcome.

The typical approach of the two parties starts with defining the problem. Then they translate the problem into a research methodology, which leads to the development of research instruments, a sampling plan, coding and interviewing instructions, and other details. The researcher takes to the field, examines the resulting data, and writes a report.

The executive then steps in to translate the researcher’s submissions into action. She has, of course, already devoted some thought to the application of the results. From my observations, however, before the research is undertaken, the intended action is left vague and general. Managers tend to define the research problem as a broad area of ignorance. They say, in effect, “Here are some things I don’t know. When the results come in, I’ll know more. And when I know more, then I can figure out what to do!” In my experience, this approach makes it highly likely that the findings will be off-target.

I suggest a proven procedure that turns the traditional approach to research design on its head. This procedure, which stresses close collaboration between researcher and corporate decision makers, markedly raises the odds that the company will come up with findings that are not only interesting but will lead to actionable conclusions.

There are only two cases in which research is not expected to be immediately actionable. The first is when the research is intended to be basic—that is, to lay the groundwork for later investigation or action rather than have any near-term impact. The second occasion is when the research is methodological—that is, designed to improve the organization’s ability to ask questions in the future. Except for these two instances, research should be designed to lead to a decision.

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