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The 5Ws of e-Commerce market research

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Why read this? : We use the 5Ws approach on e-Commerce market research. Learn how asking who, what, where, when and why helps you work out how to research online shopping. Read this to learn how to get more out of e-Commerce market research. 

The 5Ws model is a helpful way to explore a topic. You ask 5 questions starting with who, what, where, when and why. The answers help you understand the topic more clearly. They make it easier to learn, and for you to build a story around that topic. (see our 5Ws of idea generation article, for example).

E-Commerce market research is a good topic to do a 5Ws on. It can be hard to know where to start in this overlap between e-Commerce and market research. The 5Ws helps you structure your thinking and think about what you need to learn. 

The importance of e-Commerce market research

Market research is important. It’s how you get to deep insights about your customers, and what they need. These needs are what your whole marketing mix will be based on. 

E-Commerce is an interesting category for market research. There’s lots of data sources. You get data from digital media. From your website. And obviously, from customer orders and your CRM program.

This data shows you customer reactions to your activities. You learn what works, and what doesn’t. 

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

This data helps you make better decisions about customers, which helps drive your e-Commerce growth. But to make those decisions, you still need to pull a clear market research story from the data. And to do that, you start with working out who your customers are. 

Who?

Who is usually the first 5W question when you do e-Commerce market research.

You use research to understand who your ideal customer is. Your goal is to build a profile of your target audience.

This usually means segmentation research. You use research to divide the total market into smaller groups, who share similar buying characteristics.

You identify customers in each segment based on these shared characteristics.

Woman holding credit card near a macbook and typing in her details

Demographic-based segments

The easiest way to segment is with demographic data. Common examples include age, gender, income or location. These hard facts about customers make them easy to identify. But how much influence these have on purchase decisions varies by category. 

In some categories, demographics is a major factor. For example, skincare has very different products for men and women. Educational books are mainly aimed at younger people. Health insurance focusses on older people. Demographics are also useful media buying. You buy media based on the age, gender, location etc. of the media’s audience.

But on its own, demographics is rarely enough. It only gives you a broad view of the customer. It doesn’t explain where and when they do things, and what drives their decisions. You need different e-Commerce market research answers to work those things out. 

That usually means looking at occasions and / or psychographic variables in your segmentation research. We’ll come back to those shortly. 

What?

Once you know who your target audience is, next you aim to understand what they do. This is about asking questions and gathering data to track and understand their behaviour.

There’s lots of different data sources for this. Different sources help you understand different parts of the customer’s journey.

For example, customers do different things when researching the category versus when considering a purchase. And they also do different things after making a purchase. 

laptop google search

What customers do to research the category

The first step in most e-Commerce journeys starts when the customer searches for what they need. They research products and categories online. 

You can look at secondary data sources like Google Trends and Google Ads to help you understand this search behaviour. This helps you with both SEO and keyword research

Knowing what your customers look for online can help you define your competitive advantage. You use this knowledge to create more relevant online content and offers. It helps you identify what they need

What customers do when considering a purchase

You can also use the data from your Direct-to-Consumer D2C store website (if you have one) to research what customers do when considering a purchase. This helps you work out how to improve your overall D2C experience. You learn what works and what doesn’t.

For example, you can look at what type of content works best on your product pages. You can test different layouts, images and copy. You can understand how different price discounts and sales promotions affect sales. And you can ask customers for direct feedback on how to improve the experience

These are all types of market research, even though they don’t fall under classic research definitions like qualitative and quantitative. Analysing data about what customers do helps you understand them better. 

What customers do after a purchase

Then you’ve got your data about customers who buy. At a minimum, you’ve got their contact details and their purchase history. And if you have a loyalty program, you can also track your other interactions with them. This leads to a CRM-led approach to create more personalised and relevant experiences. 

One of the big advantages of D2C is this direct customer interaction. Unlike classic market research approaches, there’s no sampling bias here. You use your data to listen to what each customer needs. And then you improve the experience to meet that need. Better experiences leads to more sales. 

Where?

What customers do is closely linked to where they do it. And market research can help you understand the places customers visit when they shop online, and what they do there. 

For example, you can use market research to identify where they look for information on products.

This type of “where” research can identify influencers, and key category websites and social media channels. You use these insights in your digital media and PR activity. 

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How much you can find out about where they shop depends on the channels you sell through. Marketplaces and print on demand won’t offer much data. Online retailers will have data, but will make you pay extra for it. Your best option in terms of quality of data is when you run your own D2C store.

Occasion-based segments

Going back to the segmentation research we mentioned earlier, this type of “where” insight usually links to occasion-based segmentation variables. For example, the type of online store they visit. Some customers may focus on price, for example. They’ll always go for discount-driven stores. Others might focus on quality. They’ll always go for stores with high levels of customer service.

You usually need to do qualitative or quantitative research to gather this type of data. Unless you have a D2C store, you won’t have access to data about where shoppers buy online. 

But obviously in this research, you can ask all sorts of extra questions about their shopping experience. You can even watch them make a purchase and ask them to describe what they’re thinking. For example, which pages do they look at? What types of information do they value? Why do they choose one retailer over another? How do they decide what to buy on each site? 

You answer these questions to better understand what the customer is looking for when they shop online. This helps with your e-Commerce planning, and crafting your competitive strategy. You need to find a better positioning than what’s currently on offer to win over that customer. 

When?

Occasions also cover when customers go online. Though e-Commerce stores are “open” 24/7, 365 days a year, they’ll have peaks and troughs in terms of activity and sales.

You can use both market research and / or sales data (if you have it) to understand the timing of people’s e-Commerce behaviour. 

For regular purchases (groceries, for example) the “when” usually relates to the time of day, or day of the week.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

For example, most jobs are 9 to 5. So, you see more online shopping in the evening or at weekends when these people aren’t at work. Knowing this, you time your media plans and sales promotions to catch people when they’re most likely to be online shopping. 

For more irregular purchases (fashion, for example), the “when” usually relates more to the time of year. Take seasonal weather conditions, for example. Online fashion stores push warm clothes for winter and beach clothes in the summer. Or it might be based on special occasions and events. There’s lots of specific offers around key selling periods like Easter, Halloween, Black Friday and Christmas

Again, it’s market research and data which helps you understand when e-Commerce customers are most likely to be active. 

Why?

The final 5W question is why. It’s important to understand why customers do what they do. This gives you the deepest level of insight, but it’s often also the hardest to uncover. 

In terms of e-Commerce market research, understanding why is normally done with qualitative research.

This is usually face-to-face with customers, especially in focus groups to probe deeper into attitudes and motivations. Segmentation research refers to these as psychographic variables. 

Neon sign with a question mark inside a square at the end of a dark corridor

You can get ideas on what might be driving your customer’s why by looking at secondary research. This usually gives you broad ideas about the benefits online shoppers want like ease and convenience, range or price. You can also find ideas by looking at related areas like behavioural science and design psychology

But you need to test these ideas. And that means talking to customers to get the true picture. You use a research agency to find the right types of customer, and pull out the right types of insights

This isn’t quick or easy. But it pays off when you get it right. Once you find a clear “why” insight, it drives your competitive strategy and brand positioning. Understanding the why helps you find the deeper need customers have. You build your benefit from that need. And from that, you execute it in a clear and compelling way. This insight to action process drives your e-Commerce growth

Structuring an e-Commerce market research story

One of the main reasons we like the 5Ws model is the structure it gives your thinking.

Rather than be overwhelmed by a big topic, you break it into more manageable chunks. 

And clearly, e-Commerce market research is a big topic. It covers lots of different areas.

Going through the 5Ws helps you break it down. It gives you the main elements you need to create a clearer story.

Book open on someone's lap as they read a story, lit by sparkling lights

As per our storytelling in market research article, story is important in market research. It helps you explain what you’ve found out, and what you need to do about it. You can use the 5Ws to help you build your e-Commerce market research story structure.

In storytelling terms, who gives you the “Hero” of your story. That’s the customer. What gives you the “Hero’s Problem” and the “Inciting incident”. It’s what’s troubling them. Or what they need to change which drives their behaviour to shop online. 

Where and when help you create the “world” where your story takes place. It’s the context of where the shopper goes and when they go. This helps you visualise their “drama”. It helps you create the call to action which guides customer towards your solution to their problem. 

And lastly why. This helps you create the overall theme of your story. The benefit your e-Commerce offer gives the (hero) customer. It’s how you’ll help solve their problem. And solving customer problems is what drives e-Commerce growth.

Conclusion - The 5Ws of E-Commerce Market Research

The 5Ws model is a great way to work out what you need from e-Commerce market research.

It tells you who your target audience is. What they need. It shows you where and when they buy, so you know the best places and times to connect with them. And most importantly, it shows you why they buy. Knowing why helps you create the right e-Commerce experience to meet their needs. 

Check out our e-Commerce insights article for more on this topic. Or contact us if you need help with your e-Commerce market research. 

Two post it notes - one with a light bulb sketch and one with 5Ws - why? what? who? where? when?

Photo Credits

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Woman holding credit card near Macbook : Photo by Pickawood on Unsplash

Google on a laptop : Photo by Benjamin Dada on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Question mark sign :  Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Person reading with sparkly lights : Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Idea Bulb Post it (adapted) : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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