Why read this? : We share quick, easy and free ways to do informal market research. Learn how to put your observation and listening skills
Market research companies
Why read this? : We look at how you use market research companies to better understand customers. Learn what services they offer, and how to best use them. Read this to learn how to get the most out of using market research companies.
We also share where you can find out more about market research companies. Plus, tips on how you build stronger relationships with them. And we close with our views on the best and worst attributes of market researchers.
Table of Contents
When do you need to find market research companies?
If you’ve done market research in the past, you may already have contacts with market research companies.
But, for this article, we assume you’re starting from scratch with the market research process.
If you already use a research company, you can skip ahead to where we cover how to get the best of using market research companies.
Hiring a market research company is part of the market research process. It’s normally done after you’ve identified your business problem and written your research brief.
There’s a definite “relationship” side to working with market research companies. Market research is usually an on-going process.
Once you find a researcher who “gets’ your business, you tend to stick with them. They build up a bank of knowledge about your customers, and you trust their expertise and way of working.
The great thing for you is there’s usually plenty of market research companies to choose from. It’s a buyer’s market.
Once you start to research options, you find you end up with a list of possible research partners.
The bigger challenge is whittling down this list to find the one which best meets your research needs. You have to make sure they have the right technical research skills, of course. That’s a given. But technical skills aren’t usually what separates good market research companies from bad ones.
Instead, it’s usually more about working style and their responsiveness to your needs. They have to understand your business, and tailor their style so it fits with how you like to work.
But before we get into that, let’s start with how you go about finding a research company in the first place.
Build a list of potential market research companies
How long a list depends on the size and type of your business problem, and how much you have to spend. As a rough guide, 5-10 market research companies is usually about right. You want a list of companies with the right technical skills, who can research your market in a credible, engaging and insightful way.
So, how do you build this list?
Sources of information about market research companies
If you’re starting from scratch, there’s 3 main places to look.
A good place to start is with market research industry association websites, which have Company Directories. Then, your professional network is also great to ask for recommendations. And of course, you can search research company websites to see what these companies say about themselves.
Market research associations
Most countries have a market research association. Here, companies in the market research industry form a central membership-based governing organisation.
This central organisation sets professional research quality standards, drives training and new skills, and represents their members on broader issues.
As part of their website information services, these associations will have a list of their members in the form of a Company Directory. This is a great place to start building your initial list of market research companies.
In Australia, there are actually two organisations. There’s the Research Society and the Association of Market and Social Research Organisations.
You can search the Company Directories on both sites to find market research companies which cover specific industries, or offer specific research services. These online directories have filters like geography, industries covered and research specialities, for example.
As you want to build a list of possible market research companies, this is obviously helpful information. These directories can point you to companies who know your market, your industry, and carry out the type of research you need.
Market research companies usually need to be members of the association to be listed in the Directory. And membership of those organisations usually means they’ve agreed to follow a set of quality standards and rules about how they’ll carry out research.
This is good news for you. Those quality standards mean you can be confident these are credible and trustworthy companies. They’ll have researchers with relevant qualifications and experience.
What it won’t tell you however, is anything about the differences in how those companies work. It won’t tell you which ones will be the best fit for your research needs.
For that, you have to do more research.
Your network recommendations
Another great source of information about market research companies is asking your professional network.
In particular, if you know people working in marketing, they should have experience of working with different market research companies.
Ask them about these experiences.
How did they rate the market research companies they’ve worked with? Which ones had the strongest technical skills? Which ones had the most innovative thinking? And of course, which ones offered the best value for money, and the best quality of service?
You can either reach out to specific individuals or send a wider group request. It’s best not to send out your whole research brief, but summarise it in a few key points, and see if anyone in your network can recommend someone.
So, something like “looking for a good qualitative researcher in Sydney to carry out a 6 week focus group based project for <$25k. Any recommendations?” is about the level of detail you need.
If you already have a list of market research companies, you can also use your professional network to help narrow down the list. Look for mutual connections between those companies and people you know. Ask your contacts if they’d still use them, and if they’d be happy to use them again for research projects.
Word of mouth and reputation is important for market research companies. When you find a good company, or even just a good market researcher, you build a strong working relationship with them. You trust what they say and do, and you’re happy to use them on an on-going basis. And you recommend them to others.
Ideally, your professional network research will help you find recommendations about good companies and researchers.
Online networking resources
LinkedIn is the most commonly used tool for this sort of network connection. This whole site is set up to create professional connections. You’ll find many market research companies on there, plus the industry associations. Check out relevant #search terms to see who posts on market research topics.
If LinkedIn’s not your thing (sometimes, it’s not our favourite platform) you can check out more informal social platforms like Reddit or Twitter. Look for forums, discussions and comments about market research companies. See who gets talked about positively.
Search market research company websites
As a final option to build your list, then of course you can always search online.
You should start with broad search terms like “market research companies”. See, who comes out top of the results, either with their paid search advertising, or through organic search ranking.
The companies at the top of the list will be the ones who get the most traffic online.
While that’s not a guarantee of quality, it usually means they have a positive online reputation. It’s a good sign.
Refine your search
You can then refine your search with the research approach you need. So, “qualitative market research companies”, for example. You screen out specialist market research companies, who don’t offer the right research expertise.
You can also add in your location and industry to make it even more specific. So, “qualitative market research companies in Sydney for the hospitality industry”, for example.
You can use these results to finalise your list, and also to help you start to narrow it down.
Check out each company’s website. Try to get a feel for how they work. Look at the “About us” section to understand how long the company has been around. What type of work they do? How do they like to work? Check if they share case studies or client recommendations, so you can see other projects they’ve worked on. Look for evidence which gives you confidence they could help with your business problem and research needs.
And of course, look out for anything on the website which gives you cause for concern. Maybe their style seems too formal? Or too informal? Maybe they seem too small or too large for what you need? (more on company size later).
If they’re the right market research company for you, you should read their website and feel like they’re talking directly to you and your business needs.
Search secondary sources
Beyond their websites though, check out any secondary online sources you can find.
Look at their social media platforms, for example. See what they post online, and if there are any positive or negative comments on their feeds.
Follow up any mentions of them in the news or in discussion forums, so you can build a better picture of how they work.
Filter the list of market research companies
So, let’s move on and say, you’ve now got your list of 5-10 market research companies. They have the right technical skills, positive recommendations from people you trust, and their website and online reputation seems good.
Your next goal is to narrow down the list to the 2-3 highest potential companies. At this point, you contact your long list by phone or email, and let them know you’re looking for a market research company.
First contact with market research companies
On that first contact, ask to speak to the person responsible for new business. Explain who you are, and briefly what your research needs are.
Ask if they’re interested in pitching for the research. Be aware, not everyone will necessarily want your business.
Some companies just don’t like to pitch. Others might not have capacity to take on new business, or think you’re too big or too small.
Some may work for competitors and rule themselves out due to a conflict of interest. It’s normal to “lose” a couple of names from the list at this first point of contact.
For the ones who say they’re interested, set up an initial, informal introductory meeting. Ideally face to face, but video / phone can also work. Ask them to talk you through their company credentials (most companies will have a standard deck they use). Be prepared to give them a brief background to your company.
We recommend at this first meeting, you don’t get into the full brief. Share a summary of what it is, and ask for their initial thoughts. Let them know you’re speaking to other market research companies, and give them a ballpark estimate of the timings and budget.
What to check for in the first meeting
In the first meeting, you really want to get a better understanding of 3 key areas about the company as a potential research partner, namely their :-
- research credentials.
- size relative to your research needs.
- communication style.
Research credentials (technical knowledge)
You’ll have gained a broad understanding of their technical knowledge from their website and social media content, but you should probe for more specifics during this meeting.
Who would do the technical research work on the project, for example? What’s their experience and qualifications? Have they worked on other similar projects before?
Check to make sure the skills match the likely research approach. So, they’ll need skills like interviewing and facilitation for qualitative research, for example. They’ll need questionnaire design and statistical analysis for quantitative research. You want to feel confident they have the right set of skills for the job to be done.
You can also ask them if they’ve published case studies or white papers which outline their processes or techniques. The most skilled market researchers are usually keen to teach or publish what they do, and how they do it.
In our experience with market research companies, most will have a good level of technical knowledge. It’s rarely a deciding factor, unless they have a specific and unique way of doing research.
Listen also to how clearly they explain their research expertise. This often gives you an idea of how well they’ll explain your research results.
Find the right size of market research company
You should also aim to get an idea of the size of the market research company at that first meeting. So, how many people work for their business, and how many would work on your specific research. You need to try and understand their size relative to the research project, and the size of your business.
Market research companies come in many sizes. There’s pros and cons to small and large companies.
Small market research companies - pros
We know many market research companies with only one or a few employees. These companies are usually researchers who’ve set up on their own, after building their early career experience at larger market research companies.
These smaller companies mainly offer services in qualitative research. Qualitative research involves smaller groups, and can be less complex and expensive to set up, so it’s easier for smaller market research companies to specialise there.
Smaller market research companies can be useful when you need to go fast on your research project. There’s no layers of decision making and approvals. You deal directly with the people who do the research.
And because, these smaller companies tend to have less overheads, you’ll often find they offer better value per project than larger companies.
They don’t have to subsidise the costs of big teams, large offices and publishing white papers.
In fact, because they’re small, they’ll value your business more. Your research spend will be a bigger share of their income, compared to the same spend with a larger research company.
You’ll be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
These types of market research companies thrive on building strong relationships with their customers. They tend to hold on to staff longer.
So if you plan to carry out multiple projects over a longer period of time, they can be a strong option to build consistency.
Small market research companies - cons
We have 2 watch-outs with these types of agencies, however.
First, the good ones tend to pick up more and more clients. Which means they bring in extra staff to manage the additional workload. You can start to lose access to the expertise you liked in the first place.
And second, because you may work with the same person over a number of years, the relationship can get stale.
You can end up with ideas and approaches which start to get repetitive. Both companies can end up getting a bit too comfortable. A bit too complacent.
If you do have a research partner like this, we advise you set up regular reviews on the relationship. At least once a year, challenge them on how they’ll continue to bring in diversity of thinking into their research approach
Large market research companies - pros
Kantar used to own a number of well-known research companies like TNS and Millward Brown, but consolidated all of these into the single Kantar brand in 2019.
These large companies operate at a global level and pick up research projects from big global clients.
They bring the benefit of scale to market research projects. They have big teams of researchers and wide areas of expertise. Which means they have the resources to handle the biggest and most complex research projects. You’ll get access to very specialist areas of knowledge (like data science for example), and technologies and systems the smaller agencies can’t afford.
These large companies often sponsor research studies and release white papers on market research topics. They do this to build their reputation and build awareness and engagement with clients. They also invest heavily in professional training for their teams.
Large market research companies - cons
However, if you’re the client, there are definitely a few things to watch out for.
First, they can become very expensive, very quickly. They need to cover the costs of their technical specialists and their “free” white papers. You may not pay directly for that, but it’s paid for out of their income from fees.
They’ll also typically put larger teams on research projects. You’ll have project managers, expert consultants as well as the core researchers. This pushes up the cost. These bigger teams also typically move more slowly. It takes longer to make decisions. These companies often have strict internal processes to follow, and are less flexible than smaller companies.
You’ll also just be one of many clients for them. A small fish in a large pool. If your research spend isn’t significant for them, you may struggle to get consistency in the team who manage your research.
The larger companies also tend to have more staff turnover, so you may lose some of the consistent personal contact you get with smaller market research companies.
Market research companies communication style
The company should clearly have the right expertise to carry out the research. But, just as important is that they can communicate the results to give you clear and credible answers and recommendations.
Researchers who specialise in qualitative research like to focus on generating ideas and finding unmet needs.
They’re good at exploring and developing innovative ideas.
Their communication style should paint a rich, vivid picture of your market. It’ll tell you what you could do to answer your business problem.
But obviously, sometimes you need more definitive answers. This exploratory communication style might not give you those. It can sometimes lack depth and certainty, and be quite subjective.
That’s where market researchers who specialise in quantitative research come in. They like to measure and validate existing ideas. They offer more certainty in their recommendations, as robust data and statistical analysis underpins their communication style.
But, here’s the thing. Robust data and statistical analysis is often detailed and unexciting. So, this communication style can lead to you sitting through 100+ pages of Powerpoint. It can lead to so many charts, diagrams and bullet points, that you don’t get a super clear picture of what you need to do.
So, clearly you’re looking for a more balanced communication style. Somewhere between these extremes. One that gives you the excitement and inspiration of qualitative research, and the fact and certainty of quantitative research.
Shortlist and pitch for business
After these initial meetings, you’ll likely have 2 or 3 “favourites”. Something about their experience, style or approach seems to fit your style.
They give you confidence in their ability to get the job done.
For companies you “lose” from your list at this point, you should politely explain you’ve found someone else who seems a better fit for your needs.
With the shortlist companies, you next share the research brief. Their business pitch should be a high level version of the research plan. It should cover the team who’ll run the research, the research methodology, and the budget and time plan.
It should also cover any extra value they can add, and why you should choose them over the other market research companies. For example, they might throw in access to other relevant research they’ve done. (see an example of this in our e-Commerce insights article).
Request for information (RFI)
For bigger or on-going research projects, you can use more formal agency evaluation tools as per our marketing agencies guide.
For example, you could use the marketing agency Request for Information (RFI) checklist to get more detail before you make the final decision.
This formal document asks a specific set of questions about the company, what they do and how they work.
It includes more rigorous checks like their finances, specific questions on their area of expertise and asks for references to support what they say about themselves.
Marketing agency informal checklist
If you don’t want to go as formal, you could also use our informal agency evaluation checklist to help you make up your mind.
Though this was written mainly with advertising and media agencies in mind, the same principles apply, as most of these checks are based on how the agency operates.
Good attitudes and behaviours in marketing agencies are universal, no matter the type of services the agency provides.
Have a look at our separate article on using this checklist for more details.
Market research companies - Tough Questions
But, for this guide, we’d like to focus on some core tough questions you can use with market research companies.
These 5 questions are designed to put market research companies through their paces.
The way they answer these questions will give you a good indication of how they like to work. They’re designed to help you distinguish good market research companies from average or poor ones.
Question 1 - What can you tell me about my business I don’t already know?
The reason for this question is it’s a good way to see how much they value your business.
If they’re keen to win your business, you’ll get better service from them in the long-term. And if they’re really keen to win your business, they’ll have done their own research on you, before they meet you.
Well-prepared market research companies who talk to you about your customers for good partners. The way they answer this question gives you an idea of how straight-talking they are.
Good answers would be if they tell you something you genuinely didn’t already know. It’s actually also fine, if they say they can’t answer that question, until they talk to your customers. That shows they won’t “guess” at an answer. They’ll go with what customers say. Ideally, what you really want is a sign they’ve done their research on you. A sign that they’re thinking about your customers already.
Be wary though of any answer that focuses too much on their process. Beware also generic answers like “we can improve your advertising to grow more sales.” And obviously, any answer you felt were guesses would be a watch-out. You don’t want market research companies who guess.
Question 2 - How will you help me grow my sales?
This question gives you an idea of their business savviness. The technical skills that go into market research companies don’t always translate into commercial awareness.
This question shows you how they respond to “sales” related questions and challenges.
This is obviously very important to you.
You want to see if they can think ahead to the commercial impact of their recommendations. Do they understand the financial aspects of doing business, so you’ll get actionable recommendations? Because that’s what you need from market research to drive your profit and loss.
Good answers are obviously if they give you a convincing plan of how the research will grow sales. This would include examples of the marketing decisions the results will drive. And an estimate of the sales impact.
If they answer with something like the market research process, or give you a vague or noncommittal answer, that would raise concerns. If they tell you market research is not about driving sales, then that’s a bigger concern.
Market research isn’t directly about selling. But, market research results do need to drive decisions that deliver more sales. Your market research company has to be comfortable talking about sales.
Question 3 - What’s your point of difference versus competitors?
Good answers obviously include if they have an actual point of difference. In particular, one they can articulate in a clear and relevant way.
They get “bonus points” if they can give you examples of how their point of difference adds value to their clients.
Multiple points of difference may be OK, but may indicate a lack of focus. Check the context of such claims.
On the flip side, if they say they hadn’t considered this question before, or they answer on price or cost, those are all watch-outs. Also, if you’ve heard the point of difference from another company, or they can’t substantiate it, then those are also warning signs.
Question 4 - Why do you think consumers don’t choose my brand now?
This is a deliberately tricky question (they all are, to be honest). That’s because the only way they can answer this is to point out mistakes, issues and flaws in your marketing plan. Even if they point to competitors or market forces, the implication is your marketing isn’t good enough.
What you’re actually checking though, is to see how they give feedback, particularly if it’s negative or challenging. You want to make sure they’re not afraid to be constructive and give you tough feedback when it’s needed.
Obviously, good answers would be giving you truthful and constructive feedback. Even if they don’t, if they can give you examples from similar clients, that’s also a good sign. And a decent answer would be if they link this question back to the business problem and research brief.
However, if they’re evasive, say they hadn’t thought of that question before, or try to flatter your business too much, then be careful. These are not good signs.
Question 5 - How will I calculate the return on the market research investment I make with you?
This is probably the hardest question to answer.
You need the answers from the research to tell you what the return will be after all. But, it’s really a question to see if they even think about “return” for the money you’ll spend with them. Because, every research project costs money.
If they can give you a minimum sales and / or profit target that would be needed to cover the cost of the research, that’s really your ideal answer.
You’d be wary though if they gave you vague answers like you can’t calculate ROI from market research, or it’s just a cost of doing business.
The final decision and agreement
When you’ve settled on your final research partner, it’s important to let them know they’ve won the business. For any companies who made the short list, but didn’t win the business, let them know you won’t be progressing. Be prepared to give feedback on why they didn’t win.
You’ll want to finalise details of the agreement with the research company. This will mean you signing a statement of work, agreeing terms and conditions, and raising a purchase order for the project.
For bigger or longer-term research partnerships, you’d want to follow a more formal contractual process, similar to what we cover in our guide to marketing agencies.
These terms and conditions will cover key areas, like fees and payment details, termination and cancellation conditions and important legal considerations like liability and confidentiality.
That wraps up most of the formal elements of finding and working with market research companies.
But, in our experience, there’s also some more informal elements you should consider. It’s a very people and relationship driven business.
When you find someone you trust, they become strong business partners, and they add a lot of value to your decision-making.
So, with that in mind, we want to share a few final attributes we look for when we work with market research companies. And a few of the less appealing behaviours you might run into.
Marketers first, market researchers second
We’ve found the best market researchers have spent some time being marketers (or in sales) before they went into market research. This means they are more likely to understand your business needs, because they’ve been in your shoes. They understand commercial imperatives, and focus on results.
These types understand that the market research process itself is only a means to an end. It’s the quality and actionability of the results that really matters.
They’re more likely to understand your needs, and bring more flexibility in their approach. We often find market researchers who’ve only ever been market researchers can be more rigid and inflexible.
They match your style
It’s really important to outline your preferred style early in the market research process.
If there’s something you love or hate about market research, make it clear early on. The best market research should have empathy for people anyway (it goes with the job). That should mean they adjust their style to meet your needs.
So, it you as the client want detail and certainty, be clear about this up front. Ask your research company to be structured and formal in the way they share the plans and the way they share the results.
But if your style is much more action and results focussed, then ask the researchers to focus on this.
So, for example, in the final results presentation, you could ask the researchers to circulate the methodology in advance so they don’t waste the first 20 minutes of the presentation repeating it, before they start getting to the results. (one of the things that drives us crazy about market researchers)
They're genuinely interested in what makes people tick
It sounds obvious. But, the last thing you want are market researchers who are all about the process, and not about the people. Market research is at heart a way to understand what people, your customers, think, feel and do. And for this, they need to have that genuine interest in people. It’s the essence of what market research is. You should see it, hear and feel it in everything they say an do.
So, that’s three attributes you’ll see in the best researchers. Their marketing skill, their style matching and their human empathy. But, market researchers are as mixed a bunch as the rest of us. And there’s a couple of styles in market research, you should watch out for. These are the market research purists, the fencesitters and the schmoozers.
The market research purist
The market research purist is a stickler for process.
They’d rather make no decision or recommendation, than do anything that “may” be less than perfect.
This means they’re not used to the pressure to make business decisions as you have to do in those areas.
While you don’t want to be slapdash with process, you do need to factor in business realities. Sometimes, research has to be “good enough” to move forward. Sometimes, you have to accept it’s not perfect, and there’s a risk you’ll get it wrong. That’s real life.
So, watch out for these types who’ll block decisions. They’ll hold up progress to be more “right” than you need to be. These are also the same types who happily put together 20 pages on methodology at the start of the results presentation. And we’ve already told you what we think of that.
The market research fencesitter
Close allies of the market research purists, are the market research fencesitters, another behaviour that drives us crazy.
These types hide behind the ambiguities of market research. They won’t make clear and definitive recommendations. Their shoulders are rounded from shrugging so much.
They’ll happily hypothesise and speculate about answers. But frankly, you can do that without market research.
While market research can’t give you absolute certainty, it needs to give you more certainty that you have if you do no research.
Even if they hedge their bets, you need to push these types to give you some direction, rather than making no recommendation at all.
The market research schmoozer
And then lastly, there’s the market research schmoozer. To be fair, schmoozers aren’t unique to market research companies. You find them in all marketing agencies.
They see their role as making you, as the client, feel good. They want you to be happy, so that you keep spending money with them.
That means, they’ll be sociable and chatty and focussed on building a good relationship with you. Brilliant.
However, as we’ve already shown, not all market research results will be good news. Sometimes, you need to find out what’s gone wrong. And the schmoozer is terrible at this.
They don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. So, they’ll put a positive spin on the results, even dismissing or changing them to make things better.
You don’t want that. Your market research needs to tell you the cold, hard truth about your customers, good and bad.
Conclusion - Market research companies
When you find a good one, market research companies can be your best friend from a marketing point of view. They’re your direct line into your customers. They’ll help you learn what customers really think, feel and do.
In this guide, we’ve covered where to look for market research companies, and how to build an initial list. We then covered how you can start to narrow that list down, and get down to a short list of possible research partners.
We then closed off with questions you can use, and attributes to look out for to make your final decision about who’ll best meet your research needs.
Market research companies help you understand customers. This is a fundamental part of marketing, and your chances of success. So, it’s important to know how to find them, how to decide which ones are right for you, and how to get the best out of them.
Three-Brains and market research skills
We coach and consult to help businesses improve their market research skills. We can help you find, appoint and manage market research companies, to best meet your research needs. We’ll help you ask the right questions and get the best answers to drive your marketing activity.
3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our secondary research skill guide.
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