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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.
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 you usually have plenty of choice of market research companies. It’s a buyer’s market.
Once you start to research the options, you’ll find you end up with a list of possible research partners.
The bigger challenge is to whittle 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 ability to adapt their style to meet 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.
If this is the first time you’ve gone through the market research process, start with some secondary research on market research companies to build an initial list of potential research partners.
How long a list depends on how big your business problem is, and how big your research budget is. But, as a rough guide, 5-10 market research companies is usually about right at this stage.
You want to build 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?
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.
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.
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.
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, and see who gets talked about positively.
There are also other online directories and review sites for market research companies, if you can’t find what you need with the industry associations or on networking platforms.
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 that have the best position online.
While that’s not a guarantee of quality, it usually means they have a positive online reputation. It’s a good sign.
You can then refine your search with the research approach you think you need. So, “qualitative market research companies”, for example. This helps 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 more specific, if you need to. 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.
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.
How do they respond to comments and questions on Facebook and Twitter, for example? What do people say about them on LinkedIn?
Follow up any mentions of them in the news or in discussion forums, so you can build a better picture of how they work.
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. So, at this point, you contact your long list by phone or email, and let them know you’re looking for a market research company.
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.
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 :-
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.
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.
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.
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
At some point, you’ll likely come across one of the larger “monster” market research companies, like Kantar or AC Nielsen.
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.
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.
The expertise to carry out the research itself is obviously important. But, communicating the research results to give you clear answers and recommendations is even more important.
You need to be confident they’ll share the results in a clear and credible way. Their communication style needs to drive decisions about your marketing activity.
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 will 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.
So, on the other hand, you’ve got market researchers who specialise in quantitative research. They like to measure and validate existing ideas. They offer more certainty in their recommendations, as they use robust data and statistical analysis as the basis for their communication style.
But, here’s the thing.
Robust data and statistical analysis can often be detailed and unexciting. So, this communication style can often end up you sitting through 100+ pages of Powerpoint. It can lead to so many charts, diagrams and bullet points, that you don’t come away with a super clear picture of what you need to do.
So, clearly you’re looking for a more balanced communication style. Somewhere between these two extremes.
One that gives you the excitement and inspiration of the qualitative research, and the fact and certainty of quantitative research.
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.
As you move to this short-list, any companies you “lose” at this point, you should politely explain that you’ve found someone else who seems a better fit for your needs.
With this shortlist, that’s then when you’d share the research brief.
Their pitch for the business should be a high level version of the research plan. It should focus on the team that will run the research, the research methodology, and the likely budget and time plan.
It should cover any extra value they can add, and why you should choose them over the other market research companies.
So, they might throw in access to other relevant research, for example. With a previous client, at a market research pitch, the winning company gave us access to their annual digital marketing report for free, which would normally have cost thousands of dollars.
For bigger or on-going research projects, you can use more formal agency evaluation tools such as we cover in our guide to marketing agencies
So, 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.
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 companies in mind, the same principles apply, because 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.
But, for the purposes of this article, we’d like to focus in on some core tough questions you can use with market research companies.
These are five questions really 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 are designed to help you distinguish good market research companies from average or poor ones.
You can download these questions with speaker notes, as a separate pdf, or via our resources page.
The reason for this question is it’s a good way to see how much they value your business.
If they are really 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.
Market research companies who talk to you about your customers, and who like to prepare in advance make for good partners. The way they answer this question will give you a good idea of how straight-talking they are.
Good answers to this question 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.
You’d be wary though of any answer that focussed too much on their process. You’d also be wary of generic answers like “we can improve your advertising to grow more sales.” And obviously, any answer you felt they were just guessing at would be a bit of a watch-out.
You don’t want market research companies who guess.
The reason for this question is to give you an idea of their business savviness. The technical skills that go into market research companies don’t always translate into more commercial awareness.
So, this is good question to see how they respond to “sales” challenges.
This is obviously super 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 that you’ll get actionable recommendations? Because that’s what you need from market research to drive your sales and profits.
Good answers to this question are obviously, if they can 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 they should be able to make an estimate on the sales impact.
If they answer this question with something like the market research process, or they 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, the market research results do need to drive decisions that deliver more sales. And that means your market research company needs to be comfortable talking about sales. This is not always the case.
This is a good question to check if the market research company understands brand strategy and competitive forces.
If they do, this should be an easy question to answer. If they haven’t thought about their own branding and positioning, how can they help you find yours?
Good answers here obviously include if they actually have a 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 can also indicate a lack of focus, so you need to interpret these in context.
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 the point of difference is something you’ve heard from another company, or they can’t substantiate it, then those are also warning signs.
This is a deliberately tricky question (they all are, to be honest).
It’s tricky because the only way the market research company 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 the research company is not afraid to be constructive and give you tough feedback when it’s needed.
Obviously, good answers would be if they give 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 also be if they link this question back to the business problem and research brief.
However, if they are evasive, they say they hadn’t thought of that question before, or they try to flatter your business too much, then be careful.
These are not good signs.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 need to watch out for. These are the market research purists, the fencesitters and the schmoozers.
So, the market research purist is the type who is a stickler for process. They’d rather make no decision or recommendation, than do anything that “may” be less than perfect.
They’ve probably worked in market research for 10 years or more. But, they’ve never been responsible for brand strategy, or specific marketing areas like communications, or digital marketing.
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 that it’s not perfect, and that 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.
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.
And then last of all you’ll find the market research schmoozer. To be fair, these types are not unique to market research companies. You will find them in all sorts of 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 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.
When you find a good one, market research companies can be your best friend from a marketing point of view. They are 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.
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.
Check out our other market research skill guides to learn more. Or contact us directly, so we can help you raise your game in market research
How to use qualitative research
How to use quantitative research
Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.
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.
Download it here or from our resources section.
Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request.
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