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Market research companies

Why read this? : We explore how you get the most out of market research companies. Learn the services they offer and where to find them. Plus, how to build strong relationships so you get the highest quality insights from working with them. Read this to maximise the benefits you get from working with market research companies.


Market research companies

Table of Contents


Take the Three-Brains market research companies quiz. 

Answer 5 quick questions in 2 minutes, and show us what you know.

When do you need to find market research companies?

If you’ve done market research in the past, you may already know some market research companies.

But this article assumes 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 out of 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.

It’s vital to build good relations with your market research companies. Market research is usually an ongoing process.

Once you find a researcher who “gets’ your business, you tend to stick with them. They understand your customers and you trust their expertise and way of working.

The great thing for you is there are usually plenty of market research companies to choose from.

It’s a buyer’s market.

Market research process - Flow diagram showing define the business problem - the research brief - the research plan - do the research - analysis an action plan

Research your options and you soon end up with a list of possible research partners. The bigger challenge is whittling this down to find the one which best meets your needs. You have to make sure they have the right technical research skills. 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 to fit with your way of working. 

But before we get to that, let’s start with how you find a research company in the first place.

Build a list of potential market research companies

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 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 companies with the right technical skills, who can research your market in a credible, engaging and insightful way.

Sources of information about market research companies

If you’re starting from scratch, there are 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 its 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. 

Australia has two market research associations. The Association of Market and Social Research Organisations and the Research Society.  

You can search their Company Directories to find market research companies covering specific industries or offering specific services. You can filter on terms like geography, industries covered and research specialities. 

This obviously helps you build your list of possible market research companies. These directories can point you to companies who know your category and carry out the type of research you need. 

Market research companies need to be association members to be listed in the Directory. Membership usually means they’ve agreed to follow quality standards and rules about how they’ll research. 

This is good news for you. Those standards mean you can be confident these are credible and trustworthy companies. They’ll have researchers with relevant qualifications and experience.

However, what it won’t tell you is anything about the differences in how those companies work. It won’t tell you which ones will best fit your research needs. For that, you have to do more research. 

Your network recommendations

Another great source of information about market research companies is your professional network.

In particular, if you know people working in marketing, they should have experience 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? 

The words "Welcome to Linked In" embossed on an office glass window

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. See if it prompts any ideas among your network.  

An example. “Looking for a good qualitative researcher in Sydney to carry out a 6-week focus group project for <$25k. Any recommendations?”, is about the right level of detail. 

If you already have a list of market research companies, you can also use your network to 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 ongoing basis. And you recommend them to others. 

Ideally, your professional network research will help you find reliable recommendations. 

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.

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. 

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 that top the list will be the ones who get the most traffic.

While that’s not a guarantee of quality, it usually means they have a positive online reputation. It’s a good sign. 

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

Refine your search

Next, refine your search with the research approach you need. So, “qualitative market research companies”, for example. Screen out market research companies who don’t have the required type of expertise. You can also add in your location and industry to be even more specific. So, “qualitative market research companies in Sydney for the hospitality industry”, for example. 

Use these results to finalise your list and also to help you start narrowing it down.

Check out each company’s website. Get a feel for how they work. Look at the “About Us” section to understand how long they’ve been around. What type of work do they do? How do they like to work? Check for case studies or client recommendations, so you can see what else they’ve worked on. Look for evidence to give you confidence they could help with your research needs. But check also for anything which gives you cause for concern. Maybe they seem 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, their website copy should feel like it’s talking directly to you and your business needs.

Search secondary sources

Beyond their websites though, check out any secondary online sources you can find. 

For example, look at their social media platforms. See what they post online, how often they post, and the tone of 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 on mentions of them in the news or in discussion forums, to build a clearer picture of how they work. 

Filter the list of market research companies

Let’s move on and say, you now have your list of 5-10 market research companies. They have the right technical skills, recommendations and a confidence-building website and online reputation. 

Your next goal is to narrow down the list to the 2-3 highest potential companies. You start by contacting your long list by phone or email to 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. But be aware, that not everyone will say yes. 

Some companies just don’t like to pitch. Others might not have the capacity to take on your business or they 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 point.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

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 of your company. 

Don’t get into the full brief at this first meeting. Share its headlines 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, focus on getting an idea of the research company’s :-

  • 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. For example, who would do the technical research work? Ask about their experience and qualifications. Have they worked on 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 research approach.

Listen also to how clearly they explain their research expertise. This gives you an idea of how clearly they’ll explain your research results.

Find the right size of market research company

You should also ask about the size of the company at that first meeting. How many employees do they have? 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. There are pros and cons to working with different sizes of market research companies. 

Small market research companies - pros

Many market research companies only have a few employees. These are usually researchers who’ve set up on their own, after building their early career experience at larger market research companies.

They mainly offer qualitative research services. 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 are no layers of decision-making and approvals. You deal directly with the people who do the research. 

And because these smaller companies 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.

Relay sprinter holding a baton in his blocks about to start a sprint relay

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 time, they can be a good way to build consistency.

Small market research companies - cons

Two 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 many 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. To avoid this, set up regular reviews. At least once a year, challenge them on how they’ll continue to bring diverse thinking into their research approach.

Large market research companies - pros

At some point, you’ll come across one of the larger “monster” market research companies, like Kantar or AC Nielsen.

Kantar used to own several well-known research companies like TNS and Millward Brown but consolidated 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. 

Kantar home page

Their main benefit is the scale they bring to research projects. They have big teams and wide expertise. This gives them the resources to handle the biggest and most complex research projects. You’ll get access to very specialist areas of knowledge (like behavioural science for example), and technologies and systems the smaller agencies can’t afford. 

They often sponsor research studies and release white papers on market research topics. ThIs helps build their reputation and creates client awareness and engagement. They also invest heavily in formal training for their teams. 

Large market research companies - cons

However, if you’re the client, there are a few things to watch out for.

First, they can become expensive, very quickly. They have 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 and expert consultants as well as the core researchers. This increases costs. 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 that manages 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.

Try to work out their communication style as it’ll shape how you make decisions about your marketing activity. 

Qualitative research specialists like to focus on generating ideas and finding unmet needs.

They’re good at exploring and developing innovative ideas.

Boy with short hair shouting into microphone in a plain white room

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 are 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. 

You should look for a balanced communication style. 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 shortlisted companies, you next share the research brief. Their business pitch should be a high-level version of the research plan, covering the research team, the research methodology, and the budget and time plan.

Market research brief template

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 ongoing 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 details 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. 

A checklist of 10 items to use with a marketing agency RFI including contact details, agency profile, expertise questions and references

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. 

Marketing agency evaluation - an informal checklist

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. 

You can download these questions with speaker notes, as a separate pdf, or via our resources page.

5 tough questions to test your market research company - what can you tell me about my business I don't already know? How will you help me grow my sales? What's your point of difference versus competitors? Why do you think consumers don't choose my brand now? How will I calculate the return on the market research investment I make with you?

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 researched 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 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 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 answers 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.

Sale sign in white on a red window with outline of a person walking past in the background

Good answers are 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?

This question checks how the market research company understands brand strategy and competitive strategy.

If they do, this should be easy to answer. But if they haven’t thought about their own branding and positioning, how can they help you find yours? 

Good answers 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.

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different

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 watch-outs. Also, if you’ve heard the point of difference from another company, or they can’t substantiate it, then be wary. 

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 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. 

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. 

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

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. Also, let the shortlisted companies who didn’t win know you won’t be progressing. Be prepared to give feedback on why they didn’t win. 

You’ll want to finalise the details of the agreement with the research company. This will mean you signing a statement of work, agreeing on 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 marketing agencies guide.

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 are also some more informal elements you should consider. It’s a very people and relationship-driven business.

A checklist of 13 items which should be included in a marketing agency agreement including obligations of both parties, fees, termination clauses and confidentiality and IP clauses

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 in 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’re more likely to understand your business needs as 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 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, if you as the client want detail and certainty, make this clear upfront. 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 more action and results-focused, ask the researchers to keep it short and punchy. For example, in the results presentation, you could ask the researchers to circulate the methodology in advance so they don’t waste the first 20 minutes before they get 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 a 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 and 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 are 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. 

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.  

Market research cartoon - Headline is market research purist and shows a man with his hands out to say stop and text - 98% confidence? Nope, we'll have to re-do it!

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 before sharing any results. And we’ve already told you what we think of that.

The market research fencesitter

Close allies of the 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 must give you more certainty than you have without doing any research.

Market research cartoon - A woman shrugging and saying it's absolutely, positively, a maybe!

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 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.

Market research cartoon - The schmooze. Smiling man saying of course, you can ignore that, what do consumers know anyway?

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 to your customers. They’ll help you learn what customers really think, feel and do. 

This guide 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 to a shortlist of possible research partners.

We then closed with questions to ask and attributes to look for to make your final decision about who to work with.

Two men talking at desk - one man is writing notes, the other is explaining something with his hands

Market research companies help you understand customers. This is key for successful marketing. 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. 

Check out our other market research skill guides to learn more. Or get in touch to find out how we can help you raise your market research game.

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. 

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

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