From the Trenches

Market Research Without an Action Plan = Worthless Market Research

Mike Sweeney | August 5, 2010

Great research falls flat without an action plan.

I’d love to chalk up our lack of blogging to beach vacations, lazy weekends at the pool, or even a desire to slow down during late summer.  In our case, none of that is true.  We happen to be engaged with a bunch of new clients, and some long-standing clients, who all decided to launch something, announce something, or ask for delivery of something during the month of August.

In all of these projects, we’re expected to either conceptualize, execute or review various forms of research and testing.  Some of it is what I’d call traditional market research, or an exploration of consumer attitudes towards a particular product.  Some of it is usability research, or a test of how a user navigates through a particular website.  Some of it is keyword research, used broadly to gauge demand or narrowly to forecast search engine marketing traffic and spending.

We see custom research that reaches into the six figures in cost.  We see simple user research that can be executed for as little a few hundred dollars.  We see some very well-planned research with clear objectives in mind, and we see some of the most misguided research that money can buy.

Whether the research is well-planned or not, one of the most consistent points of failure is the lack of a specific plan of action arising from the research.

More often than not, the scenario looks like this.  Expensive research firm is asked to provide insight into topic X, based on research and testing on potential consumers.  Expensive research firm presents findings at the big annual meeting, and some of the data (in particular, the stuff that supports the CEO’s strategic direction) elicits the standard oohs and aahs as it appears magically on the PowerPoint.  Here’s what typically happens next:

  • Research firm receives big check – job well done.
  • CEO or the sponsoring exec reminds everyone that the team now has a lot of material to digest, and that everyone needs to take this new data seriously.
  • There is an implied agreement that everyone is going to review the findings, and figure out how this data can be used to improve their function or department.

What actually happens?  Nothing.  Sure, an occasional email gets shot around – you know, the unproductive kind that involves 18 people – that cites stats from the research report as some type of justification for a new plan of attack.

But it typically ends at that.  Why?

Because when research is ordered – be it extensive or narrow in scope – there is rarely a plan for how different individuals or entire departments are going to systematically review it, digest it, and incorporate it into their planning.

I happened to be privy to one of these planning emails last week, sent from the COO of a medium-sized software company to his staff regarding the group that was coming into to present some market research.  I am paraphrasing to protect the innocent, but it read something like this:

The Johnny Come Lately Research Group is coming in to present its research next week.  Let me remind you that we decided to hire and pay the Johnny Come Lately Research Group because many of you felt that we were flying blind in terms of the real demand and consumer attitudes towards our category of products.  We know the research will be relevant and high quality, because we guided the entire process.  Listen intently, because your teams will all have exactly one week to take what you heard and saw and work it into your 2011 plans.  This data is not intended to represent cool numbers that we can throw at investors and partners, but rather data that shapes exactly how we plan and execute in areas like products, services, communications, marketing, and business development.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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