Market Research Without an Action Plan = Worthless Market Research

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.

About the Author

As managing partner and chief strategy officer for Right Source, Mike Sweeney is responsible for all content marketing initiatives, including growing the company’s content marketing practice, guiding all client content marketing strategy, and recruiting and growing a team of modern marketers. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame. You can find Mike on Twitter and Google+, connect with him on LinkedIn, or read his other posts.

  • Ella Gardiner

    Hi Mike,

    I work as an insights consultant and found your article extremely interesting as i am really struggling to ensure that all of the research that is provided to us by third party suppliers is actually used and made actionable.
    I am currently in the process of preparing a guide for our teams called ‘Dummies guide to preparing action plans on the back of research’ and was wondering if you had any information that you think would be useful – or if there are any information sources you would recommend.

    Any help would be much appreciated.

    Many thanks,

    • Mike Sweeney

      Hi Ella – Thanks for the comment. I will look around, but I don’t know that I’ve seen any type of definitive guide to acting on research. For me, most of it is common sense principles – don’t over or undereact to research, make sure you know what the research actually means and how it was gathered, and then identify concrete next steps to act on it.

  • Thomas


    Your point is not only relevant…but even more revealing when one of your blog commenter’s ask you for a basic GUIDE to solve this problem and you have NONE to suggest. Not your fault…just evidence of the dysfunctional market research community that seems bent on redesigning and recirculating models from the last century. 

    Three years ago we began to see that the MOST EFFECTIVE market research projects were those where the results provide a DIGITAL FOUNDATION for each critical stage of a company’s CONTENT MARKETING STRATEGY. It begins with a clear understanding of their USP framed within their site architecture (something that often requires a complete redesign so that the site acts as a true content framework, set in a SILO structure).

    We see a huge difference between traditional market research and the critical need for DIGITAL MARKET RESEARCH. Unless you start with DIGITAL AXIOMS here you might as well dump your research dollars in the trash, because even if you discover something of importance you have no digital foundation or web system within which to position or disseminate this powerful new content. It becomes another cool idea tied to a single (and usually expensive) ISOLATED research report that is not integrated into any foundational strategy whatsoever. This describes MOST market research today…what a waste of talent and time.

    Every website should have it’s internal content structure designed the way the search engines would design it, if search algorithms could actually build a site. Well, guess what, with authentic DIGITAL MARKET RESEARCH you can now determine this with almost 100% accuracy. Stop for a moment and think about how your website might rank if all the topics, themes and content substance were aligned to verified research. When this kind of site is repeatedly indexed it will forever be elevated above every kind of Panda slap and will be loved by the search engines from here on out (provided that you continue to nurture your sites vision).

    But this is just the beginning. Once your content is properly structured and written to conform to the new PULL MARKETING standards you are now ready to engage in a true SOCIAL MEDIA SYNDICATION STRATEGY. This is also why so much of social media misses the mark. It too is most often not tied into a research based content marketing strategy. It has no research foundation to guide it’s syndication destinations. Even without this it still works better than many old school tactics. When it is related to a cohesive content strategy, one based on DIGITAL RESEARCH the results are so powerful that when a company tracks results they are often left speechless.

    It took us three years at Social Media Science to design, test and build software to automate many of the processes involved in this kind of research and content marketing designs. A truly effective marketing blueprint is so much more complex than anything we have worked with in the past. But THIS is where the right kinds of market research can serve the company as it was originally intended…and this is where the convergence of science and art merge to create some amazing results.

    I appreciate your thought leadership and your insights often stimulate me to think in the right directions. Let’s talk sometime.

    Thomas Rozof, CEO,    

    • My favorite piece of your comment was the reference to the “Panda slap” – good stuff.

      Sounds like we’re like-minded, so we should talk.

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