How To Work With Research Vendors
A market research vendor can provide insights on the best research design for your needs, based on years of experience. They may also have research panels to help you access your target audience most economically and experienced people to conduct interviews or focus groups. When you find that your organization needs information that requires the skills and resources of a market research vendor, here are some ideas on how to work with them to get the most from this investment.
Learn the Basics of Market Research
You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of market research techniques, but it will be valuable if you learn the basics of market research so you can understand if the methodology they suggest is appropriate. For example, exploratory research like profiling the attitudes and motivations of a target group requires a different approach from tracking the impact of an advocacy campaign over time. The exploratory research requires qualitative methods, such as in-person interviews or focus groups. Tracking studies for campaign awareness require quantitative research, a larger sample study, such as an online survey with hundreds of respondents.
Make Your Goals Clear
Be clear on your goals – What you need to learn, who from, and what you plan to do with the information. Giving your vendor a clear understanding of what the research needs to accomplish will enable them to offer the best research design and ask the right questions of the right people. Put it in writing, even if you are not creating a formal “Request for Proposals.” This will not only aid clarity but also provide a good reference point if “mission creep” occurs.
“Mission creep” often results when multiple people become involved in a project after it has started and each person wants to add more goals. Some of this can be accommodated, but too many extra goals can sink a research project – for example by resulting in a long and rambling questionnaire, increased respondent dropout rates, and excess costs.
If there are multiple goals, get clarity on what takes priority. There is always a limit to what you can learn in one research project without overloading your discussion guide or questionnaire, so you must know what’s necessary and what’s just “nice to know.” As you negotiate the right balance with your internal customers, including the vendor in that discussion will give them an opportunity to help present the trade-offs.
Identify Your Target Respondents
Specify your target audience and what you know about their incidence. Incidence rates are an important input to estimating research costs, without which the vendor will have to make an educated guess. For example, a random sample of all U.S. adults will require less time, effort, and cost than getting a random sample of U.S. vegans. Ask your vendor whether they can reach your target audience and how they will do it. For example: Do they have an existing panel of vegans, or will they need a pre-screening survey? Have they done research with this target group before?
Get Involved in Research Design
Don’t just pay for a research project and then walk away. Review the discussion guide or questionnaire and, if it’s off-target, talk to the vendor and clarify where they missed the mark. Explain again what the results of the research will be used for. Perhaps what you put into writing was not as clear as you thought. Also, beware of vendors who send their experienced people to your design meetings and then hand the project off to junior staff.
If you are conducting qualitative research and the vendor is providing an expert interviewer, brief the interviewer yourself on the origins and goals of the research project. Experienced interviewers have techniques to assure that they surface what you need to know from respondents, without creating additional bias.
For a quantitative study, review the questionnaire again after it is programmed. Go through it more than once, imagining yourself to be different types of respondents. Check for logic and appropriate “skip patterns.” Are you being asked any questions that don’t make sense, based on your previous answers? Then the questionnaire should have skipped you over that question. If possible, get someone else in your office who wasn’t involved in designing the survey to try it out as a mock respondent.
Track Progress and be ready for Course Correction
Once the study is in the field, make sure the vendor contacts you right away if they hit unexpected obstacles. Examples could be questions that don’t work as intended or response rates that are lower than expected. If response rates are unexpectedly low, find out where you are losing people. Are they dropping out at the screener? Maybe the screening criteria are too stringent. Are respondents dropping off during the survey? Perhaps the survey is just too long. Problems that aren’t fixed early can compromise response quality. Many vendors wait too long to admit that recruiting is a problem and you discover too late that you are falling behind schedule.
For qualitative research such as live interviews or focus groups, you should be on site, preferably watching from the other side of a two-way mirror. If that’s impossible, see if you can observe through video streaming. If a question or probe needs re-wording you will learn that on the first day by hearing respondents struggle for an answer.
Review and Discuss the Findings
You have a perspective on your organization’s needs that no vendor can match, so they need your feedback on which findings are most relevant. If there are results that are surprising or counter-intuitive, then ask the vendor to confirm that they are valid. For example, check that surprising conclusions from focus groups are based on more than one or two respondent’s comments. Even experienced researchers can be tempted to emphasize “juicy” comments. However, respect the research and accept unexpected findings that have solid work behind them. That’s when you learn the most, and may make discoveries that improve your organization’s effectiveness.
Co-Present the Research Findings
If the proposal includes a presentation of findings, many research vendors will offer to do the presentation on their own. However, it is a better practice for you to co-present with them, or for you to present and have the vendor available to answer detailed methodology questions. If they stand before your organization on their own, it creates a false impression that they did the research with no input, which is both misleading and unfair to you.
Note and Respond to Follow-Up Questions
Almost all good research generates even more questions. Some of these will have to be answered in yet another market research project, while others will be possible to address by more mining of interview quotes or survey data. Take notes on all questions raised by the report and presentation and give them to the vendor, who should note questions also. Good vendors will assume that the presentation will generate follow up questions and will get back to you with answers at no extra charge (within reason).
Evaluate your Vendor Experience
Evaluate your experience throughout the project. Did the vendor clearly explain method options and why they recommended certain techniques? Did they stay on top of how the fieldwork was going and communicate issues to you immediately? Were they flexible when you had to make changes? Did they clearly address the goals of the research? Did the final report and presentation provide not only the results of the research but also the implications for your organization and a recommendation of next steps?
If you answered “yes” to all of the above, then you probably got value for your investment and found a vendor worth working with again.
Dorothy J. Rich, M.B.A., a market research professional recently retired from a career spanning 35 years, human and animal rights activist, and parent to two rescue dogs