The Press, April 2005

"Opinions are like backsides - everyone's got one," radio talkback host and erstwhile politician Pam Corkery once said. That's certainly true when it comes to marketing - everyone in your company seems to have an opinion on how to set your pricing, what sales channel is most effective, whether or not you need a new logo and so on. And often it is those opinions with the most authority behind them that hold sway. How do you remove or at least reduce the impact of opinions on your marketing decisions?

Talking to your customers is a good start. The more you know about your market the more obvious the answers to your questions will become. For example, you might be trying to determine a new pricing strategy. At what level should you set your price? That depends - on your customer's view of the 'market' price, their perception of the value your product offers, how big the problems they have are etc. The more you know about these factors the easier it is to decide on your pricing approach.

"In my business great ideas are killed every day by market researchers. I call them the research vampires," says Kevin Roberts, the Kiwi who is worldwide CEO of advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi. Roberts echoes the sentiments of many successful business people, who distrust research over their gut instincts.

One key problem is that researching is simply too easy. Plugging "software, Mongolia" into Google results in over 4.3 million sites. I can learn about everything from Mongolia's investment climate to their "IT landscape" to incorporating Mongolian Cyrillic script into software programmes. With the power of the internet it is easy to assemble a 100 page report on your market - but you can still be no closer to answering your questions.

Another issue is that people can invest too much value in research, much to the dismay of business people like Kevin Roberts. It is easy to rely too much on research and forget it is simply a tool. As Dr Philip Voss, New Zealand expert on research says, "The essential point is that the research process is not simply a 'black box' which magically transforms questions about the world into answers that everyone should instantly believe in."

So how do you go about getting the kind of information from your market that overcomes the power of opinions?

Asking why

Using research effectively starts at the end point. You need a very clear understanding of what decisions you actually want to make with the research information. Are you trying to change your pricing approach? Or deciding on the best channel to market? Or confirming the positioning of your product against competitors. Unless you have specific decisions in mind asking the right questions of your customers is difficult.

Of course you have to be prepared to act on the information. Finding out from the market that you are perceived as providing poor customer support doesn't mean you should mount an advertising campaign saying how good your customer support is, it means actually trying to fix the problem. As Sir Winston Churchill once said "Most people, sometime in their lives, stumble across truth. And most jump up, brush themselves off, and hurry on about their business as if nothing had happened."

What information do you want?

If you have a clear understanding of the decisions you want to make, you can work out what sort of information will be needed to support those decisions. For example, you may want to decide what promotional strategy to use, so the information you need is how your customers typically gather information, what kind of channels they prefer, what style suits them etc. The value of your research hangs on knowing the right questions to ask.

How to gather the data

"How weird that the nearest some marketing teams get to customers is to observe them from behind the safety of a one-way mirror in a focus group facility. When we go out and actually talk with customers, cutting out the middleman, we expose ourselves to more than just an exchange of information," says popular marketing web blogger Johnnie Moore.

There are many different ways of gathering data from customers - the method doesn't have to be formal, expensive market research. It can be as simple as ringing up a dozen customers. Telephone or online surveys, mystery shopper reviews, interviewing your own customer service staff, internet research, even talking to people in the bar on a Friday night - they're all valid options. The key is being focused on what decisions you want to make.

Who to talk to

The last step is working out exactly who you should be researching. Map out the different audiences in your value chain - who uses your product, who buys it, who supports it, who is your channel partner, who is the end customer. All will have a distinct perspective on your products and they need to be seen in context.

Next time you have that marketing debate remember the words of American Psychologist Arnold H. Glasow "The fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion." Talking to your customers will help bring some facts to the marketing table.

Subscribe to our blog