Market Research Planning: Plan your work, then work your plan

Steve Jobs was famous for insisting that Apple relied on instinct and intuition when it brought products to market. But for most of us, relying solely on intuition to make strategic decisions is a dangerous path to go down.

Whether we’re bringing new products to market or in charge of shaping the equity of our brands, we have too much skin in the game to simply trust our intuition. We are either overly optimistic (everyone loves our brand!) or overly pessimistic (we need to kill this idea, no one will like it). Market research gives us perspective that is not tainted by our own biases.

If it is done right, market research helps confirm or refute our intuition, and can help bring alignment in the organization to develop business strategies. If it is done wrong, it can muddy the waters, cause stakeholders to lose confidence, or worse, lead to wrong decisions that could harm your business and your brand.

The best way to ensure that your research provides the insights needed to drive strategy is to spend time up front writing a research plan. A plan can help focus your research activities, build stakeholder alignment, set scope and budgeting expectations and guide timelines for strategy development and downstream activities.

The elements that make up a good research plan are detailed below, with some brief examples to illustrate the types on information to include. Note that when developing your own research plan, you should provide enough information to tell a complete story of the why, what and how behind your research initiative.

Section 1 – Background and Business Issues

To set the stage, a research plan should begin with the background around the business issue that you are trying to solve. This provides context and is the “why” behind the research. For instance, “Company X has lost share over the past 12 months as competitors have introduced several new, breakthrough products” could be the theme of this section.

Section 2 – Business Objectives

The most important element to include in your research plan is clearly articulated business objectives. Note these are business objectives and should be a list of decisions or initiatives that the research will inform, not simply a statement of research tactics. For example, “Build our pipeline of new products for development” is a business objective, while “Conduct a concept test” is not.

Section 3 – Research Objectives

Next, list out the research objectives. These are different from business objectives in that they spell out to stakeholders what the research will deliver. “Identify which of our current concepts provide the best opportunity to drive growth” and “Profile category users” are examples of research objectives.

Be judicious on your research objectives. They need to map back to the business objective and set the scope of the project.

Section 4 – Methodology

Here is where you finally get into the details of the research. You may have determined that a concept test is the best way to achieve your research objectives. Detail the approach here. In our example, this might include how many concepts are going to be tested, how many concepts each respondent will evaluate, etc. Include sample definition, source, sample size, and any other details that will be needed to execute your project.

This needs to be a detailed section, as these executional elements drive both timing and budget.

Section 5 – Timelines and Budget

Finally, be sure to set expectations on the required investment for the research and when the results are due back so that downstream activities can be planned.

A well-written research plan should clearly communicate the why, what and how behind your research initiative. In each of the sections of your plan, be sure to include enough information to provide stakeholders a clear understanding of what the research will and won’t answer. It is an invaluable document to ensure your research is addressing your business issue, get stakeholder alignment, provide scope boundaries and manage execution, timing and budget.