Questions to Ask before Starting Market Research

ask questions before starting market research

To drive the types of smarter marketing decisions that lead to revenues, think through these  questions before starting market research projects.

What do you need to learn and why?

In order to effectively conduct marketing activities, you should be really clear on what insights you are missing. Examples of great research questions:

  • Would budget-minded or premium-driven customers, in the quantities needed, best respond to our next product launch?
  • What are the barriers to action for our category?
  • How should we divide our market into segments so that we can develop products that best need each group’s unique needs?
  • Why does our brand seem to be on the decline?

How will you structure your research study?

Research methodology depends on your research questions, budget, and industry. Do you want to deeply explore a topic, gain insight into nuances and personal motivations, and answer questions you may not yet know to ask?  If so, qualitative research such as focus groups, interviews, or ethnography may help you in your exploratory phase. It can be done online, via mobile app, by phone, or in person, and is best when you need to capture feelings, understand language choices, get gut reactions and then delve into the reasonings behind these perspectives. Innovation work, user research, and understanding needs can all be explored using qualitative studies. Questions to ask:

  • Should you be talking to groups or individuals to most closely parallel the decision making process?
  • Would small groups like triads be more effective?
  • Would larger groups of 6-8 spur the type of higher level discussion you need?
  • Would it better to talk to individuals, for example in a business decision setting, and if so, how many?
  • Where are your participants located geographically?
  • How will you best interact with them – phone, online, in-person, at their location or a neutral one?

Quantitative research, usually online or mobile surveys, will help you answer questions such as  how much, how many, how strong, etc.  You can cluster your market into segments, attack pricing questions, find percentages who are likely to consider your new market, or conduct A/B testing of communications.  Questions around quant include:

  • Do you need specialized analysis such as conjoint? Max-diff? Segmentation?
  • Will this primarily be a descriptive survey?
  • How long will your survey last?
  • Do you have the budget and need for 15-20 minutes, for example in a segmentation,  conjoint, or other specialized study?
  • Are you better served by short, 3-7 minutes to get top of mind responses from busy individuals with short attention spans?

Who will participate in your research?

Recruiting participants, whether for focus groups or a survey, is one of the most important aspects of the research. Some companies have lists of current and prospective customers, and have research needs that don’t rule these sources out. The upside here is cost. For some purposes, like add-on product launches, having brand-comfortable participants works best.

For most studies, however, you’ll want to be anonymous, and will need the services of a sample company or recruiters to find new participants.  Questions to consider:

  • How much will finding the participants you need cost per participant?
  • What are the upsides and downsides of using your in-house list?
  • If you need to schedule your customers, do you have the resources and/or technology to do this?
  • In talking to a sample company, how do they recruit their participants?
  • Who handles incentives to the participants?
  • How much are these participants compensated?
  • Are participants from one source, or multiple ones?
  • How will you guard against computer-generated survey responses?
  • Who will write the screener for your project?
  • Will you pay if someone drops out of the study?
  • Is the panel company compliant with international data privacy laws?

What questions will you ask your participants?

orange question mark sculpture

Qualitative research requires a Discussion Guide or Interview Guide. It should start with general, get to know the participant questions. Imagine if you introduced yourself to a stranger at a party and immediately asked them their views on gum packaging. Or tampons. Either way, it would be awkward, and they’d probably walk away slowly. But if you had been talking for 10 minutes first on general topics that gradually led to these questions, you might be able to engage them such that they wanted to tell you their thoughts. Yes, research is usually paid. But you are still talking with people, and you have to understand and adhere to social norms. 

In quantitative research, you only get one chance to ask your question, and you can’t see or hear how the person what the person is thinking before responding. So wordsmith until you are sure, and then test the survey repeatedly. Questions to consider:

  • Are you asking interesting questions?
  • Why are you asking each question?  Can any be deleted?
  • Do the questions make sense so that there is a flow to the guide or survey?
  • Are there multiple ways to understand the question, and if so, should the wording be changed?
  • Are you using language that your general participant would understand?
  • Is your language consumer or business-person friendly, or are you using industry jargon or acronyms?
  • Can you take out some of the question text and still get your point across?
  • Which answer options make sense?
  • Do you need to conduct secondary research in order to create your questions?
  • Do you need to hire translators to gain responses in other languages?  Gain you afford to include the needed back-translations?

Fielding the Study

SFMOMA multi-colored question mark sculpture photos/thedigitalstory/

When you are ready to conduct the actual research study make sure you are incredibly well organized, with timing and steps studied and planned. Be prepared to make changes if you soft launch your survey and answers come back illustrating a lack of understanding, the survey takes too long, or you are screening too many people out. Have discussions after each part of qualitative research, and make peace with the need for changing questions, skipping sections, or going deeper into newly interesting topics. Addressing the questions in this post ahead of time will make the actual research effective and successful.

Post-fielding questions to consider before it’s too late:

Although the next three steps occur after fielding is complete, if you forget to think them through, you could find yourself at the point when it’s too late to go back and design the study to get what you need. Questions to ask upfront about the data analysis:

What methods will you use to analyze the answers to your questions?

  • What format will your qualitative research data be in?
  • Do you need written transcripts, notetakers, video to review, audio or webcasts?
  • How will you organize the tiny pieces into cohesive, insightful, findings?
  • Will there be image analysis, video clips? How about software used to support human synthesis?
  • In what format or formats does your analysis software need your quantitative data?
  • What about your human analysts?
  • Do you need crosstabs, advanced analysis, data visualizations or other types of quantitative analysis?
  • How will you best generate the needed charts and graphs from quant?
  • Are you structuring your study so that you will be able to support the analysis?

What type of presentation do you need for your study?

  • What format do you need your results in? PowerPoint? Text document? Data visualization dashboard? Video reel?
  • Will you need to compile multiple levels of results, for example a full deck, an Executive Summary, and/or Team Workshops?
  • Do you need the ability to re-analyze data at a later date? To combine it with secondary data gathered from your business? To build on it in later studies?

What does your analysis mean to your business?

  • What are the key takeaways you are hoping to find from the study?
  • How will you make sure to support these from the data?
  • Are you prepared for surprising insights that go beyond the original scope?
  • What process will you use to combine multiple insights into something larger?
  • How will you find needed recommendations that  will apply to your business?
  • Are you open to finding new hypotheses and questions, perhaps even ones that will require additional research?

As you can see, research questions are not simply those you ask your participants, but the questions that enable you to design and conduct professional quality research that addresses your business concerns. Whether this is done in-house, using a market research consultant who will lead the project and help you answer these questions, or whether you lead the study and hire fieldwork-level vendors who will execute your project, you should take the time to think these questions through before you begin.

Market research consultant Jennifer Cooper brings decades of hands-on experience to her work with consumer and business brands, their agencies and marketing firms. She designs and leads quantitative and qualitative research projects that drive revenues through smarter marketing. She can be reached at



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