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A processing perspective
It can be bewildering to keep abreast of the pace of change in the world of marketing today. Trends and ideas have their day, only to go out of fashion and be quickly forgotten as the newest and the latest models come onto the market. The more successful products may endure to leave their mark across several generations, but unless they undergo a continuous renewal in step with the times, they too will eventually be relegated to the annals of history.
Yet keeping abreast of the market is exactly what market research is about. Its aim is to supply a steady stream of insights and ideas, which are up-to-date and alert to all the contemporary developments occurring in the market today. The way it can do this, extracting the meaningful trends and movements out of the great volume of market data available, is by focussing on what is constant in this great river of change, namely the process of scientific method. The main point about the method of market research that I would like to focus on is that it is a process which consists in multiple stages, and the quality of the final results will depend on the successful operation and execution of each of its consecutive parts. So firstly, the research objectives have to be set. Next, the market has to be identified, and the method of sampling it decided. Will it be a store exit interview, on-line panel, or telephone interview? Then come the implementation of the fieldwork, processing and handling of the data, and lastly interpretation and presentation of the findings.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, which is why it is imperative to consider the research process in its entirety. On questionnaire design, for instance, if a question is ambiguously worded then any interpretation of the answers will be compromised, because it will not be possible to separate any real trend from potential misreading of that question by the respondents. Again, when sampling, the market chosen has to be relevant to the research. One would not ask 16 year olds which alcoholic beverages they buy nowadays.
Different stages lead to specialisation in market research. So there are Fieldwork Executives, who coordinate the logistical exercise of conducting the surveys, and interviewers who actually carry them out. Statisticians are able to process large volumes of data and classify respondents based on their attitudes and purchasing behaviour. Moreover, these different specialists each form a professional class in their own right. When they are familiar with their fields, they are able to adapt easily and effectively to each unique situation as it arises, using their intelligence and common sense to correct and complement their current habitual knowledge. Therefore, their input to the overall research process is vital to maintaining the smooth flow from each stage to the next, applying the insights and knowledge of each specialist in their fields.
The final stage is the presentation and communication of the research findings. Yet although it is here that the rewards are reaped, and the findings may lead to direct or indirect client policy changes, it is as dangerous to focus exclusively on this stage, as it is on any other. The presentation may be the cream on the cake, but without following the recipe the result is usually a disaster. It is a well-known cliché that statistics can be used to support almost any case one wishes to defend, so what is needed is a critical appreciation of the story, and an understanding of the way the different stages of the research process combine and complement each other to provide the actual evidence for a market judgement. It is this which will give clients the confidence that their data has been handled adequately and accurately, and that their investment has yielded them a reliable trend barometer.