6 Types of Audience Research and When to Use Them

Trying to build customer relationships without audience research is like trying to take a road trip without directions. You can do it, but you probably won’t end up where you want to be.

Eliciting engagement and action from customers requires brands to understand them. That’s why audience research lays the foundation of everything we do at Montage. We use quantitative and qualitative methods to help our clients discover what their customers really need, and when and how to reach them.

Audience research is central to marketing success. But if market research wasn’t your field of study, it can be hard to know where to start.

Here are six of the research methods most-used by marketers, and the advantages and potential pitfalls of each.

1. Secondary Research

Start here. Secondary research is an ideal first step when conducting audience research. The practice involves examining existing data compiled by third parties. Company white papers, academic reports, information disclosed in social media profiles and census data are often used secondary sources. The data can be quantitative (income level, gender, zip code) or qualitative (interests, hobbies, behaviors).

Secondary research can valuable on its own. It is most fruitful, however, when used to inform and design future primary research, which goes directly to the source to gather new data, such as surveying your own customers. By first getting a baseline understanding of their audience, marketers can more effectively target customers of interest and figure out what questions will garner the most actionable insights in subsequent research efforts.

Advantages: If you have internet access or a library card, you can conduct secondary research. It is relatively affordable and easy to gather. It also demonstrates credibility. By citing secondary research, you show that you’re relying on more than instinct when creating a campaign.

Considerations: Were you ever told that Wikipedia was NOT a valid source on your bibliography? The same rule applies with secondary research. With an endless supply of information on the internet, much of it will inevitably be inaccurate. Be sure to investigate your sources carefully.

2. Ethnography

Derived from the Greek ethnos, meaning “folk, people, nation,” and grapho, meaning “I write,” ethnography equates to the study of people and culture. For marketers it translates most specifically into observation—studying people in a given environment.

Ethnography is typically qualitative. It includes direct observation, in which a researcher observes a person go about their day-to-day tasks, as well as diary studies, video recordings and photography. Researchers might monitor a family at dinnertime to identify ways to make mealtime easier for mom or watch how shoppers navigate a store to inform the placement of signage. The goal is to gain deep insight into what a customer sees and experiences, and how they interact with and respond to everything around them.

Observation can occur in any environment—at home, at work, in-store, while someone is out with friends or across all activities. The key is that the researcher does not guide the subject’s behavior.

Advantages: What people say and what they do are often different. Ethnography preempts error by measuring actual behavior rather than user-reported behavior. It is real, insightful and highly useful. Through ethnography, marketers often discover previously unidentified pain points or needs their product or service can address.

Considerations: While ethnography eliminates the bias of the subject, it doesn’t guard against that of the researcher. Marketers must ensure that observations are made objectively. Another key consideration is audience comfort. If customers change their behavior because they know they are being observed, the insights gathered through ethnography deliver less value.

3. Surveying

“Tell us how we did today.” If you’ve ever filled out a comment card, you’ve participated in audience research. Surveying is the most well-known and widely used method in primary research. Surveys come in various forms—written, online, over the phone, in person—and involve a series of questions to understand what people think or feel about a given topic.

The common goal of all surveys is to measure something specific. An online retailer might ask shoppers to rank their customer experience on a scale of one to five. Airlines passengers might be given a survey to assess the comfort of their seat, quality of refreshments, cleanliness of the bathrooms. Voters often receive calls that are used to gauge which candidate will come out ahead in the next election.

Surveys are more often quantitative than qualitative, but can also be used to solicit valuable, open-ended feedback.

Advantages: Surveys deliver direct audience feedback. Often anonymous, they give customers a chance to speak honestly, in their own words, and without judgement. This is precisely why consumer reviews have become so powerful. Surveys are also scalable. Easily distributed via email and other digital channels, marketers can reach broad swaths of customers without much additional effort.

Considerations: Are you asking the right questions? The questions included and how they’re asked greatly affect the validity of survey results. Caution against biased or leading questions in order to remain objective. In addition, be conscious of sample size and diversity. If you’re trying to understand how a city of one million people feels about local leadership, a sample size of 100 citizens from one zip code won’t yield the most accurate result.

4. Interviews

One moderator, one participant. This is the minimum requirement of an interview. Interviews explore an issue in depth through a conversation between moderator and participant.

The format of interviews should follow their function. They can be structured around a series of specific questions or be free flowing. The moderator can guide the interview in whatever way is necessary to gain a full understanding of a customer’s expectations, emotions or experiences.

Interviews can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, but the information sought is often specific in nature. Researchers might ask about a single topic in different ways to gain insight into customer problems, psychological motivations and underlying perceptions. Interviews may also be exploratory. Is a customer familiar with a certain service? Where did they hear about it?

Advantages: Interviews enable researchers to guide the data collection process. If phrasing a question one way doesn’t elicit the sought-after response, try asking it again in a different way. The opportunity to offer clarity and dig deeper is unique to interviews. Because interviews occur person-to-person, participants are also more likely to open up and share details that they wouldn’t in a group setting.

Considerations: While interviews allow the moderator to control the conversation, guiding answers toward a given hypothesis must be avoided. Be careful to steer clear of leading questions or pressing too hard on a given topic. Arranging and conducting interviews also require a significant investment of time and money. Opt for a survey if funds are limited.

5. Focus Groups

Like interviews but with more participants, focus groups are small group conversations led by an objective moderator. They aim to gather qualitative information on customer thoughts, feelings and preferences by asking open-ended questions.

Focus groups should be casual, comfortable conversations in which all participants are actively involved. To ensure understanding and equal participation, the moderator might repeat back a participant’s response or encourage a less vocal member of the group to contribute their thoughts.

Audio and video recordings of focus groups allow marketers to revisit the content and tone of responses as well as study the accompanying behaviors of participants. Having additional observers make notes during the conversation can achieve the same.

Advantages: Focus groups are more efficient and cost-effective than interviews. They offer marketers direct feedback from customers. Additionally, with the presence of ancillary observers, marketers can gather both the spoken responses of participants and their behaviors.

Considerations: To make the most of focus groups, participants need to be familiar with the topic of conversation. Asking what someone likes about an SUV won’t yield many insights if she hasn’t driven the vehicle. Self-consciousness, group influence and personality dominance can also adversely affect the outcomes of focus groups. Because a very vocal participant can shift the entire dynamic, we more often opt for other research methods.

6. Field Testing

How will a product fare once it hits the market? Field testing helps marketers answer this question by facilitating audience interactions and soliciting feedback under real-life conditions. By allowing audiences to explore a product or service, marketers can identify ways to improve their customer appeal and experience.

The goal of field testing is to determine what is and isn’t favorable to consumers. It may incorporate a variety of other research methods, such as surveys and interviews, but is most effective when testing two variables. Some examples include: product sampling (is this yogurt tasty?), trials (does this medicine work?) and A/B testing for preference (do more people click of the orange button or the purple button?).

Advantages: Because it merges multiple methods, field testing is often considered the penultimate form of primary research. Done right, it all but guarantees marketers make customer-centric decisions for their product or service.

Considerations: Field testing is comprehensive, but thereby often requires a significant investment of both time and money. Be prepared—it can also result in less than rosy feedback. Marketers must be equally open to constructive, negative reviews as they are positive ones.

With these six research methods as your guide, you should end up right where you want to be—with engaged, enthusiastic customers who feel understood.

Still have questions about audience research? Take a look at our services to see how we can help.

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