There’s a lot of interest these days in marketing research. And nowhere is research a hotter topic than in the business-to-business world, where it’s a substantial factor in many firms’ prosperity. In this post, we’re going to explore this powerful marketing tool piece by piece, breaking down B2B marketing research into a series of questions and answers. Chances are you’ve been mulling some of these questions, too.
What Is B2B Marketing Research, Anyway?
B2B marketing research is the process of uncovering insights into your marketplace by surveying a representative sample of its participants. Participants might include existing customers, former customers, prospective buyers, lost prospects (buyers who chose to buy from another company), and influencers. And in a competitive employer market, research might even include current and prospective employees, as well.
Typically, the research process consists of two parts: data collection and analysis.
Let’s start with data collection. There are two broad approaches you can take to collecting your data:
- Qualitative. In this approach, researchers talk directly with people to gather their experiences and opinions about your business, product or other aspects of the marketplace. Because it involves live conversations, this type of research takes more time and effort and it can be trickier to analyze. On the plus side, qualitative research provides unmatched depth and it allows you to ask open-ended questions and pursue new lines of inquiry as opportunities arise. Phone interviews, face-to-face interviews and focus groups are the most common ways businesses conduct qualitative research.
- Quantitative. If qualitative research allows you to dive deep into a relatively small sample, quantitative research derives its power from volume. Using a standardized survey questionnaire, the researcher asks everyone the same set of questions (though branched questions, in which an answer determines what question comes next, are also an option). While open-ended questions are certainly possible in quantitative research, they are used less frequently so that it’s easier to analyze the large quantity of data. The more rigid structure of quantitative research lends itself to a different range of formats, including online, mail and telephone surveys.
Which is better, qualitative or quantitative research? Really, there’s no right or wrong answer. Each serves a different purpose. At a very simplistic level, quantitative research is useful for understanding what is happening in the marketplace, while qualitative research is good at exploring why.
Qualitative research offers a great deal of flexibility, and it provides a rich body of information. Quantitative research is highly structured, which makes it easier to recognize patterns and draw broad conclusions from the data. Because of the amount of labor and cost involved in doing qualitative marketing research, it often addresses a small sample — sacrificing some statistical confidence for a deeper dive into the subjects.
The process of identifying whom to interview can be a difficult task, and usually only a fraction of those people will be willing or available to join the study. Qualitative research, on the other hand, can often reach a much larger audience, so it’s sample may be more statistically representative of the group you want to understand.
Some studies include both quantitative and qualitative research. That way, they gather a more complete picture of the audiences they are investigating.
What Are the Benefits of Marketing Research?
Our own research of professional services firms has shown a strong correlation between research and growth/profitability. In fact, firms that conduct frequent research (at least quarterly) grow up to 70% faster and are almost 50% more profitable than firms that don’t.
Here’s the data:
The most successful companies understand that the market is in constant flux, and the only way they can keep on top of all that change is by doing research on a regular basis. Up-to-date intelligence allows them to adjust their messaging and services to meet the evolving needs of their audiences.
How Can My Business Use Market Research?
There are an almost limitless number of ways you can use market research to improve your business. Here are 25 to get you thinking about your own situation:
- Discover who you really compete against in the marketplace (you will be surprised, I promise)
- Uncover your differentiators
- Find your competitive advantage
- Learn what services your clients appreciate most, and why
- See emerging opportunities in the marketplace
- Adjust your marketing messages to reflect what customers really want to hear
- Find out what your customers think about you
- Discover which weaknesses you need to fix right away
- Get your Net Promoter Score and find out whether your customers are likely to recommend your company to others
- Learn how well known your business is in the marketplace
- Explore why some customers chose to buy from another company, instead
- Find out how your pricing compares to the competition
- Find out how important price is to your buyers
- Discover whether there is demand for your new product or service
- Recognize emerging trends in the marketplace
- Demonstrate that you care about your customers — the act of doing research shows that you are interested in them and their opinions
- Discover the one thing your customers would change about your business
- Find out if you are well positioned to enter a new market
- Determine what issues you should be writing and speaking about to engage your audience and build your visibility
- Find out whether internal perceptions about your company match external perceptions
- Learn how your customers find you
- Find out why your customers chose you over a competitor
- See if your customers are aware of all of your key products or services
- Find out what you are known for in the marketplace
- Benchmark your business against competitors in your industry
Can I Do the Research Myself?
Yes, you can do it yourself. But in most cases, I recommend against it. Why? Three reasons.
First of all, designing a valid and insightful survey questionnaire takes skill. A professional survey designer has the experience to write a questionnaire that will achieve your goals — and avoid the leading questions and biases that can produce ambiguous, misleading or invalid results.
Second, most surveys, even those with small samples, can generate a lot of data. The way you categorize, roll up and score the data can dramatically affect the results. Best to leave that to an expert, if possible.
Third, you will get more honest answers if an impartial third party conducts your research for you. If you conduct interviews yourself, people may be reluctant to be critical of your business — precisely the stuff you need to know if you want to make course corrections to your marketing or operations.
To learn more, here’s a post by my colleague Lee Frederiksen that explores this question in more detail.
What Types of B2B Marketing Research Are There?
There are many ways to approach marketing research. Here are a few of the most common:
- Brand research — Learn how you are perceived in the marketplace and where your opportunities lie. Use this information to differentiate your business and strengthen your brand.
- Client research — Discover what your clients and prospects want and how you can deliver it. Use this information to adjust your marketing messages, services and operations to meet the changing needs of the marketplace.
- Market research — Find out who your true competitors are, what services you should be offering and what opportunities you can take advantage of.
- Client satisfaction research — Answer the question, “how happy are your clients with your work and service?”
- Client journey research — Map out the path people take to find, learn to trust and buy your products or services. Use this information to reduce friction in the buying process, improve you closing rate and raising your service standards.
- Client persona research — Who are the people that buy your services or influence those who make the final decision? What messages do they need to hear? Persona research will identify and profile them so your marketing and sales can be more persuasive.
What Questions Should We Be Asking?
What questions should you ask? This question is difficult to answer without first identifying the type of research you will be tackling and the goals you are trying to achieve. Also, the way you word the questions can have a real effect on the way people answer them. So I’m going to avoid prescribing specific questions here and talk about general strategy, instead.
Of course, if you engage a marketing research partner, they will work with you to develop an appropriate set of questions that get to the heart of your issues.
First, let’s look at some of the different ways you can pose questions.
- Multiple choice — Use this when you want to limit the answers to a specific set of possible answers. You can introduce flexibility, if you like, by allowing respondents to choose more than one answer, select “Other” as their answer, or supply a custom answer that wasn’t prompted.
- Yes-No — Use when you want a definitive binary answer to a question.
- Scaled — Use when you want to gauge responses on a continuum. 3-, 5-, 7- and 10-poing scales are common. A 10-point scale, for instance, is used to determine customer loyalty in the Net Promoter
- Matrix questions — These close-ended questions are used to evaluate multiple items using the same set of criteria. The result is a matrix table of results. Here’s a simple example:
- Open-ended questions — Use when you want respondents to provide their own answers. In qualitative research, an interviewer might ask a respondent to elaborate on an aspect of his or her answer.
Okay, now that you understand the types of questions you can ask, you need to clearly define your goals.
Are you trying to get a better understanding of your target audience and their needs? Do you want to know what buyers think of your flagship product or service? Do you want to measure the strength of your brand?
Each of those questions would require a very different questionnaire, so before you can begin designing your survey you need to spell out what it is you are trying to learn. This may sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to jump right into writing questions without setting any boundaries or goals. You’ll also need to decide whom you will ask to participate in your survey — again, your overall goals will directly affect your choices.
Next, you’ll determine whether qualitative, quantitative or a combination of the two is most appropriate for your study. If in doubt, choose qualitative. In my opinion, it offers the most value for your effort.
Only after you’ve completed the previous steps should you begin developing your questions. As you write questions, test them in your mind (or better yet, run them by others) to make sure they aren’t confusing in any way and that they don’t accidentally reflect any biases or assumptions you may have about the answers.
It bears repeating: you are more likely to get accurate results if you work with an experienced research partner. That said, it’s certainly possible to do it yourself.
How Many Participants Do We Need?
How many people do you need to include in your research? Well, that depends on your budget and whether you want bullet-proof data or good-enough results. If you want a high level of confidence that your research represents the entire population you are studying, you will need a statistically significant sample size.
In other words, if you want to be confident that your results have, say, less than a 5% likelihood of being wrong, you would need a truly random sample that is large enough to represent the full range of people that make up your audience. That could be a lot of participants.
If you have a large budget, you may be able to achieve such levels of certainty. But if your budget is smaller, you may need to lower your standards and settle for a “non-probability” technique called “convenience sampling.”
This common approach to research is used when it is very difficult (or expensive) to obtain a statistically significant and/or random sample. It is often used in university research settings — for instance, small studies in which students are recruited to take part in experiments. It is also common in business research when it is impractical to identify a large enough sample, much less a truly random one.
While the results of convenience sampling can’t be assumed to apply to the entire study population, they can provide useful, actionable information so long as you keep in mind the limitations of this approach. In convenience sampling, the sample should be as large as is practical. If that means six people, so be it. It’s better than nothing. You just can’t assume that these six subjects will accurately reflect the mindset of your broader audience. At Hinge, we like to include at least 10 people in one of these studies, and that’s a bare minimum. 20 is even better. The more, the merrier. If you are working with a small sample, I recommend that you conduct qualitative research so that you can extract the most information from your limited sources.
How Often Should We Be Doing Research?
As the chart that I shared earlier illustrates, businesses that do research at least quarterly tend to be high-growth, high-profit businesses. But even those that do it infrequently (say, once a year or so) significantly outperform companies that do no research at all.
So my advice is to dive in now and do something — even if you don’t think you’ll be able to conduct additional research again for a while. A little information can be a powerful thing, and it can be a great motivator to make changes in your business. Changes that will make you more competitive and aware of your strengths, weaknesses and blue-ocean opportunities.
How Do I Get Started?
To do research right, you should seek out an outside research partner. Even we at Hinge, use a third party to interview our clients and prospects. It’s the only way to minimize bias and convince people that your survey is confidential and impartial.
Look for a firm that knows your industry. And if they have worked extensively in it, ask if they have industry benchmarks to which you can compare your results.
Be prepared to provide a list of clients and prospects. A good firm will help you develop a letter or email you can use to reach out to these people. Depending on the situation, they may supplement these lists with their own prospecting.
Most importantly, have an open mind. Some of the findings may take you by surprise. Those are often the most valuables insights — whether they are positive or negative.
If you prefer to do the research yourself, that’s okay. Just be aware it comes with limitations and caveats, some of which I’ve addressed above. You may want to keep your survey to a handful of questions to avoid being overwhelmed by data. Do your best to select a broad sample of your audience, and try to include people who had different experiences (good and bad) with your firm.
Conducting marketing research can make your B2B company more self-aware, attuned to the marketplace and better prepared for change. If you haven’t done this kind of research before, don’t worry. A qualified research partner can handle the heavy lifting and deliver a more nuanced interpretation of the results — results that you should be able to act on right away.
Marketing research is a powerful and often underappreciated tool. Whether you are wondering how to build your company’s momentum again, what’s going on in the marketplace, why your top competitor is winning all the business or how you can keep your competitive edge, the answers are out there. You just need the will and the way to extract them.
Now go do it!
How Hinge Can Help
Don’t know where to start? Hinge can help your firm develop winning differentiators that will put you on the road to greater visibility. Our research, positioning and branding services — as well as our flagship Visible Firm® program — are designed to do just that.
- Read more about this topic in our free Professional Services Guide to Research.
- Learn how to make your firm better known in the marketplace and leverage your expertise to build a powerful reputation. Check out our free Visible Firm® Guide today!
- Understand your buyers. Win more business. Download our research study Inside the Buyer’s Brain and read the latest findings from the biggest study of professional services buyers to date.
- If more of a hands-on approach is for you, register for one of our courses through Hinge University and become the next Visible Firm®.