How to choose the right audience research method for your marketing project
Have you ever heard the story of the old man using a chainsaw to carve the Thanksgiving turkey?
Well, I’ll save you the details and get right to the punchline: while a chainsaw will have no problem getting through the dark meat of a turkey, it’ll make a heck of a mess compared to a carving knife.
So while that example may seem silly, there’s a lot to be learned from it when it comes to your next marketing project.
Because you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume you already have some knowledge or interest in Audience Research. You’re the kind of person who understands that chasing the hottest new marketing trend or tool isn’t the smartest way to drive growth.
You understand that the real competitive advantage comes from knowing your audience better than anyone else.
But, I’m willing to bet that not all of your colleagues or clients see things the way you do.
They’re skeptical. They’d rather avoid spending time, money, or resources on audience research. Perhaps they’ve never done it correctly and think it a waste of time. Or maybe they claim that the outdated audience persona they handed you has everything you need to know about the audience.
Whatever their reason, you know that your marketing project would be a heck of a lot more effective if you had some audience research to help steer your decisions.
So what does Audience Research have to do with carving a turkey with a chainsaw?
Glad you asked.
The moral of the story is that using the right tool for the job will save you a lot of headaches and mess down the line.
Choosing the right method, resources, and outcomes before starting your audience research project will make it a lot easier (and cheaper) to get your project over the line without upsetting your boss.
There are four steps for setting yourself up for success with your next research project:
- Define your research question(s)
- Define the project scope
- Choose the right audience research method
- Identify needed resources to ease execution
Let’s get into just how to do this.
Step 1 - Define your research question
Think back to your high school days when you were asked to design an experiment in science class. Remember needing to define your hypothesis before actually starting to experiment?
Before we start deciding what method we want to use, we first need to define what question we want an answer to. This is called your Research Question: the primary question your project sets out to answer.
It’s important to start with a clearly defined research question so that you and your team are aligned on why you’re doing it in the first place.
I also want to be clear: a Research Question is not the same as the actual questions you’ll be asking your audience (don’t worry, we’ll get to that later).
A Research Question is like your hypothesis. The point of the project is to get an answer to your question—or figure out what you DON’T KNOW so you know what questions to ask next.
Say you’re Head of Marketing at a local ice cream store. Your sales have been down recently and you need to figure out how marketing can help to bring that revenue number back up. Your Research Questions should take into consideration the OUTSIDE and INSIDE inputs that influence the metric you’re questioning.
A good research question defines two things:
- The Scope of your research - Making the scope too big will often result in unfinished projects and inaccurate data.
- Is tied to your business goals - Be sure that you’re clear on what business goal the research project is meant for (ex. Revenue, sales, costs, etc.)
Examples of Good Research Questions
- What is the relationship between store revenues and daily outdoor temperature?
- What is the relationship between store revenues and daily Google & Facebook ad spend?
- What is the relationship between average order value and daily deal promotions?
Here are some examples of Poor Research Questions
- What is the relationship between store revenues and global ice cream sales? (Why? Global trends are out of context to your local store. Doesn’t tie directly to your core business goal - to improve revenue).
- What is the relationship between store revenues and average house value in a nearby neighbourhood? (Why? Because house values are part of a much larger economic trend that is out of your direct control. Too much project scope creep).
- Different tools/techniques work better depending on the Research Questions.
- Once the research is done, you should have the insight needed to be able to answer the Research Questions.
- The more specific the questions, the easier it is to choose the right audience research approach.
Step 2 - Define the project scope
Now that we’ve defined the Research Questions, we now have a rough idea of the scope of the project. In this step, we’re going to further define the project by setting time, skill, and budget constraints.
You might be thinking: “But aren’t constraints kinda… constraining?”
You betcha! But if we don’t define these constraints before the project starts, we’ll never have a solid footing for making the necessary decisions down the line. Defining constraints will also make getting buy-in from your company’s leadership that much easier because they will have a clear understanding of what the inputs and outputs are of the project.
Here are some questions that you need to ask yourself regarding time constraints:
- How many hours am I able to contribute to this project?
- Who else is needed for this project to be a success? What is their availability and how many hours are required?
- What is the optimistic end-date for this project? What is the pessimistic end-date?
Here are some questions that you need to ask yourself regarding skill constraints:
- What specialized skills are required for this project to be successful?
- Do those skills exist in-house or will they need to be hired?
- How easily accessible are the specialists required?
Finally, here are some questions that you need to ask yourself regarding budget constraints:
- How much can you spend on this research project?
- Who needs to give sign-off on the financial aspect of this project?
- What do you need to measure from day one to demonstrate financial success of the project?
Repeat after me: Constraints are friends, no foes.
Clear time, skill, and budget constraints allow you to know exactly what resources you have remaining and allocate them successfully. Without constraints, it’s very easy for research projects to grow and take on a life of their own with no end in sight.
And that’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re looking to get this project done as quickly and smoothly as possible so we can get back to the real work - serving our audience better.
Step 3 - Choose the right audience research method
Alighty, now comes the fun stuff!
We’ve got our Research Question defined. Our time, skill, and budget constraints are set. Now it’s time we’ve all been waiting for: choosing the right audience research method!
After conducting hundreds of audience research projects over the last few years, I’ve learned that not all methods are created equally.
And depending on what kind of audience you’re going after and what you’re hoping to learn, you might need to experiment with a few methods before finding the one that works best for you and your situation.
I’ve cherry-picked a few of my favourite research methods below to get you started with brainstorming. I’ve also ranked each method by the level of effort required (💪 = easiest, 💪💪💪💪💪 = hardest).
These are just a few examples. Check out my blog post “23 Ways to do Audience Research (and Better Understand Your Customers)” for even more details.
Pros: You’ll hear about your customer’s pains, desires, goals and more first-hand (and get to swipe your audience’s own words to write high-converting copy
Cons: Can be intimidating without the proper tools and training
Pros: You’ll hear how your sales team talks about the product and what your customers respond to most favourably
Cons: Your team aren’t likely asking the questions that you need answers to when they’re talking customers, so insights may be surface-level (vs. in-depth)
Pros: Review sites offer a good insight into satisfaction with your competitor’s products
Cons: Can be quite time-consuming
Pros: Can help you identify effective marketing channels and audience influencers fast
Cons: It’s not always easy to know how to action audience insights (depends on the tool)
Pros: Can vastly improve website conversion rates
Cons: Tells you what people are doing on your site but not why they’re doing it
Step 4 - Identify resources needed
Almost done! The last step is to finally identify exactly what resources you’ll need to execute the beautiful audience research plan we just put together.
Just like in Step 2, we’re going to need to take a look at what we already have access to, or if we need to bring on some more resources. Luckily, we’ve already got an approved budget so we can make decisions faster and without needing to go back to ask for permission.
It’s easiest to break down resources by type:
There are lots of tools out there that can help with audience research. Some tools make gathering data easier—like survey software or heat mapping tools—and others make it easier to extract useful insights from large data sets.
For instance, a tool like Audiense will help you to better understand the differences and similarities between diverse target segments. While tools like Dovetail can help you to organize your qualitative data (eg. interview transcripts, survey responses, etc).
When in doubt, trial a new tool by doing some audience research before committing to buying it outright.
With marketing tools and research methods evolving so quickly, it can sometimes feel like you’re a little behind the times. But fear not - it’s easy to pick up a new skill (it just might take some time).
Checking out the blogs and resource sections of the tools you choose to use will help you to become a master at audience research in no time.
There are also plenty of YouTube channels dedicated to teaching the specifics of using a tool or methodology.
Lastly, look for templates (like our Clarity Call Cheatsheets), online courses, and other resources specific to the audience research method you’ve chosen. A simple search should bring up plenty of options.
Don’t have the time to learn how to DIY? Check the next step.
Now that we know what audience research method we’re going to use, what tools are required, and what specialized skills we need (in detail), we can decide if we need to bring in outside help.
If you’re unable to oversee the project yourself, definitely delegate it to someone you trust to make the necessary decisions and will get the best possible audience research.
As for the work, outsource it to someone internally who has the capacity, or hire a freelancer who specializes in that type of work specifically.
- Audience research will have the greatest value for you and your team if it’s integrated with your overall marketing and audience growth strategy.
- Focus on the Research Questions when executing the project. The biggest reason an audience research project might fail is because the scope was changed mid-way through and the questions ended up never getting answered properly.
- Start simple, get some quick wins, then move on to bigger projects. Building a culture of research at your business will take time. Don’t try to boil the ocean on your first project.
- Be willing to be wrong. Your research insights might not align with your current strategy - and that’s alright! If your team needs more proof before adjusting course, try collecting more data points, or approaching the same Research Question from a different angle.