What is marketing research and why is it important? How do you begin researching your market and what methods should you choose? Is it just about mystery shopping or are there better ways to find out what your target customers want and care about?
In this episode
In this 30-minute episode of Essential Business Radio, first broadcast on Radio Reverb but still very relevant for today’s business owners, Dee Blick, owner of The Marketing Gym and award-winning author and Natalie Page, director of Page Marketing tell you how and why you should be looking more closely at the market you’re in. Listen now:
Books by Dee Blick:
- Powerful Marketing on a Shoestring Budget: For Small Businesses
- The Ultimate Small Business Marketing Book
- The Essential Marketing Masterclasses for Your Small Business
Dee also mentions the Info Trace business information, marketing database and research service which you can usually access via your local library. Some libraries charge a small fee for the service.
For more marketing ideas, sign up for our weekly Essential Business Nudges – quick tips to help you build your skills and build your business.
About today’s guests
Julie Stanford: Hello. I’m Julie Stanford, and welcome once again to Essential Business Radio. With me this time to talk about marketing your business are two experts: Dee Blick, award-winning author and owner of The Marketing Gym, and Natalie Page, the founder and owner of Page Marketing. I’ll start with you Dee. You’re known as someone with a passion for practical marketing. What does that mean for your clients?
Dee Blick: I think for me it’s about skipping all the textbook theory that you get in the real thick academic tomes and getting to grips with who do you want to communicate with, why, and what are the messages that you should take to your market so you can get the sales up and running as quick as possible.
Julie Stanford: So it’s the kind of ideas that a business can pick up quickly and actually apply in the real world.
Dee Blick: Definitely.
Julie Stanford: Natalie, over to you. Tell us what sort of businesses you like to work with.
Natalie Page: For me, it really doesn’t matter what they do as a business. That’s completely irrelevant. It could be a widget, it could be underwear, it could be anything. It’s actually about the mental attitude of the owner of the business. It’s what I get passionate about. If they’re passionate about their business, then I’ll get passionate about it as well. I just knew that the two of us would work together so, so well to really drive them forward.
Julie Stanford: So, for you, it’s the person rather than what they’re actually doing in the marketing.
Natalie Page: Yeah, absolutely, because people can say to me, “Have you worked in my industry before? Do you know about this?” It’s like, well actually, it doesn’t really matter what you do as a business, because marketing is so transferable, the skills are so transferable, and it’s actually about the mental attitude and drive and passion, I think, and doing things in a certain way.
Julie Stanford: So the skills, they apply across all businesses.
Natalie Page: Oh, they really do! From the big boys down to the small fish. I’ve worked in huge corporations, and it’s exactly the same, but just slightly different budget than your local shopkeeper. It’s just interpreting it, really.
Why is market research important?
Julie Stanford: That’s encouraging that it’s transferable. So now I’ve asked you today because we all know that marketing is crucial in a business, but then not everyone gets it right, and I think from experience and from people who I speak to, researching a market is a big challenge. So Dee, I’m going to ask you, first of all, if you don’t mind, why would a business need to research their market? What’s the point?
Dee Blick: I think on a practical level, one, going to save them huge amounts of time. Two, it’s going to save them huge amounts of money because invariably, most businesses think everybody’s a potential customer when in fact, it’s normally a very narrow group of people that are potential customers for them. If they can do a little bit of research, it enables them to target almost from the word ‘go’ and to get the messages right. Research should always be fundamentally practical. Finding out what makes people buy, getting a handle on what your competitors are doing so you can learn from them, as well as decide what you’re going to emulate and what you’ll take no notice of.
But you need to start on the right footing, and I’ve worked with businesses where they’ve dived in, they’ve assumed that what they’ve got is unique, only to find out several months down the line that it ain’t unique, and they’ve got to start again. It’s simply because they did not do some basic research either of their competitors or of the people that they were looking to buy or influence the decision to buy.
Julie Stanford: That reminds me, a number of years ago I knew a very enthusiastic young man who was about to launch a club for gay men in Brighton, and it was a fabulous idea, I have to say. It was a really great idea, but he didn’t research the market, and the day before he launched, he noticed that coming into the city was an exact copy of the club he was looking to launch. It just broke my heart because I thought if he’d just looked and investigated, he’d have known that. So, Natalie, what do you think? Do you think your clients understand the value of research?
Natalie Page: My clients definitely, yes, because I’d have drummed it into them. Other people, no. I get a lot of work from a manufacturing company. They have people come along to them, inventors very much in a Dragon’s Den kind of way. They’ve got a great idea, they’ve taken their savings or mortgaged their house, and they’ve gone to the effort of getting something tooled up and getting some samples made, and then they come to me ready for their marketing, and it’s just way too late because they’ve not done any research, someone’s already out there, they’re far too late. There’s not enough pre-planning involved, and they’re so convinced, like you say, that no one else could possibly have had the same idea, when actually in practicality, probably someone has. So, it’s definitely worth doing your research, making sure there’s not already a patent out there, et cetera. Talk to the professionals early rather than late is definitely what I’d say.
Julie Stanford: So, Dee, if I come to you and I say, “Look, I’ve got this idea or I’m up and running within a particular sector,” because it does apply when you’re up and running just equally, what do I do first? What’s the first thing as a professional …
Dee Blick: I think I’ll give you a few practical examples that always make it more credible and believable for any business owner. If we look at one aspect, which is why do people buy the product or service that I’m looking to market, that’s a pivotal question to ask is why, and how do they buy? I had to answer this question a couple of weeks ago, that I was taken on by the MD of a company that sells air suspension in the UK with a remit to market to motor home owners. I didn’t have a clue how motor home owners buy air suspension, why they buy it. What I did, which is what any of your listeners can do, I simply arranged a day when I hopped down to a caravan park in Eastbourne and I spent the entire day interviewing motor home owners about why they buy air suspension, what are the problems are without it, what their needs are.
I also most importantly wanted to find out what’s the decision making unit, and every one of your listeners must try and find that out. Who’s involved in that decision to buy? In this case, it was the man and the woman. The guy did the driving in every case with the motor home owners. It was the guy that was driving but the woman was influential in the decision to buy. That’s an important thing you can do is why do people buy it? What’s the deep underlying need? You don’t need to pay a market research agency to do that.
The other thing, briefly. I was doing the same with a brand new business and a brand new product. Online credit management. We discovered that picking up the phone and talking to these guys, they did not want to share any information about their credit management, so we learned that we had to try different way of marketing to them.
Overcoming the fear of market research
Julie Stanford: I think the thing that puts people off, Natalie, I don’t know if you found this with your clients, is people get frightened. They don’t know how to do it, and the idea of picking up the phone, of even going to their potential customers feels really scary. Do your clients feel that fear? Am I just saying that people feel that, because I felt it.
Natalie Page: I think certainly picking up the phone, to a lot of people, always fills them with dread, and also, they don’t necessarily want to hear what might come back. They don’t want someone to say, “Oh, that’s a terrible idea. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” There is that theory involved, but also a lot of the time, I find with business owners is ego is involved, and that’s the reason that they don’t really want to ask anyone else it’s because they’ve got their idea, they think it’s really good, and they are almost, “Well, why do I need to ask anyone else? Of course it’s brilliant!” It might be brilliant for you, and if there was a million yous out there, that might be fine. But, everyone is different, and you might need to just take into consideration what other people want. That can be quite tricky sometimes.
Julie Stanford: It’s interesting because I think that’s when you ‘grow up’ as a business person, when you learn it’s not about what you want, it’s about what your customer wants, and they’re willing to pay. In other words, how can you delight them because if you don’t delight them, then they’re not going to part with their money, and you do feel as if you’ve matured when you finally realise that.
Natalie Page: I think people are so involved in their business, as well, that they need to actually step back and realise it is a business. It’s so personal to them that they almost ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’, and they must step back and treat it as what it is, and go and do some market research.
Julie Stanford: Dee, have you found that problem with your clients, that they resist that?
Dee Blick: No, I haven’t. Just thinking, as well, about what we’re talking about the phone, not all research has to be done on the phone. For example, when I wanted to do some research about franchising, because I got involved in franchising several years ago, I simply hopped on a train to the NEC [Centre in Birmingham] and spent two days trolling around all the franchise’s stalls to find out how they marketed to potential franchisees. So not everything is about the phone. You can do surveys, you can do face-to-face.
I’ve done little focus groups where I’ve got three or four potential clients into a room, fed them some food, and just said, “Look, we’d love to be able to market our products and services to you, but tell us the right way to go about this.” And you know what? I do find is people are invariably willing to help the minute you say, “Can you help,” rather than saying, “Can we sell to you.” I don’t think it’s as onerous. I think we make these things big in our minds. So if you don’t like the phone, have a little focus group. Look at the trade shows.
What are the best methods to use for your market research?
Julie Stanford: The thing is though, taking devil’s advocate position here, you’re both marketing professionals. You’re trained, you’ve got that confidence of the questions that you should be asking, but the poor, hapless business owner, very often, they don’t have your knowledge or your expertise, and so, what tips could you give them? Thinking about the tools, first of all, so you’ve mentioned surveys, phone calls. Natalie, what else would you use with your clients?
Natalie Page: There’s two different ways you can do market research. You can go and ask people or you can actually use existing data as well. Someone else might’ve done the legwork for you, which can be nice, but it depends very much on what industry you’re in, if you’re coming up with something new or if it’s existing. You can find information on the internet, et cetera that’s already out there, so it’s a mixture really.
Julie Stanford: Is that secondary research? Is that what it’s called?
Natalie Page: Primary and secondary.
Julie Stanford: Primary and secondary research. I knew I’ve heard those words bandied about …
Natalie Page: I never worry about the terms, but yes. Some people they can have it good to go, or maybe if you’ve inherited a business, it might come with some data for you. Don’t forget the power of looking through your own data, as well. A lot of people forget that they’ve got so much knowledge at their fingertips in their own database which is crazy to research your own data before you even collect more.
Julie Stanford: Would you say that ages quickly though? Is there a possibility that you’re relying on someone else? Isn’t that, Dee? What would you think?
Dee Blick: If I could just come back to a point that Natalie was making. You had said about business owners about being a little bit worried, and I could really understand that if I don’t have the confidence of a marketer. There’s two things they can do that cost nothing. They can use the Infotrace service that’s available through the libraries, which gives them normally up to an hour of free market research. You go to the nice guy or the gal in the library and say, “This is the market. I’m looking to do some researching. How can you help me?” And they will actually physically do some research for you, so if you want to find out how big’s my market, what type of demand is there.
The second thing is, and what I found exactly referring back to the point you made of confidence, there are a heck of a lot of students that are more than happy on work placements to do little market research projects, so I arrange it in Hurstpierpoint for a small business, where the owner himself felt very reluctant to pick up the phone, but two students from Brighton University were fantastic. Did a little bit of work placement. There’s always avenues to explore. I think the critical thing is to be willing to do it and get out your comfort zone a little bit, which we all have to do.
Julie Stanford: It’s true. Don’t forget, if have a question about anything in the show, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will find the great expert who will answer it for you. The other thing that people say to me is that they struggle knowing what questions to ask. How on earth do you know what to ask your potential clients or customers to get the right answer for it to be useful for the business?
Natalie Page: Now this, it can be a minefield. I’ve had situations where market research has worked well and where it hasn’t worked well. For example, one client, she had run a focus group before, and for one reason or another, they came to some decisions on her branding and wording to be used and et cetera. But actually, what they ended up with was very, very bland. It wasn’t what she was hoping it would bring her. It was nice and it was good and it was balanced, but you’ve got to remember, if you’re going to get together a group of people, are they the right people? Who are you choosing? If you’re just choosing friends and family, are they going to give you a balanced point of view? Or should you try and get in more of a variety? You might need to obviously do a bit of pre-planning. If you know that, for example, your definitely targeting a certain sex or age, then make sure you get the right people in front of you.
But with regards to questions, one client of mine, we’ve worked for years. We research everything, but it’s proved so valuable. We’ve learned as we’ve gone along. We’ve got feedback on some questions and actually thought, “That hasn’t quite told us what we were looking for.” So the next time, we change it slightly. Don’t be afraid to change a questionnaire or change what you’re doing if it’s not getting you quite the result you need. You’ve got to start somewhere. Just give it a go. Check it over, maybe, with a few people, get their idea of how the questions are working, and then maybe go out there with a bit more force.
Julie Stanford: So check and review and adjust as you go along.
Natalie Page: Oh god, isn’t that just marketing?
Julie Stanford: So Dee Blick, what would you say about that before we round up on these parts of what tools to use because …
Dee Blick: I think we’ve got to keep it really simple. There are key things. You’ve got to find that about your audience. Why do they buy? How do they buy? What do they buy? When do they buy? You’ve also got to find out what is really important to them. I did this a couple of years ago with a business. His assumption was that price was everything. What we found though was that out of ten things that we asked his potential clients, “What really matters to you with this particular product?”, that price actually came quite a way down ‘the pecking order’. So keep it really simple. You just want to know what’s really important to you when you’re buying this product. I think as well, taking the marketer out of it.
There’s two areas of research I’d get involved in. One is called qualitative, and that’s when you just listening to what people are saying, so in that motor home park, all I did all day was take notes. The other is quantitative. That’s where you get your stats, and how many people you’re interviewing, and you’re getting specific. Seventy-five percent they’d buy it for this reason, but as a small business owner, I think we’ve got to keep this dead simple. A lot of it is based on gut feeling, that you speak to a good handful of potential clients – or actual clients, if it’s existing clients you want to talk to – and just try and get answers to those key questions that will help you either improve what you’re offering or to shape your initial offering.
Julie Stanford: Excellent. You’re listening to Essential Business Radio, ready to fit your business day. Choose a quick expert tip or a more in-depth discussion, which is what we’re in the middle of right now. Natalie Page, Page Marketing, just tell me now then, we’ve talked about researching clients, researching potential customers, there’s one other group of people we need to research as well with these same tools, I’m assuming. That’s competitors. We have to find out who else is doing what we think we’re going to make a fortune doing, in the market. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Researching your competitors
Natalie Page: Yeah. Competitors is a tricky one because what I don’t like is when people look too hard at their competitors in that it actually makes them follow the pack. They look at what someone else is doing, and then they sort of go into line with them rather than thinking about excelling and going past and leading the way. I try not to encourage too much analysis of competitors but obviously, like you say, you want to know who else is out there and what else they’re doing and what their price points are, et cetera.
Another type of research, which is really important, is sometimes you’ve got to remember that your customers aren’t necessarily the end user. We do a lot of research for one of clients with their retailers. We make sure we’re always asking the retailers for feedback from the customers because they’re more in front of the customers than we are. Don’t necessarily just think of the end person. Think about those in the intermediates. They can give you some really valuable advice and information as well.
Julie Stanford: I remember when I first published my Essential Business Guide that I had done this book which the readers loved, and then I discovered that all that one very large book retailer was interested in was how many would fit on palett. That’s all they cared about. They just needed to make sure it fitted on a palett, and you would think I would’ve known that, but I didn’t, so I had to go to the bottom of the marketing class that day. So, Dee, you look like you’re itching to say something.
Dee Blick: I was agreeing with what Natalie was saying. I think what I would also add, is that it’s good to have a look at what competitors are doing because it’s really just to stop your ego from running riot. A lot of small business owners can think, “What I’ve got is unique,” and invariably, you talk to them and find out it’s not unique. They don’t have to be unique to be successful. Presenting yourself as ‘our unique selling point is this’ when in fact there are a gallon of other competitors that are doing very similar or the same is disingenuous. They shouldn’t do it, but I think it’s just about really trying to get your feel for where you stand in your marketplace relative to your competitors, and how do you do it?
Again, going back to the library, the free market research service, getting on the internet, Googling, looking at websites. Trying to get a feel for where am I the same, where am I better? Does it matter? It’s just to get a real feel. Can I be inspired by what this person is doing? Can I have a healthy respect? Perhaps we could work. They look like they’re pretty big. I get a lot of marketers that contact me wanting smaller projects that I wouldn’t handle, that I would happily hand to them, so I’m not a competitor. I’m actually a source of business to them, ironically.
Julie Stanford: Competitors are potential partners, aren’t they?
Dee Blick: Most definitely.
Julie Stanford: When I ran the graphic design agency, I made a point of getting to know (when I ‘grew up’ a bit), I made a point of getting to know other designers so that I could hand off work that I couldn’t cover. I made a bit of a mark-up which the designers knew about, and everyone was happy, and my client was delighted because it meant that I could always deliver.
Now, people talk a lot about mystery shopping, and I think it makes a lot of business owners’ blood run cold when you talk about that. The thought of ringing up and trying to find out from a competitor what they’re doing, do you mind giving me a few tips about mystery shopping? What do you think about that, Dee?
Dee Blick: I think it’s important. I think it’s really important, and for you to do it, yourself as the business owner can really stretch the bounds of credibility because you start to ask questions that reveal a degree of insight that you really wouldn’t be possessing if you were an ordinary customer. But, I think what I do normally when I do any mystery shopping, you’ve got a list of reasonable questions that you can ask a competitor, and it might be a friend or a member of the family, but you’ve got to prime them up and really think about what realistically can I ask this person that still keeps me being a professional.
I don’t want to find out everything that my competitor does. I would feel really unethical if I started to go to too much under the radar. Just find out what the simple things that I need to find out. Is it their delivery times? Is it their product range? Is it their response to queries? Just what are the basic, maybe four or five simple things that you can find out. But again, my view is very much like Natalie’s. You’ve really got to ‘plough your own furrow’ and have that confidence in your own capability, without spending all your time looking over your shoulder at what competitors are doing.
Julie Stanford: Although, yes, I can see that that’s true, but I do think a small amount of knowledge about what’s going on in your sector … When a client comes to you, it shows that you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the sector as well. You’re not just doing it in a vacuum. Doesn’t it, Natalie?
Natalie Page: It does. I think certainly things are changing though. It used to be very much everyone kept to themselves and secret-secret. But now with things like Twitter, nothing’s really held back. Everyone knows everything, and everything’s shared a lot more easily. It depends what, obviously, industry you’re in because certainly some industries, such as estate agency, for example. I used to work at a large company that dealt with mainly estate agents, and some of the stories we used to hear about what estate agents would do to each other was quite horrific. They used to glue each other’s mailboxes shut and crazy things.
So for some industries, I know it’s a bit more sort of bitter, but mainly, I think exactly as Dee said, you don’t want to be ‘cloak and dagger’ about it. You want to find out some basic information. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have some morals about it. I think, if you’re going to be happy with what you’re doing. I know a lot of my clients. I don’t want to know too much. There are ways to find out more, but actually, I’d rather not. I’d rather just get on with what we were doing an focus on that, and perhaps use mystery shopping to actually improve our business and what our sales staff, et cetera, are up to. I’d rather see it used that way, in many instances, I think.
Julie Stanford: There’s definitely a fundamental shift in the way we’re doing business nowadays, isn’t there? Because of that transparency, because when you’re tweeting you’re tweeting to the world, in effect, it’s very difficult to keep secrets. You’re listening to Essential Business Radio, and I’m here with Dee Blick and Natalie Page, both expert marketers, and I’m trying to get as much information out of them about marketing research. Now, one of the other things, I think, that research is used for – but correct me if I’m wrong – is within the business. It’s not just looking outside at your competitors or your potential customers or your existing customers. It’s within the business. So Dee, will you talk us through how you would use research within the business?
Research within your own business
Dee Blick: You’re right. It’s like doing a market research survey of your customers. You have to look and think, “What are the areas of the business in which we can make improvement? And what are the areas of the business in which we are excelling?” I’ve just done this recently with a client, where I’ve been working with for several years, and we found out that in certain areas, in terms of delivery, he was under performing specifically at the new account opening stage. The research revealed that customers were not that happy, so immediately we had to look at reviewing that, making the communication process much better, having very nice letters sent out that explained clearly their payment terms.
Other businesses that I’ve worked with may identify that the staff are lacking on the telephone, in terms of the way in which they are greeting customers, and suddenly you’ve got a training need there that you have to pick up on. It’s really more about identifying what did the research reveal by way of service, by way of products. Do we have to improve our products or our services as a consequence? Or is it simply a matter that the products and the services are more than good enough, we just have to improve the communications? Because often a business will be doing just as well as a competitor in terms of delivery, and the research will reveal that, but their communications are selling themselves short. It’s really about sitting around the table and looking about, “What did all this reveal? Where do we stay the same? Where do we make improvements? And in which area of the business do we have to make those improvements?”
Julie Stanford: And that takes us back, Natalie, to what you were saying about the business owners you working with, having to ‘park their ego’ because they’ve got to be prepared to hear what’s being said and then implement those changes.
Natalie Page: Absolutely. That’s something the hardest thing to hear, is news such as that. Also, sometimes, you might get feedback that you can’t actually do anything about or it maybe too much of a change to your business to actually implement it. So, sometimes you can get information that you cannot act on or it could inspire you to actually go a whole new different way in your business if something really isn’t working, then you really might need to make drastic changes.
Julie Stanford: And you’re doing it from a point of a clearer understanding of the wisdom of that change.
Natalie Page: You’re informed. You’re making an informed decision. You’re not just guesswork, and that’s what scares me a lot with business owners when they spend a lot of money when it’s based on guesswork, and that’s a scary thing to do.
Julie Stanford: Or as you said earlier, asking their mum and their friends who will always tell you what you want to hear.
Natalie Page: Yeah, they will, and you might want to go to actually somebody who you know will be a complete pain, but may give you that brilliant, independent view on things.
Julie Stanford: You’re listening to Essential Business Radio. If you’re finding this show useful, why not browse through the other business topics on the Essential Business Radio player? So what I like to do also is to just get that last bit of information out of you which is some tips and ideas just for a few minutes now of ways of using research, applying it to your business, to transform your business. Dee, do you mind if we start if we you?
Market research tips
Dee Blick: Yeah, I was just thinking about a piece of research that I’ve just recently done with a client. This is a fantastic small business case because he was being assaulted in the media by a multi-multi-million pound brand. He’s not a multi-million pound brand, but what he’d do is with a bit of market research by an independent market research company to find out the levels of loyalty of his existing customers in the face of this massive onslaught of this big global brand. Hey ho. The research revealed that satisfaction levels were an all-time high, not just for his brand, but for the particular product that the competitor had been trying to steal market share from. It’s a small family business.
So what did we do with that? We took that research to the media. We got the most fantastic coverage free. We have the statistics emblazoned over, all of his advertising. We got it out in press releases, low-cost sales letters, you name it. It got twenty-five percent uplift in sales that following month. Now that was as a direct consequence of the market research that we’d have to do just to find out are customers still loyal, are they still preferring his flagship product over what this competitor was trying to whip out from underneath him. That to me was one of the most inspirational outcomes of any campaign.
It’s a little family business, and we’re really holding our own. It’s a global brand that we took on, and we won, and we’re still winning hands down. That’s a triumphant story of how you can do a small piece of research, can stretch through every aspect to the business. We got the sales guys on board. They all had newsletters telling them how great the research was and the statistics. They could go forth to all the stockists of his product. That was a wonderful example of research at its finest. Research can deliver to the bottom line if you go and actually run with it.
Julie Stanford: And information is power, and in that respect, it gave him the power and the confidence to be able to go and take them on, didn’t it?
Dee Blick: Yes.
Julie Stanford: Natalie, what are your tips about research?
Natalie Page: I think certainly, keep it simple. If you’re stretched on budget, then just do what you can, with what you’ve got. Try not to assume what people are going to say. Go out there and get the information. A client of mine did a typical thing. I suggested a possible product that we should maybe go and find for a particular market. He was like, “Oh no. That market doesn’t want anything new. I know that market.” I said, “Okay. Just let me call twenty shops. Let me just speak to them.” I rang them and each and every shop asked for the same product. So what did we do? We did a little bit more research, put something together, got it out there, and it’s now one of their best sellers, and it’s as simple as that. It’s trying to park the ego, go out there, and actually do some research.
Julie Stanford: Excellent. So if those tips from Dee Blick of the Marketing Gym and Natalie Page of Page Marketing didn’t inspire you to do your research, I don’t know what will. Thank you both very much for coming on Essential Business Radio.