Sean Copeland is the director of research at Student Life Network & Parent Life Network. He brings a wealth of knowledge related to market research having formerly worked for Ipsos Reid, Environics and Loyalty One. A collaborative leader, retail and technology enthusiast, and certified marketing research professional, Copeland is known for identifying opportunities through data and delivering measurable results.
We’re excited to have had the opportunity to sit down with Copeland to get his perspective on the market research field — and surveys in particular. His insights are refreshing and opinions direct. We hope they help you discover, plan and execute the best market research strategy for your business.
Q: How important is market research to a company’s overall success?
Market research can be a revenue generating and essential service within a company, or it can be an underutilized waste of money. The tipping point from insignificance to greatness happens when the market research experts are deeply integrated into the organization. These organizations evolve the market research team into the customer brain of the organization, or thought-center.
With the growing need for companies to become customer-centric in order to succeed, market researchers and other customer intelligent teams have become a necessity. Market researchers know the customer better than anyone else in the organization, and often know the industry best too, because they focus 99% of their time trying to understand the customer. Their knowledge and associated wisdom and insights make the market research group perfect to join the center of decision-making.
Q: What are some common mistakes businesses make when conducting market research surveys?
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re going to survey anyone, make sure you’re encouraging them to love your company even more than before taking the survey. Don’t encourage people to dislike your company just because you got lazy with your surveys.
I’m constantly surprised by the fact that top-notch companies have some of the worst surveys in the market. These surveys in no way reflect everything else the company outputs to customers, and so the survey experience is jarring and foreign. More often than not, I see this happening with customer satisfaction surveys that seem to be afterthoughts.
It’s important to note, however, that market research isn’t just about surveys, although they are a fantastic tool to collect information about people. Market researchers use traditional tools like surveys, focus groups and industry reports, but they also use tools that harness newer and bigger sources of data from transactions, web browsing, social media and mobile.
One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is assuming that market researchers are primarily to be used as survey experts, rather than treating them as customer and industry experts. By doing this, companies are missing out on opportunities to transform for the better.
Q: What are the main differences between how small businesses and large corporations use market research surveys?
Typically small businesses conduct market research surveys on their own, with free or inexpensive survey tools, and almost always with their existing customer database by email or social media, as this can be very cost-effective. These small businesses rarely have in-house market research experts that know when, how and with whom to most effectively conduct surveys.
Large corporations on the other hand, typically have an in-house team of market researchers with extensive experience, who will partially outsource projects and partially complete projects internally. Large companies have the benefit of bigger financial resources, so they have access to more experts, tools and audiences to conduct market research.
Survey research has hit a point where it is truly a commodity, being conducted by practically everyone in a company who can open a web browser. This is why it is more important than ever that market research experts are consulted on research projects, not only to ensure that the outcomes of the research will meet objectives, but also that legal and ethical considerations aren’t passed over.
Q: How do you suggest businesses encourage participation in their market research surveys?
There are many ways to increase participation in research, but the primary focus should be making the research engaging for your audience. And there are simple changes that you can make to a survey for it to be more engaging.
For example, if you have a 10-minute survey with banks of questions about customer experience, try to break this up into two or three shorter surveys that are more focused on specific aspects of the customer experience. If you keep getting the same responses from customers month after month on a survey about customer experience, then it’s probably time to think about removing some questions because the survey results clearly aren’t influencing the way you make decisions in your company.
In simple terms, focus your surveys on what really matters, and your survey respondents will be more engaged and they’ll thank you with higher participation rates.
Q: What are the basic types of market research and how are they used?
There are two broad types of research, which we all learned about in high school; there is primary research and there is secondary research. Primary research is when the researcher is asking direct questions or observing of a population, whereas secondary research is when the researcher is pulling from existing information such as industry reports and sales figures.
Primary research is typically broken into two different camps within the market research industry, which are quantitative research and qualitative research. Quantitative research involves collecting information that is numerical in form, whereas qualitative research does not. For example, if you were conducting an online survey with a sample of your customer base, then you would be conducting quantitative research because you are collecting numerical data. This allows you to make generalizations of results from a sample to an entire population, assuming your sampling is sound. In comparison, if you were conducting an in-person focus group with people from your customer base, then you would be conducting qualitative research because you are collecting unstructured data.
The discipline of market research continues to evolve, so I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years market researchers are doing things very differently with very different tools.
Q: Can you think of a time when a company’s bottom line was negatively impacted by inadequate or non-existent market research?
I’ve spent most of my market research career on the supplier side of market research, serving market research to companies who need these expertise and insights. With this experience, I’ve been lucky enough to see the strategic inner workings of many dozens of different companies, which are never as tidy as the customer-facing outputs.
Time and time again I have seen companies, including executives all the way down to frontline staff, make poor decisions because they simply weren’t armed with the right information. I’m sure we’ve all had moments as customers ourselves where we think, “Why is ____ company doing ____ this way? It’s a terrible idea!”, and then we watch as the error turns into a bigger problem for the company.
Whether it’s a badly received product launch, a slew of negative service reviews, a failed customer retention campaign or a major drop in stock price — these things can typically be remedied or avoided altogether if the right information is available and acted on. This is where market research plays an integral role in disseminating customer and industry insights, so that the right strategies, plans and tactics are executed.
Q: Can you explain the trend toward Big Data? What does it mean and why is it important?
Big Data has been coming up at every industry conference I’ve attended, for at least the past 5 years. At this point it’s understood that “Big Data” refers to extremely large data sets. How large exactly? Well, although there is no set number associated with this trendy phrase, you can make a ballpark assumption that Big Data is any data set that 10 years ago the average company couldn’t store due to associated costs and didn’t have the computational power to quickly analyze.
The trend toward using Big Data has to do with the fact that we have so many ways to collect data now. Data storage is so inexpensive in a cloud computing environment and we can use the average personal computer to analyze it. The other driving force behind this trend, and really why it is so important, is that many companies are having to become more customer-centric in order to differentiate and succeed. To become customer-centric often requires complex analysis of customer data.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about market research which you are passionate about?
I love speaking with aspiring market researchers about their future careers, so if there is anyone out there who is looking for someone to talk to about a career in market research, please send me an email!