Market Research: Data without Science

I often wrestle with finding the value in corporate market research. A research engagement is usually a large investment, but it’s difficult to see how the data generated in a research study actually helps my clients make better decisions.

Does the 71% of Americans who have read about your company on a news site really give a manager information that would affect their ad buy, marketing mix, communications strategy, etc.?

A good analyst will figure out how to tie a data point back to the original goals of the research, but may stop short of providing a concrete recommendation. I have a tendency to do this because I know too much about the research. The scientist in me is too skeptical to suggest a change in strategy.

But I find that consultants more readily make this leap. Perhaps, I’m naive, or perhaps I’m simply too close to the data and too familiar with the data collection process to have that confidence; but part of me knows that the recommendation – even when coming from the consultant – is a bit of a stretch.

The existence of market research as we know it is supported by a philosophy towards data as a panacea of “business solutions.” (We use the word “solutions,” but would seldom charge our clients with having “problems.”) Managers use data to support, sell, and feel better about their decisions; and a market research study can defend a position or even protect a position from too much blame if something goes wrong (being able to point to research that supported a decision that turned out wrong is a good way to indemnify oneself).

The more I reject the science of market research methods, the more I’m faced with a cynical conclusion about its nature… that market research is more about signaling than it is about content. The market research industry produces data for managers to use as they see fit and to defend their choices and help sell their products. But I think it’s naive to pretend that the methods in market research really reveal truths about the world. In reality, most of the conclusions of market research studies are confirmations of previously held beliefs.

Am I being too cynical or is this a secret about the industry?

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