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Designing solid U&A Studies

With so much data available already around so many topics, the temptation is to mine whatever data there already is to quickly generate insights that answer management questions. This is not unreasonable and part of any researcher’s job. However, there are many risks attached to (solely) taking this approach. At SPARC we find relying on secondary research alone is typically not enough for a Usage and Attitudes (U&A) Study.

U&A Studies – what are they?

U&A studies are consumer surveys that cover a wide range of topics. Sometimes they are done qualitatively first, e.g., in focus groups or in-depth interviews, and then followed up in a second phase with quantitative research. Topics include:

  • Brand awareness
  • Advertising awareness
  • Brand usage
  • Usage habits
  • Brand image
  • Brand selection criteria
  • Psychographics
  • Media usage
  • Demographics

They are normally long – often too long – which erodes data quality because respondents grow tired or become bored and lose interest. Questionnaire design is not within the scope of this article, so perhaps this will be a good topic for another one. The design of the research, including what sorts of consumers will be interviewed, sample size, whether it will be done online and many other decisions must be made at this juncture. Multi-country research is also a separate topic but suffice it to say that many countries are multi-cultural and multi-lingual and that this also must be taken into consideration when designing research.

Definition of Primary Research

Primary research involves the collection of original primary data. It is often undertaken after researchers have gained some insight into an issue by reviewing secondary research or by analyzing previously collected primary data. It can be accomplished through various methods, including questionnaires and telephone interviews in market research, or experiments and direct observations in thephysical sciences, among others.

Issues linked to using secondary research only

There are some issues inherently linked to using secondary research for a U&A Study. One is that the data we have will, by default, be incomplete. Another is that it will contain serious errors we will not be able to detect until it is too late. A third issue is that the chances of fluke results are heightened when we mine data. Different data may also suggest different decisions and add to our confusion instead of reducing it. More fundamentally, mining existing data can force us to adapt our decisions to the data, rather than to first determine what decisions we need to make, and then what data and analytics might be used to enhance these decisions. Our thinking is turned upside down, in other words.

Going with secondary research only, we’ll probably have answered some questions but things we hadn’t thought of will have come to light as well. We may conclude primary research will be needed. In these situations, Usage and Attitude (U&A) studies are common, though there are other options.

Designing Primary Research

Few decision-makers, even at the highest levels, have had much training in research methods, statistics or computer science. If they are among the exceptions and have worked as a data scientist or statistician, most likely it wasn’t for very long and their skills are rusty and outdated. So, let’s return to the beginning. Why do we do research of any sort? In a business context, Research can help us make decisions that turn out to be good ones. It can help the bottom line.

Many business decisions are one-off and unrelated to other decisions, and secondary data (or primary analysis of secondary data) can be likened to using a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed. Customized research – research tailored to a specific decision or set of related decisions – is often required. Customized research is primary research.

So how do we design primary research? First, we must clarify our objectives and key considerations:

  • What decisions must be made?
  • Who will make them?
  • When will they make them?
  • When will the decisions be implemented?
  • How will they be implemented?
  • By whom will they be implemented?

At this point, we can begin to think about the data we’ll require and, in general terms, about the methodology and analytics. Timing and budget can then be considered. The foregoing will be old hat to seasoned marketing researchers…who may point out that, in the real world of business, things are not quite so tidy. I know. Often discussions go around and around, some research is conducted and then it’s back to the drawing board.

One size doesn’t fit all

Brand mapping, segmentation and key driver analysis are sometimes “designed into” U&A studies. This is important because advanced analytics usually works best when the data have been collected with specific kinds of analytics in mind.

Some marketing researchers have worked mostly with or, in some cases, entirely with standardized proprietary methodologies. It may come as a surprise to them that even research such as U&A Studies that are frequently conducted can only be partly standardized and templated. Some marketing research is extremely complex and customized research in general is difficult to automate.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that U&A studies are just one kind of marketing research, and that it is increasingly common in customized research to integrate data from various sources, including secondary or in-house data. Garbage In Garbage Out still applies, but customized research does allow us to reduce this threat.

Secondary research can sometimes get the job done, but in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the need for primary research, if anything, is growing. Whether you call yourself a data scientist or a marketing researcher, if you know how to design primary studies you’ll have a leg up on the competition.

At SPARC, we strive to find ways to use existing data and add fit for purpose primary research on top to come to powerful, actionable insights. Do you want to know more about U&A Studies or our approach? Get in touch with us!