Riddle me this: what does market research have in common with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? Many people don’t believe in them. Ok, yes, this is a poor riddle. Pardon me. But let me explain: I often hear marketers say, ‘Our senior leadership doesn’t believe in market research.’ I always chuckle at this expression because it seems to imply that market research is some dogmatic religion requiring blind faith from zealous adherents. While the market research community is admittedly quasi-cultish, I don’t think that is what marketers intend when they talk about ‘belief in market research.’ Instead, most people use this expression to communicate that their senior leadership doesn’t rely on market research to make strategic decisions. This lack of faith is a common frustration for corporate researchers, and we often hear the common complaint that ‘Research recommended X, but the organization did Y.’ Despite the frustration it causes among corporate researchers, the underlying skepticism about the role of market is quite well founded. Indeed, I whole-heartedly agree that organizations should not use market research to make strategic decisions. However, I strongly believe that market research should be used to inform strategic decisions. The distinction between using research to inform decisions vs. make decisions is more than just semantics. In fact, I think that this distinction is at the heart of skepticism about market research.

“The distinction between using research to inform decisions vs. make decisions is more than just semantics.”

When market research is expected to make strategic decisions, it will inevitably fall short of those expectations. Indeed, strategy is not democracy, and it is unwise to make critical business decisions based solely on customer opinion polls. However, when market research is used as one of many inputs to inform critical decisions, it becomes an invaluable tool in the decision-making process. Customers are the lifeblood of any business, and it would be unwise to make strategic business decisions without understanding how that decision might affect customers. As many of us have learned, business ‘success’ is rarely measured in terms of absolute performance; instead, ‘success’ is often measured as performance relative to expectations. As we apply this maxim to market research, we begin to see that research is doomed to disappoint when expectations are too high. As a community, it’s important for market researchers to manage expectations about both the value and the limitations of market research. In order for our stakeholders to maintain their faith in market research, it is critical for researchers to be honest about what market research can and cannot do. What are your thoughts on the areas where research tends to over-promise and under-deliver? We would love to hear from you. I encourage you to post your thoughts here or email me at dan.callahan@vivisumpartners.com.

Dan Callahan is the President of Vivisum Partners and Founder of Research (R)evolutions.

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