How to do market research: the ultimate guide

author_morgan molnar

Morgan Molnar

  1. Intro to market research: Learn what market research is, why it’s important, and the difference between various types of market research so you can choose the best method for your project.
  2. Planning: Use our frameworks to define your business questions and research goals, outline your project scope, and document your plan in a research brief.
  3. Survey design: Get expert tips for how to structure your market research survey, write good questions, and optimize for data quality—plus survey templates and a pre-launch checklist.
  4. Fielding: Read our recommendations for how to reach your ideal survey respondents, determine the right number of people to survey, and time your launch for optimal response rates.
  5. Analysis: Get best practices for preparing your dataset, interpreting and visualizing your results, analyzing trends over time, and understanding statistical significance.
  6. Taking action: Learn how to find the stories in your data, turn insights into strategic business recommendations, and inspire action from your stakeholders.

Everything you need to know before getting started

Market research is essential to every organization.

According to the latest global market research report by ESOMAR, a global community of market researchers, roughly $45 billion is spent on market research annually around the globe. The majority of these resources are spent contracting full-service vendors and agencies that do your market research for you. But what if you could cut out the middleman and do it yourself? Doing your own market research is much cheaper, faster, and not nearly as difficult as you might think, as long as you know what you’re doing.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to run your own market research programs and get insights to help everyone at your company make business decisions—without costly middlemen.

Market research is the process of collecting information on consumers’ behaviors and preferences, category trends, and/or competitive intelligence. Market research is typically conducted by organizations to inform product development and go-to-market strategy to ultimately drive business growth.

Market research can help companies answer questions like:

  • How large is the market opportunity for my product/service?
  • How does my brand stack up against the competition?
  • Which demographics are most likely to buy my product/service?
  • Which advertising campaign will resonate best with my target market?

Sure, business decisions can be made based on gut instincts alone, but doing so comes with high risk. After all, not all of us can be brilliant visionaries like Steve Jobs, who famously said, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” We beg to differ. Market research provides the necessary data-backed evidence to help you make those decisions with confidence. Here’s why market research is so important:

  • Market research steers your business strategy. When it comes to deciding on the company direction, heavy investment (dollars or personnel) is on the line. Market research is the essential validation that assures you that you can move forward or the warning bell that signals you need to go in a different marketing or product direction.
  • Market research helps you avoid costly mistakes. According to Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, 95% of new product launches fail. And launching a new product costs serious money. If you’re launching a new product, market research can give you the data you need to ensure your product is in the winning 5%.
95% of new product launches fail
  • Market research builds credibility. Whether you’re trying to create persuasive marketing collateral, become a thought leader in your industry, or impress your C-Suite, market research arms you with the facts to back up your arguments and claims.
  • Market research shows you where to go next. We’ve all heard the phrase “innovate or die.” If your business isn’t adapting to market trends and evolving consumer needs, you’ll likely get left in the dust by your competitors. Market research can diagnose when your brand is starting to get stagnant, help you know which new products/campaigns to launch, and guide you on which markets to enter next.

Market research is a broad term that encompasses several different types of information gathering. It can mean different things to different people and be viewed through a number of different lenses. In order to give you a comprehensive understanding of it, we’ll walk through each of common types of market research, their pros and cons, and how they’re most commonly used. We’ll talk about the differences between:

  • Primary research versus secondary research
  • Quantitative research versus qualitative research
  • DIY market research versus full-service market research

Fundamentally, market research can be broken down into two major categories: primary research and secondary research.

  • Primary research is when you collect new information for the first time. Primary research can take the form of either qualitative or quantitative research (more to come on that), but the main distinguishing factor is that the research hasn’t been conducted before.
  • Secondary research is the gathering, consolidation, and summarization of data and research that already exists. For example, if you were to go digging into the US Census for population stats, you would be doing secondary research.

For the purpose of this guide, we will be focusing on primary research. Once you’re done reading, you’ll be a pro at conducting your own primary market research.

Quantitative and qualitative research can be done individually or in combination to get broader and deeper insights.

  • Quantitative research is the process of gathering structured, numerical data and using statistical analysis (anything from simple averages to predictive analytics) to make sense of it. Quantitative research can be done at scale and with a much larger sample sizes, because numerical results are easy to aggregate and summarize.
  • Qualitative research typically dives into a particular topic to understand the subjects’ experiences, thoughts, and opinions in detail. Qualitative research is the process of exploring and collecting unstructured information—like text, images, audio, and video—and summarizing the findings into themes. Because of this, qualitative research is done with a smaller sample size—usually anywhere from 5 to 20 research subjects.

The main differences between quantitative and qualitative research are summarized below:


Quantitative researchQualitative research
Research design:
-Descriptive/confirmatory
-Large sample size
Research design:
-Exploratory
-Smaller sample sizes
Data/analysis:
-Structured data
-Aggregates and averages
-Presented in numbers
Data/analysis:
-Unstructured data
-In-depth details
-Presented in themes
Pros:
-Faster and easier to analyze results with spreadsheets and statistical software
-Larger sample sizes mean the results are more likely to be statistically significant
Pros:
-Deep dive into the “how” and “why”
-Exploratory research design provides the opportunity to capture concepts or ideas you hadn’t thought of before
Cons:
-Less detail around “how” and “why”
-Structured research design means it’s possible the research isn’t capturing all possible concepts or ideas
Cons:
-Time consuming and difficult to analyze the findings
-Smaller sample sizes mean the results are less likely to be statistically significant
  • Surveys, especially market research surveys, can be used to collect feedback, perceptions, and opinions from a sample of your target market. Survey data is most often quantitative (e.g.: 90% of people wouldn’t feel safe as a passenger in a self-driving car), but can also be qualitative if open-ended questions are used.
  • In-market experiments involve launching a product/campaign/website/etc. in a single geographic or demographic market (the test group) and measuring the business impact compared to a similar market that wasn’t exposed to the launch (the control group). In-market experiments are great for testing things like digital ad effectiveness or whether a product extension will win market share from a competitor instead of cannibalizing your existing offerings.
  • Implicit data collection is always-on, passive data gathering of actions or transactions. Examples of this could be capturing barcode scanning data at a store checkout to know what items were purchased at what price, or measuring website traffic, or mobile location tracking. Implicit data collection differs from explicit data collection where the information is directly provided as part of the research study (e.g.: in a survey).
  • In-depth Interviews (IDIs) are typically conducted one-on-one and go deep into a particular topic. Qualitative interviews can be in-person, over the phone, or online. Interviews are great for exploring perspectives and feelings on a topic in participants’ own words.
  • Focus groups gather a small group of people together (typically in-person) to discuss a topic. Focus groups are ideal for getting feedback when physical interaction with a product concept is necessary (e.g.: when testing new flavors or scents, or watching a screening of a TV show pilot).
  • Observational research is when the researcher simply observes subjects going about their normal routine and documents what they see. For example, researchers could observe a shopper’s path through a retail or grocery store to better understand how to lay out the store experience. The “results” in the case of observational research usually come in the form of written researcher notes.
  • Yes, even surveys. It might seem like surveys are meant for quantitative research, but they can also be used for qualitative research. Open-ended survey questions provide a flexible way for survey takers to provide more detail around their answers, making the results qualitative in nature.

When your organization needs to conduct market research, there are a couple ways to go about it. The two main approaches are do-it-yourself (DIY) market research or to use a full-service market research firm.

  • DIY market research is when organizations do their own market research using self-service tools like survey platforms and online survey panels like SurveyMonkey Audience. Typically, DIY market research is done opportunistically by the team that needs the results, but the research could also be done by a centralized internal insights team using similar tools. DIY market research can be just as robust and reliable as full-service market research. While it but does require some expertise this ultimate guide will teach you everything you need to know to run your own successful DIY market research project.
  • Full-service market research is when an organization pays a vendor to conduct market research for them. The vendor could be a market research firm, marketing agency, or consulting firm. Things like research design, data collection, analysis, and business recommendations can all be handled by a vendor, but it can take time and is more expensive.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of DIY market research and full-service market research for you to consider when deciding how you’ll conduct your research:

DIY market researchFull-service market research
Pros:
-Instant results
-Cost-effective
-Complete control over research design and timeline
Pros:
-All of the work is done for you by the vendor
-No expertise needed

Cons:
-Requires work internally to set up the research and analyze results

Cons:
-Takes a long time
-Expensive
-Requires vendor on-boarding to ensure relevant recommendations

Now that you’re well versed in the different types of market research, it’s time to get you off and running! In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to conduct your own market research from start to finish—from creating a project plan to designing your survey to collecting representative responses to turning results into action.

The best practices in this guide span any market research use case, but we’ll focus on the three example surveys you see below: consumer behavior, ad testing, and brand tracking. By the time you’ve finished reading this guide, you’ll be a pro at DIY market research!

Consumer Behavior

A survey measuring millennials’ usage of video streaming services.

View example

Ad Testing

A survey assessing print ad concepts for a fictional dog food company.

View example

Brand Tracking

A survey tracking awareness and perception of sparkling water brands.

View example

How to create a market research plan

Before you get knee-deep in survey design and data collection, it’s important to have a clear plan in place for your market research. Knowing when you need market research, understanding what type of market research is important to your business, aligning with your stakeholders, and scoping out your project ahead of time will ensure you stay on track and deliver actionable results.

So, when’s the best time to do market research? Trick question! Continuously. No matter where you work, you can always tap into the market’s opinions and preferences to be better at your job.

Let’s look at this in the context of a product’s lifecycle:

How market research fits into the product life cycle
  • Development: When you’re planning to launch a new product, you need to fundamentally understand the market opportunity, consumers’ needs and preferences, how they buy, what competitors are already doing, and what general trends are showing up in the industry. When you get to product ideation, deciding early things like the product name and logo can also benefit from consumer feedback.
  • Introduction: When you get closer to product launch, testing various iterations of your product to make sure you’ve nailed product-market fit is critical. Beyond the product itself, you’ll want to test things like packaging, claims, website messaging, and other early marketing materials. When you get your first customers, they’ll be a gold mine for early-stage feedback so you can iterate.
  • Growth: As you start to grow your product sales and build your brand, market and customer feedback becomes even more important. In the growth stage when customer acquisition is extremely important, doing market research allows you to test and optimize your messaging, keep tabs on your brand perception, and identify ways to improve your product so you keep growing your customer base.
  • Maturity: Product maturity is not a time to rest on your laurels. Keeping a continuous pulse on your brand, competitors, and industry trends when your product is in the mature stage can help you decide where to go next. Maybe it’s time to expand to a new market, refresh your brand, or develop a product line extension.
  • Decline / Extension: When your product sales start to drop, it’s critical to diagnose why. Is it merely seasonality? A new product in the category that’s stealing market share? Market research can help you detect declines early. And if you’re looking to expand your product offerings to offset the decline, the need for market research reappears as your re-enter the development stage.

If the answer to “when should I do market research” is “all the time,” how do companies manage and plan for that? One way is budgeting for large annual studies—like brand tracking and competitive research every year or more frequently. In addition to that, more and more companies have taken a page from the world’s most innovative companies to make their market research more agile.

Agile market research is an approach to conducting market research in which projects are structured in small, frequent “sprints” so you can adapt to challenges on the fly.

Rooted in the Agile Methodology first introduced in the software development space, agile market research takes on a lot of the same characteristics you’d find in startup culture. Agile market research goes beyond just being faster. As SurveyMonkey president Tom Hale described in his piece in Quirk’s, “The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”


“The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”


Agile market research isn’t a brand new concept, but it has spread like wildfire. Even a couple years ago, 78% of researchers were planning to adopt agile market research methodologies, according to a study by GutCheck. With DIY research tools like SurveyMonkey and SurveyMonkey Audience, more people and teams within an organization are able to do their own market research without having to rely on centralized insights teams or full-service agencies, and this allows them to always have the data they need to make decisions faster.

Below is SurveyMonkey’s agile market research framework. It visualizes a cyclical  approach to exploring, testing, validating, and optimizing strategies—whether they’re ideas, concepts,  campaigns, you name it—all the while continuously tracking progress. It takes what otherwise might be a long, drawn out research timeline and breaks it into sprints of smaller, more manageable projects. The beauty of this framework is its versatility. It shows you how agile market research can help you for nearly any challenge or project you might encounter at your job.

Agile market research framework: explore, test, validate, optimize, and track

Each research phase fundamentally asks the following questions:

  • Explore: What are the needs of the market?
  • Test: Which idea does my market prefer?
  • Validate: How successful will my idea be?
  • Optimize: Which improvements will make my idea even better?
  • Track: How am I doing?

The key takeaway here is that with the right tools and processes, research can be an ongoing activity that any team in your organization can own. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just start conducting research willy-nilly. Having a clear direction and plan will make frequent research that much more strategic and actionable. The first step is defining the business question your research aims to answer.