Research: The Foundation of a Sound Strategy

We are already a month into 2018. This means most of us are beginning to execute our 2018 strategy. But, first, consider the role of research in your strategy. Research is often thought of as a tool to validate a new product or to understand your evolving customer landscape. While these are great reasons to initiate a research project, research is an imperative step for any project or strategic planning effort. It is powerful for: validating an investment, achieving internal buy-in on a project you feel strongly about, or exploring a big new question in your industry.

Spending the time and resources up front for research ensures you are headed in the right direction strategically. You might think this will cost you momentum, but quite the opposite is true. Getting halfway through an initiative and realizing it is not strategically sound will cost you much more. Strategic marketers and business planners are wise to conduct this due diligence at the beginning of any project.

What is the Big Research Question?

Research should always be designed to lead to a decision, and not simply to reduce ignorance. While eliminating ignorance is never useless, it is not the most powerful and strategic investment of your dollars and time. Start with the decision you are trying to make, or the question you are trying to answer. Then, determine the data you need to make an informed choice. For example, you could be in the alcohol industry and need to know how the legalization of cannabis will alter your customer messaging now that consumers have new choices. This is an example of researching to answer a big question.

Research is a powerful first step to take to approach your projects in the most strategic manner. It is easy to overlook among those projects that don’t seem to demand it. However, it is a very powerful lever to pull to strengthen your strategy and give you an edge against your competitors. But, research is an umbrella word that covers many different methods. Which is the right type for the decisions you are trying to make?

Beyond Just the Facts. 

What Kind of Research Do I Need?

Broadly speaking, there are two buckets of research: quantitative and qualitative. Each encompasses a variety of methods that are useful for different decisions. Quantitative research tells you the what and the how of your audience. These are important questions to answer to make informed messaging and channel decisions. Quantitative research distills who your customer segments are, the key attributes that describe them, and validates qualitative research conclusions. Quantitative research requires a large sample size and includes methods like conjoint analysis and surveying.

Alternatively, qualitative research uses smaller sample sizes and uncovers the why. Qualitative research goes more in-depth and provides rich consumer learnings that lead to insightful actions. It allows you to explore and diverge with your customers, to truly understand why they make the choices they make. Qualitative research often uncovers a primal need state that your organization can leverage to be customer-centric. Because qualitative research operates with a smaller sample size, it is often less expensive and faster than quantitative research.

As an example, Noetic worked with a Senior Living Community on a brand positioning project. We began with a series of 1:1 interviews with current residents to understand how they felt in their new home. Through the research, we uncovered that there was a lot of initial fear about the uncertainty of moving to a new home. Residents felt like it was a closure of their life, with possibilities now limited. As a result, our findings directed this organization to position their messaging around new and expansive opportunities, to address and soothe this fear.

Setting an Informed Research Formulation

Qualitative research is something Noetic specifically champions because of its ability to uncover those key consumer insights. A strong insight is the basis for all strategy, especially marketing strategy. It is our experience that most people associate qualitative research solely with focus groups. Focus groups are one great tool. However, they are not the only qualitative research method. There are many ways to conduct qualitative research.

  • 1:1, Dyads and Triads: In depth interviews are typically 1-2 hours in length and involve 1 interviewer with 1-3 interviewees. This method is time intensive. Yet, it is one of the most powerful methods to truly understand the motivations of your customers. Noetic worked on a B2B marketing strategy for a higher education nonprofit. We conducted in-depth interviews across 3 different audience segments: states, businesses, and other nonprofits. We uncovered that each segment had differing motivations for degree attainment among their respective constituents. Our client was then able to tailor their messaging to best communicate with each audience. Organizations that resonate the most, will achieve the most.


  • Social Listening: Social listening is a method of qualitative research that analyzes various social media channels to determine the sentiment of your brand across customers, as well as compare the sentiment for your competitors. It is a bird’s eye view, and should not focus on one-off mentions. Look for consistent themes that lead to actionable insights. Social listening allows your organization to rapidly respond to shifting dynamics and remain relevant. The ability to create actionable strategies differentiates social listening from social media monitoring. For example, Tesla realized that many customers were complaining that drivers would leave their cars parked for hours at charging stations. This inhibited other drivers from charging their cars. Because this was a consistent theme, Tesla was able to address customers with a communication from Elon Musk that this would be taken care of.


  • Ethnography: Ethnography is a qualitative research technique borrowed from anthropology. It involves observing consumers in their natural environments to uncover hidden pain points. Observation can often uncover subconscious habits or need states better than consumers self-reporting. As marketers, we are most curious about what consumers do vs. what they say they do. If this method sounds time consuming and expensive, that is because it is. However, it often produces some of the best insights for research & development, as you observe subconscious pain points consumers are not even aware of themselves. Boston Consulting Group employed ethnography techniques in their book Rocket. They studied brand advocates of the most successful brands in their natural environments and homes.

Getting Started.

There are many ways of approaching research. What is most important, is that you do in fact embed research as an upfront step to any initiative. A well-informed strategy that is founded on actionable consumer data is powerful. Customers will resonate with your brand or messaging because they will feel known and understood by you. In today’s world, customers expect this, and will reward the brands that put in the effort to do so. Let us help you create the strongest strategies based on key consumer research this year!