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Approaches and techniques for B2B market research

13 min read2024-05-03
Grant Hendricks

One of the tricky parts about conducting research is knowing where to start. Market research projects can be open-ended. Insights aren’t always forthcoming. How do researchers know they’re on the right track? How do they avoid overcommitting resources to what may end up being a dead end?

Let’s look at common ways that B2B market researchers tackle projects. This article will describe two classifications of data collected during market research and outline some popular approaches and techniques used in market research projects, including pros and cons for each and expert insights into challenges that new researchers may face.

If you need expert B2B market research services, consider connecting with our team. We help industrial companies throughout North America understand their market position and plan for future success.

Without any further ado, let’s get started.

Differences Between Quantitative and Qualitative Data

There are two broad categories of market research: quantitative and qualitative. Most research projects will include elements of each, though there are cases where a business may request one or the other.

Quantitative research is “stuff you can count.” That is, hard facts and figures with opinions and emotions removed from the equation. Examples of quantitative research include technical competitor analysis of online presence such as comparisons of follower count and growth rate between brands on various social platforms, or customer behaviour analysis based on website metrics. Note that even “opinionated” data like survey responses may be quantitative. If survey questions are close-ended and may be boiled down to numbers, it could be considered quantitative data.

Qualitative data is “the soft stuff.” This is data that cannot be directly quantified, like interviews with customers and business partners, long-form text responses to open-ended survey questions, and other forms of subjective analysis. Qualitative data is sometimes considered weaker or less-than when compared to hard facts and figures, but it’s just as crucial to understanding the big picture as quantitative data. It guides researchers and analysts toward the correct story, offering human context to otherwise impersonal quantitative data. Where quantitative data provides the rigor and backbone, qualitative data fills in gaps and uncovers hypotheses that guide further research and analysis.

Qualitative analysis: the power of thought experiments

When we think of scientific discovery, it’s easy to believe that it’s all hard facts and figures. Scientific rigor demands such data, right?

The truth is, any scientific innovation begins with ideation—qualitative analysis. Let’s consider some examples.

Albert Einstein is widely celebrated as the most important physicist of his age. His most famous innovation may be his theory of general relativity, which began as an idle thought experiment: what if a person could run at the speed of light? What would they see? How would they experience reality around them?

Einstein built upon this early ideation to develop the theory of general relativity. Without this theory, technology like GPS would not be possible.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Prior to its discovery, bacterial infections like scarlet fever that we now consider easily treatable were deadly threats. His discovery occurred due to a mix of happenstance and ideation. He noticed that one of his petri dishes of cultured bactiera had been contaminated with mold. Instead of immediately replacing the sample, he inspected it further, noting that bacterial growth seemed to slow or even recede around the mold-contaminated regions.

Further exploration would lead to the discovery of the first antibiotic treatments. By the time of Fleming’s death in 1955, it was estimated that his innovation saved up to 200 million lives worldwide.

Building a quantitative foundation

Qualitative information may serve as a guide for uncovering deeper insight, but it’s just the first step.

Einstein and Fleming didn’t leap from hypothesis to formal conclusion. Their postulations required confirmation that could only come through quantitative research and analysis.

In both of our examples, experiments had to be devised, tested, and repeated. Peers from the scientific community needed to challenge and test assumptions. Consensus required a volume of reliable, accurate, and unbiased data.

Consider that Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but its first widespread use as a medical treatment wouldn’t occur until the second world war over a decade later. Qualitative analysis produces ideas, but only quantitative data can confirm those ideas as fact—or at least, widely accepted theory.

Qualitative research and ideation methods

In-depth interviews

Contrasted with surveys and questionnaires, in-depth interviews tend to provide more qualitative data. An interview may be done remotely (phone or video call, or even via correspondence like email) or in person. It typically consists of a series of open-ended questions, with the interviewer expanding on suggested topics and following up on answers as needed.

When conducting in-depth interviews, don’t stubbornly stick to the game plan. While the interview must certainly be done with intention and structure, remember the role of qualitative research. Allowing an interview to “wander” like a natural conversation can unearth exciting and unexpected insights. Interviews don’t offer final confirmation. They help shape the research and strategy to come.

Focus groups and panels

Focus groups capture diverse perspectives and offer in-depth feedback on products or services. Compared to interviews, focus groups include a level of collaboration or groupthink. It can be valuable to see what a group of people feel (or express) about a product as compared to what similar people may say in a one-on-one interview setting.

When conducting focus groups, understand that no small sample will be perfectly representative of a wider audience. Use focus group data to establish context and strengthen assumptions but be mindful not to overcommit to findings.

Be mindful of warnings about “design by committee.” Products and services designed to satisfy a focus group can and often do miss their mark if other angles of analysis are not also considered.

An interesting example of this “design by committee” challenge is the release of New Coke in the ‘80s. Although New Coke performed well in blind taste tests—beating out both Pepsi and “Classic” Coke—its launch caused outcry from Coke fans across the world, who demanded a return to the formula they knew and loved. It’s possible that the market testing conducting by Coca Cola was flawed, as sweeter beverages tend to score higher when sampled in small quantities but aren’t enjoyed as much in larger quantities, like a full can or bottle. The heart of the problem was a lack of respect and deference to brand identity and customer loyalty as opposed to quantitative data from taste tests. This is a good example of the importance of interdisciplinary analysis and qualitative data.

Observational research

Some say that marketing is equal parts science and art. Observational research may be one area where market research skews toward artistry. Artists are, after all, observers first. Observational research entails recording and analysis of behaviours and interactions in normal settings. For example, shadowing a sales team to understand the practicalities of selling an industrial product may be one form of observational research.

You may be familiar with the diary of Samuel Pepys, a decade-long account of life in 17th century London, including the most thorough and accurate first-hand account of the 1666 Great Fire of London. While this certainly isn’t a good example of market research, it’s an excellent example of observation, and the recording of observations.

During qualitative research, we’re concerned with storytelling and ideation. When conducting observational research, be a diligent scribe. Look for patterns in what you observe, but don’t be afraid to record seemingly trivial details and interactions. You may benefit from such observations later in your research project!

Also note that there are many ways to observe and record information. You are not confined to Pepys’ shorthand. Video and voice recordings, photographs, and even illustrations and sketches may all play a part in observational research. Do be sure to clear any recordings—particularly voice, photograph, and video recordings—with all parties involved to ensure ethical and legal standards are upheld.

Quantitative approaches to research

Surveys and questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires overlap significantly with interviews. Though in-depth interviews tend to skew more toward qualitative analysis, they may also provide quantitative data in some cases. The reverse is true for surveys and questionnaires, as they may include open-ended questions to provide qualitative insight.

A survey typically involves a set list of questions that may accept short form responses, multiple choice answers, or a ranking or score like a satisfaction ranking from one to five. The purpose is to turn a normally subjective thing—customer’s perceptions of a product or service, for instance, into a measurable and consistent dataset.

Competitor Analysis

Competitor analysis certainly involves subjective information-collecting, but at its heart it is a quantitative research activity. The best way to make fair comparisons between companies is to use a scoring system that turns subjective analysis into objective numbers. Additionally, many attributes analyzed among competitors are hard figures like total sales, market share, and other financial or operational data.

Industry Analysis

Competitor analysis typically focuses on the most direct and relevant competitors rather than the overall market. Industry analysis provides the wider view by focusing on numerical comparisons and metrics that characterize the industry as a whole. Evaluation of data like the number of relevant establishments within a geographic market, the average number of employees per establishment, or other general industry information fall into this category.

Demographics research/market segmentation

Tools like focus groups help collect opinions and qualitative input from a range of stakeholders. Demographics research involves analyzing the overall customer base, finding ways to categorize it into useful subsets. For example, identifying the age, gender, and location combinations that result in higher conversion rates and better closing prices on average. Conversely, identifying underperforming demographics can provide value as well. Once market segments have been established, clients can use this research to tailor experiences to each.

Secondary research

Research doesn’t need to rely solely on first party data. A good researcher will tap into existing sources of relevant data. Perhaps studies have already been conducted on your target market, or a special census report accurately reflects a particular customer segment. Using existing data to supplement first-party findings is a great way to flesh out your report. Third party data from trusted sources can make your report more compelling, backing up qualitative suggestions and assumptions.

B2B market research example: go-to-market strategy for equipment supplier

Trying to enter a new market can be daunting. In fact, it can be rather risky. Consider the case of Target Canada. The popular American retailer attempted to enter the Canadian market, purchasing retail space from struggling Canadian department store Zellers. They launched over 100 locations across the country in March 2013. By April 2015, Target pulled out of Canada, abandoning its plans for expansion in what analysts deemed a “spectacular failure.

The issues at play with Target’s expansion seem obvious in retrospect. The American brand focused on good value offerings. The Canadian stores were significantly more expensive, failing to compete with other budget stores like Wal Mart and Superstore. Target’s rapid expansion across a massive country resulted in supply chain issues. Eager shoppers arrived to find empty shelves.

B2B businesses are equally vulnerable to risk when they choose to expand. We recently worked with a Canadian heavy equipment supplier looking to break into the US market. Before they committed their resources to expansion, they wanted to know how to do it safely and effectively.

We helped uncover economic and demographic insights about their existing markets, find best-fit markets in the United States for early expansion, and reveal intriguing opportunities and threats impacting the future of heavy equipment sales in the United States.

Combined with partner research that uncovered qualitative insights directly from equipment dealers and end users, we helped the client enter a new market with confidence.

Tips for new researchers

Begin with an open focus

In research and analysis, it’s easy to jump the gun. Begin your research journey with as wide a focus as possible. Take note of interesting narratives that emerge, but don’t head too far down one path too quickly. A researcher must see both the forest and the trees. This isn’t easy! Take time at the outset of the project to ensure you’ve explored adequately. Realizing you’ve missed something crucial once you’re deep into a project is a bad feeling, and can result in backtracking and blown budgets.

Presentation matters as much as data

Market research should be driven by data, but merely collecting and interpreting the data is only half the job. Every market research project has an intended audience. The audience must be persuaded, intrigued, and ultimately convinced by your findings. Without proper presentation, this will not happen.

Consider the data literacy of your audience; their personal communication style; their interests and the things that excite them. Each market report should be tailored to suit each client.

Assume there’s no correlation

The human brain is a wonderful pattern recognition engine. It’s how we learn so effectively. Humans seek out patterns in everything they perceive, whether said patterns exist or not. Did you know that a blank screen is more mentally stimulating than a simple, familiar pattern or shape? The brain wants to perceive a pattern, even if none exists.

This is why we must be diligent as researchers. Not every data point or finding is significant. Completely random or circumstantial information can lead us down fruitless rabbit holes if we let it. Instead, default to a null hypothesis. Until you can confirm your suspicions, assume every pattern is insignificant. In research, if not in life or love, a suspicious mind is a very good thing to have.

Get the most out of your marketing spend

Businesses want more from their marketing than ever. Gone are the days of unattributed marketing money pits. The increased expectation of attributed marketing performance in the B2B sector makes preparation and planning crucial. Without a solid foundation of knowledge, your campaigns may be based on faulty assumptions. Expert market research can help B2B marketers reach their performance goals by deepening their understanding of their customers, competitors, and overall market.

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