I’ve spent most of my career as a communications consultant to for-profit organizations, and some years ago, a client, Apple Computer, showed me its latest computer, which they were about to launch worldwide (a launch I was to spearhead throughout the Asia-Pacific region). I looked at the machine, asked a few questions about the specs, and was a little confused. I said to my client, “Isn’t this the same machine as your current model, but in a different-shaped box? Why would customers get excited about this?” [This was back when Steve Jobs was in exile and Apple was a lot less sexy than it is today.]
My client dismissed my skepticism, and a moment later, the global product manager walked into the room. After we were introduced, my client, the regional product manager, said to his colleague, “Roberto doesn’t think the new machine adds any value for customers.” The global product guy paused, then said, “Yeah. That’s what customers said when we showed it at Macworld last week.” And he walked out of the room.
I’m older and more experienced now, but at the time I was amazed that a company of Apple’s stature had brought a product to market without having asked customers what they wanted. [And yeah, I know Apple is still not famous for that.]
Which brings me to my point: how much market research does your organization do?
Admittedly, few industries know more about research than aid and development; research is the sine qua non of masters and doctoral degrees, after all. But market research? We build schools in Afghanistan, you say. Or we sell water sanitation solutions in Africa. Or we are emergency medical responders. We don’t do market research. We know what we have to do, and we do it. We help people.
Well, how do you determine what sort of development assistance or aid to deliver? What sort of time and effort do you put into evaluating how appropriate your products/solutions developed for one environment are for another context? How often do you think about updating your current offerings, and what role do your clients’ interests and feedback play in that process?
Because I’m not a market research expert (I’m just a guy who asks questions when I suspect I might not know the answer), I called up a friend who runs a Tokyo- and Singapore-based marketing consultancy, who explained that market research can be valuable not only for consumer goods and services organizations, but for every organization that wants to gain new perspectives on its work, find new opportunities, generate new ideas, and maybe, avoid problems.
My friend explained he divides market research into two phases: exploration and measurement.
Exploration begins with secondary research, which is based on facts and observations prepared by other people. I know you know what secondary research is; you did a lot of it while you were accumulating advanced university degrees!
The real work begins, of course, with primary research, which is divided into qualitative and quantitative phases. Again, you know this from your own academic history.
During your exploration phase, you may not even know what you need to measure. Things you might want to measure could include market size (e.g. how many people might benefit if we set up an emergency hospital in a particular town in North Kivu?), competitive environment (e.g. how satisfied/dissatisfied are people with the services provided by the local clinic/hospital?), distribution (e.g. whether or not medicines might effectively be distributed with crates of Coca-Cola bottles).
Some of your exploration can be done online, via government statistics, annual reports, academic research and so on. But at a certain point, you will have to see for yourself.
Armed with hypotheses you have developed in the course of your secondary research, you head out into the field to talk to your potential clients, and others who know the market (e.g. government officials, academics, colleagues/competitors, clients and potential clients).
This qualitative research can be as simple as sitting down at a water collection point, watching villagers come to fill receptacles with water. How large are their receptacles? How often do they come? Do they collect water on the way to or from another errand, or do they make dedicated trips? It can involve conversations with clients, e.g. if we are a food bank, we might want to determine what foods elderly homeless men find easy to chew and digest.
Having gotten a feel for the overall dynamics of the situation, to see if firsthand observations are valid more broadly, research moves from the qualitative to the quantitative phase.
My friend says these days, he does quite a bit of his quantitative research via Internet surveys. When I asked if that didn’t provide a narrow, self-selected sample of the population, he noted that he works mainly in Japan and Singapore, two very wired countries. But he said also he’s working on mobile phone-delivered research in Africa, and said my fears about sample bias were largely outdated.
He admitted his teams “clean up” received data a bit, to remove respondents who have obviously moved at speed through a survey, clicking the first box in every category, but said he has found Internet survey data in general “quite reflective” of the general population. Which I suppose is not surprising; we like to think we’re all wildly individualistic, but McDonald’s boasts of “billions and billions served” in more than 100 countries.
In deciding how to structure your market research efforts, it’s useful to ask yourself if you’re building theories or testing them. Qualitative research is best used to get a feel for the market, to help develop hypotheses (e.g. whether or not it might be a good idea to set up a soup kitchen in a city park on Sunday mornings). Quantitative research is most appropriate for testing hypotheses (e.g. whether or not if we did set up a soup kitchen in a city park on Sunday mornings, people would come).
For nearly a century, commercial firms have used market research to discover what people want, need and believe, as well as how they act. Humanitarian aid and development agencies have the same needs, as they work to meet their objectives and support their clients as efficiently as possible.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.