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Ask the right questions to get the right answers


In the business world, a little knowledge goes a long way. Thanks to the explosion of information on the web and new tools for capturing it, we have plenty of options for finding insights into our customers, competitors and the environment in which they operate. It's never been easier to develop systems for monitoring our brands, spotting opportunities or learning the risks before they become dangerous. Information that we can rely on to make important business decisions is no longer scarce. In fact, we're drowning in it.

What's often lacking, though, is a strategy. No matter how much market research you do, how sophisticated your tools or how connected your network of experts, you won't find the answers to the questions that matter without a strategy. The time you spend preparing for your research will save time and money in the long run. And you'll wind up with information that's more targeted and useful.

Whether you're doing research for yourself, your company or your clients, the best way to prepare your strategy is by asking the right questions right from the start. Before jumping on the web or contacting a trusted advisor, it's essential that all key stakeholders work together to answer these questions:

What are our goals? Start with the end in mind. Think about what you, your client, or your organization want to accomplish and what information you'll need to reach those goals. This will not only help with selecting the right research tools and methods, it will guide you through the hunting and gathering phase – especially when making decisions about what to keep and what to throw back.

What are our key intelligence questions?  Decide what questions you wish to ask, and list them according to priority. It's important to separate the "must haves" from the "nice to haves." Depending on your time and budget restraints, you might need to forgo looking for "everything there is to know" on your topic and concentrate on your top priorities. One caveat, though:  Keep an open mind. You may come across answers to some questions you didn't think to ask.

What's our budget and time frame? Do you have the time and resources to conduct an in-depth study of your market, or will you need to narrow your focus? Can you pay for premium sources that save time or offer specialized content? Don't spend hours tracking data that can be quickly found in a low-cost packaged report. Also, make sure you allow plenty of time to complete the research and analysis. Research always takes longer than you think.

What do we already know? You'd be surprised how much research is lurking in other departments or how many experts you have in your network. Talk to the people in finance, sales, or product marketing about their market insights. Tap into your LinkedIn connections and ask for opinions. Don't waste time duplicating work that's already been done or searching for something you can gather from a short phone call or email.

Who cares? The answer to this simple question will lead you to the best sources. Who cares enough about this topic to gather statistics, write articles, or voice their opinion about it? For example, I recently needed some data on several types of youth sports programs. I discovered that sporting goods manufacturers definitely care about this topic, and I located the answers to three out of four of my client's key questions through an association web site.

What's our Plan B? You won't always find exactly what you're looking for, especially with small or emerging markets. Decide ahead of time what else will help you reach your goals. For example, if you don't come across any hard data, would the opinions of three experts help you understand the future of your market? If you can't find zip-code level statistics, will county data make a good substitute?

To get the right answers, you need to ask the right questions –and taking the time to get ready for research will drastically improve your results. Instead of drowning in information, you'll have the decision-ready insights that you and your team need.

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Marcy Phelps

Marcy Phelps is the founder and principal at Phelps Research, where she provides market insights for strategic business planning. She is a contributor to the book, Advice From the Top: The Expert Guide to B2B Marketing and a member of the board of directors of the Colorado Chapter of the Business Marketing Association.  Read Marcy's blog about turning information into insights at MarcyPhelps.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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