What’s the ROI on this Research?

BY Barry Watson

Few leaders doubt that having meaningful insight into their markets – and clear ideas about how to apply that insight – has value for their organization. But one of the most persistent questions leaders ask about market research projects is whether they’re really going to deliver a solid return on investment.

The answer is, it depends. Some organizations have had the experience of investing a fair amount in a research initiative and coming away with information that’s not very useful – or information that they sense is important but that they’re not sure how to apply.


There are reliable ways to avoid those pitfalls and create a research and consulting process that delivers plenty of value. Both the client and the research firm have important roles to play in achieving a successful process.

Understanding the real problem

First, it’s important for the researchers to really understand the business problem the client is trying to solve. This is easier said than done. The research team has to bring a consulting mindset to the project – to take the time to listen and understand the context and to help the client sharpen and refine the central question if necessary. The essential ingredient is a commitment to tackling the real problem collaboratively – not just selling some work (a survey, focus groups, a report).

For the client’s part, they have to be willing to disclose the real problem – and that takes trust. They may need to share confidential business information, or simply be candid about something that isn’t going very well. Either way, they need to trust that their research team is worth confiding in, that something good will come from sharing the unvarnished truth.

We’ve had plenty of cases where the client resisted scrutiny of “the problem” even though our intuition told us it was not the real issue. Sure enough, later in the process we find a different issue at the heart of things. An open mind early on would have produced a better solution at a lower cost.


Working together to interpret and apply the findings

Research insights don’t just leap out of a database and reshape how everyone thinks and works. Part of getting value from a research initiative is to translate the insights into strategy, process changes, marketing campaigns and other changes in the real world.

We often host workshops with client teams where people who connect with markets and audiences in different ways have opportunities to engage with, say, a market segmentation or some other research product – and then think together about what it would mean in their area. These events are often incredibly energetic and engaging: if people have the right opportunity and a real invitation, they’re often eager to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to apply this new information.

Sometimes, as teams discuss how to use the information, they identify distinctions or areas of interest that hadn’t previously surfaced – and as research consultants we can say, “Let’s go back to the data and see what we can illuminate.” In other words, these workshops aren’t just an engaging way of conveying the research findings. They’re a truly collaborative process that can reshape the deliverables from the research process in order to maximize usefulness and value.

I can recall examples of workshops with a client after a recent merger. Staff from each previous company sat on opposite sides of the table. The difference in perspective and tension was palpable. But the workshop brought them together because it forced them to all focus on their customers and see their shared objectives.


The benefits can multiply

Although the heart of these workshops and collaborative approaches is usually to activate and mobilize the insights coming out of the research, once the conversations start they can yield lots of good ideas in other areas. For example, if you have specialists in a given area of your business spread out across the country, and you get them all together – virtually or in person – for a research-focused workshop, it will often surface useful points about regional differences in your markets or other variations. These differences might be instructive for everyone – even if they weren’t the focus of the research. The multiple extends further if you can involve outside partners like creative agencies and media partners.


Clients often find that what they get out of a research initiative has a lot to do with what they put into it – not necessarily in terms of the cost of the data and analysis but in terms of the time and attention they’re willing to devote to digesting the insights and having meaningful conversations on how to apply them. Good market research consultants will be keen to guide and be involved in the full range of this activity, and will bring techniques for fostering productive conversations that can deliver dramatic results.

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