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Business research methods

12 min read
Business research is a well-established way to get an edge in your market. In this article, we’ll cover some of the most valuable business research methods.

Business research is a well-established way to gain an edge in your target market. But less than 40% of US marketers use consumer research to make decisions, according to data from Google. Could the huge range of methodologies and techniques be preventing business research takeup?

In this article, we’ll lay out some of the most popular and valuable business research methods, from general approaches to industry-specific techniques, to help you decide which business research process is the best fit for you and your company.

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Business research includes customer research and market research

There are two primary areas of business research – understanding the market in which you’re operating, including the target consumers out there who don’t yet buy from you, and understanding your existing customers.

Market research

Market research is an umbrella term covering a wide variety of business research techniques which are used to help a business understand its target customer’s preferences.

This arm of business research often involves techniques like the focus group, where a moderated discussion helps companies understand their target audience, and survey research, including online surveys.

Customer feedback is an important part of any business intelligence process. This might come in the form of direct feedback, where a customer provides their opinion to a business either spontaneously or in response to a survey invitation or feedback form, or through indirect methods like social media listening.

As well as being able to assess customer satisfaction, this allows businesses to discover the unmet needs of their current customers. This kind of business research helps seed new product development, among other improvements.

Qualitative research methods for business

Qualitative business research techniques are all about the ‘why’ of what’s happening in your business. Rather than relying on data and statistics, they use description and human interpretation to investigate situations and events.

Qualitative research can be quite time-consuming and historically it has been harder to automate than quantitative methods, although nowadays tools are available to scale up qualitative data collection.

Even without these tools, qualitative research can be done with smaller sample sizes and still provides rich information that can offer lasting value.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a business research mainstay. They can help companies understand their current customers or target customers in a deep and authentic way using the power of conversation and connection. Focus groups can be valuable for nuanced topics, as well as controversial ones, since you can use the format to bring in multiple points of view from within your target audience.

As a form of qualitative research, focus groups are well-established with plenty of best practice advice and techniques available. They are also relatively familiar to the general public, which means low effort is required to on-board your participants.

At the height of COVID-19, Jittrapirom et al. (2021) used remote focus groups to study perceptions of car-sharing services in Bangkok, Thailand as a way of improving transport planning. They found that the ‘mental models’ of different stakeholder groups were significantly different depending on their understanding of the car-sharing concept. Working with the focus group, the researchers were able to collaboratively build a diagrammatic representation of how car-sharing works, which could then be used to help roll it out as a more sustainable means of transport in developing countries.

Ethnographic research

In ethnographic research, you study people in a naturally occurring setting. Rather than bringing them into your offices or restricting your data collection to a survey, you’re looking at the person and their environment as a whole.

In this sense, ethnographic research is all about understanding the context. You might be observing customers in a store, or interviewing them as they interact with your products and services. Ethnographic research in contexts like shopping malls, online discussion boards or social media can help you understand your target consumer too. Business research of this kind can be especially valuable in consultancy and B2B settings, where one business is looking to gain a deep understanding of another in order to help them improve.

Autmaring et al. (2018) studied SMEs working in B2B to investigate the potential for ethnographic research to improve product development. They found that although SME-level businesses had good access to their customers, their uptake of ethnographic research was low because of a lack of familiarity and concerns about expense. The B2B SMEs studied had low awareness of the benefits of ethnographic research and did not recognise that they were in a strong position to carry it out. This suggests that ethnographic research is an underused technique in business, and one that could offer significant advantages for SMEs especially.

Quantitative research methods for business

Like qualitative research methods, quantitative research methods help you understand your customer and your market better. Quantitative research can also be used to make forecasts and predictions about what might happen in the future. You can develop an in depth knowledge of your customers using existing data, or you can carry out business research to find out more about a specific research question.

Experimental research

In experimental research, you start out with a hypothesis about something happening in your business, and test it by manipulating an independent variable – or multiple independent variables – to find out the effect on a dependent variable. Strictly speaking, experimental research should follow rigorous scientific principles, but in business it’s more likely you will adopt a quasi-experimental approach with less emphasis on method and more on results.

One of the most popular applications of experimental research in business is A/B testing. A/B testing pits two or more variations of something against one another to find out which is more successful. It’s commonly used in marketing management when developing ads or marketing campaigns. In A/B testing, the hypothesis you’re testing is that both or all variations are equally successful. You’ll disprove this if one of the variants gets better results.

One of the benefits of A/B testing is that you can test multiple variants simultaneously by segmenting your audience.

For example, Kornitzer et. al (2020) used A/B testing in a healthcare setting to compare 9 patient messaging options to see which were more effective at preventing hospital appointment no-shows. The options each used a behavioural ‘nudge’ to encourage patients not to skip their appointments. By randomly assigning patients with upcoming appointments into groups, the researchers were able to test all 9 messaging approaches simultaneously. They determined that the most successful messages were those reminding people that skipping their appointment negatively impacted other patients who needed care.

Correlational research

Unlike causal research and experimental research, which look at relationships between a dependent variable and the independent variables acting on it, correlational research doesn’t deal with cause and effect. Instead it looks at phenomena that occur in proportion to one another, without one necessarily having to act on the other.

This kind of business research is helpful because it acts as a starting-point for further research. It can provide promising hypotheses that are worth investing in, as opposed to just guessing which variables might be related causally. Correlational research can also be used to bust myths and remove unhelpful assumptions.

For example, a correlational study by Stanley (2011) explored the relationship between corporate social responsibility and financial performance, using quantitative data to challenge assumptions that socially responsible behaviour is negatively associated with financial success in business.

Combined qualitative and quantitative research methods

Mixed mode research

Mixed mode is a form of business research that combines quantitative and qualitative research methods in a single research project. Qualitative business research can be used in an exploratory way to uncover the questions that should be addressed more deeply. Quantitative research is used to investigate specific research questions arising from the qualitative study. Then, a second round of qualitative research might be used to add depth and nuance to the quantitative verdict, bringing the insights to life.

Survey research

Surveys are a staple among business research methods, as well as being to collect data in other forms of research such as academic studies. A survey can generate both qualitative and quantitative data, depending on the question formats used. It’s a familiar format for most people, and can be taken in a variety of formats from online surveys to telephone surveys. This makes it a very inclusive method, giving you maximum access to your target audience. Survey business research can be used for everything from customer satisfaction to concept testing.

Today’s technology means that surveys can be integrated right into the experiences they’re measuring. This helps offset some of the weaknesses of the survey method, such as participants misremembering or generalising their experiences, or forgetting details because of the time lag between the events being studied and the participant taking the survey.

For example, Virgin Media used on page surveys to gather user feedback from website customers who had abandoned their carts. These in-the-moment insights helped them not only to understand the customer pain points, but to put them right quickly and efficiently.

Case study research

In case study research, the emphasis is on depth rather than breadth. Researchers explore a particular phenomenon in situ, looking at how a group or organisation behaved in a specific time and place, and what happened as a result. It is both a quantitative research method and a qualitative research method, as the research involves both types of data.

Case study research can be very helpful in business, as it offers an opportunity to learn how other companies approached a challenge you might be facing, and to learn from the solutions they devised and the obstacles they faced. However, this research method does require care and attention on the part of the researcher to make sure the research involves relevant cases. They must fully understand the similarities and differences between their own business goals and the situation being explored, in order to avoid incorrectly assuming equivalence and coming to faulty conclusions.

Case study research really comes into its own in emerging areas where best practice approaches are not yet firmly established.

For example, Urbaniti et al. (2020) conducted case study research on circular economy practices in multiple European manufacturing businesses. They noted different managers’ peculiar and innovative approaches to achieving the circular economy business model, taking into account environmental factors like legislation which helped shape the approaches.

The ultimate guide to conducting market research