The Blog

by Tim O'Mara

Four Questions of Research

When a research project is under consideration, we should always spend a few minutes (or longer, if necessary) discussing what I like to call The Four Questions of Research. These are simple, easy to remember, yet surprisingly powerful planning tools.

  1. What do we know?
    Research can cover many different topic areas and take many forms. But often, the client knows the answer before research is ever conducted. Given that it takes time and money to conduct research, we should not be asking questions when we know the answer. Doing so is a waste of money that could be better spent learning answers that we don’t know.

    Similarly, sometimes there will be a desire to “throw in the kitchen sink,” asking questions about every conceivable subject on a study. The rationale for this approach is generally along the lines of “well, we’ve recruited the audience already, let’s ‘get our money’s worth.’” The problem is that more questions means more time for the respondent, and more time means a higher cost for the project. A second consideration is respondent fatigue. If the questionnaire or the interview takes too long, the respondent will be more inclined to simply stop responding, or worse, will provide answers without thought. Any of these results damage the quality of the research. So we shouldn’t ask questions we know the answer to simply because we can.

  2. What don’t we know?
    Engaging the client in this conversation defines the objective of the research. What are we trying to find out? If we answer this question well we will know a lot about research methodology to be employed.

    If we don’t have a clear objective for the research, we should not start designing the project.

  3. What would we do if we knew?
    We can use research to find out the answer to an infinite number of questions. But unless we are going to make a decision or take an action as a result of the research, we must question whether the expenditure is warranted. Further, understanding the decision that will be made a result of the research will help us better design the approach and methodology that we employ.
  4. How would ‘doing that’ impact the bottom line?
    In order to understand whether the research provides a positive return on the client’s investment, it’s a good idea to at least try to understand the impact we expect the decision to have. For example, perhaps we are conducting research to understand which of three potential market segments reacts most favorably to a new product concept. Let’s assume the impact of gaining the answer would be the following: by selecting the best target audience, we expect to be 20 percent more efficient with our $1,000,000 media buy, a savings of $200,000. In this case, a $50,000 research project to gain $200,000 in media savings would appear to be an excellent investment.

When considering a research project, use the four questions to determine whether research is warranted; to sharpen objectives; to provide good input for research design; and to help determine what the downstream value of the research will be.