By Lynn Manternach | Guest Column

The speed of business continues to accelerate. New and improved technologies are enabling faster decisions, more rapid product development, new category innovations and a speedier path to market for new ideas.

Today’s marketers operate at a blazingly fast pace with a myriad of variables. We live in a complex and fragmented universe of media channels where we’re trying to understand which messages are working and which are not so we can react and optimize campaigns in real-time.

At the same time, new and improved technologies are enabling easier access to customer research for organizations. Small and mid-sized businesses have the most to gain with improved access to easier, faster and efficient ways to conduct consumer research in-house.

There are online no-cost survey tools that allow researchers and non-researchers to design basic surveys in minutes. The tools make it easy to enter the survey questions, deploy the survey in a variety of ways and perform basic analysis of results. Over the past few years, there have been significant enhancements to the design and robustness of online survey tools, including sample questions and helpful tips to guide the efforts of novice do-it-yourself researchers.

The biggest advantage of in-house research is the firsthand, real-time, in-depth understanding of your customers’ opinions, perceptions, behaviors and needs. Wading through the raw data can be time-consuming, but it also provides insight into how your customers think and feel.

If you can develop and deploy your customer research in-house, you’ll be positioned to quickly translate the data to insights and insights to strategy. If you are designing your own survey, here are things to consider:

Start with the end in mind. For every question you include, make sure you know how you will use the answer. Every question needs to be actionable. Don’t abuse your respondents. No one loves a long survey.

Take time to think about who should respond to your survey. You can only generalize the research results to people who are like those you included in your sample. Be sure you have scoped your respondent set appropriately for your project objectives.

Make your questions clear and impartial. The goal is to understand what your targeted respondents think, not to get them to say they love your product, service or company.

Include open-ended questions. Essay responses are difficult to translate to percentages, but open-ended questions like “Why are you not likely to recommend?” can provide the understanding needed to develop nuanced, but effective, marketing and service strategies.

While a well-constructed DIY research project can provide speedy and important insights, there are downsides that can threaten data quality and your ability to be successful.

The biggest danger is that surveys can contain fundamental flaws that reverberate throughout the data analysis and subsequent decision-making. Research can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing. If the research will be used as the foundation for important decisions, such as long-term strategy or brand development, you should consider working with a professional. In addition to making sure the process is methodologically solid and error-free, the pros offer expertise in data analysis that can make a big difference in the clarity of the results.

The most important part of the research process is translating data into strategy. The right research company will help you understand what the data means and how it can be used to develop strategies that connect to business objectives and outcomes. And that’s the point of consumer research, isn’t it?

Dr. Lynn Manternach is brand arsonist and president at MindFire Communications Inc. (MindFireComm.com) in Cedar Rapids and LeClaire, Iowa. Contact Lynn at lmanternach@mindfirecomm.com.