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What you should know about (online) surveys and market research

There is one key message that we repeat again and again to entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs when we coach them: sending an online survey is not doing market research. Market research is far more than that.

Yet, this message seems to not to be understood by everyone because business owners, entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs have been polluted for years by biased messages on market research. Many firms proposing solutions of online surveys have relabeled themselves as “market research agencies”. Because real market research is usually a hassle and a very difficult task requiring deep expertise, people were prompt to believe this fairy tale because those firms suddenly proposed them a quick and easy fix.


Keep the following in mind: “market research is complex and there is no easy fix to it”

It is illusory to think that one can capture the complexity of a market by asking a few questions. Actually this is not even the purpose of an online survey.


What is the purpose of an online survey?

An online survey is a quantitative instrument. It belongs to the “quantitative” family of techniques that are used to quantify (hence its name) the size of a market. Internet has made it easier to send surveys but there is one crucial point that internet will not solve for you. You should first define the right questions to ask. And defining the right questions to ask requires that you use “qualitative techniques” (interviews, focus groups, observations, …).

What most people don’t understand about online surveys

Most people fail to understand that defining the questions to ask is actually far more important than sending the survey. Finding the right questions to ask requires that you have developed a deep understanding of a market, its stakeholders, their motivations. If you bypass the qualitative phase of the market research you’ll end up with an online survey that covers at max 50% of what is important to measure the market. And believe us … a 50% margin of error is way too big when you’re about to launch a project or, even worse, a company.

Should I always do a qualitative research AND a quantitative research?

The good news is that it’s not always compulsory. However you should understand that by doing so you increase dramatically the odds of convincing the bank of the robustness of your project and of giving you a loan.

The only exception that we would allow is when you have a disruptive product that customers don’t know yet, are not accustomed to or that could dramatically change their habits.

In that case you should do what we call a fast-fail prototype.


Start your market research on an innovative product or service with a fast-fail phase

The aim of a fas-fail prototype is too quickly and cheaply test the potential of a market. Imagine that you want to test in Belgium the market potential of selling bugs to replace meat. This is so new in this part of the world and emotions may be so strong that adoption may be greatly impeded.

What you should do in that case is to go out, on the street, and assess directly the willingness of people to eat bugs or bugs-based meals. Compare then the results to an experiment with normal food and you’ll be able to measure the differences (if any) and how difficult it will be to go on the market.



Advice for your market research and your business plan (be it in Brussels, Belgium or elsewhere)

We have several pieces of advice for you.

First you should get out of your mind that an online survey is all what you should do to complete a market research. As we showed above, this is not true.

Second you should use all the techniques offered by market research to do what market researchers call “triangulation”; it means that several techniques help find out the convergences and detect any abnormality.

Third, if you plan to launch a disruptive product or service, carry out a fast-fail phase to assess the reaction of your target customer and decide whether or not to invest time in money in a market research.

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Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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