I constantly write about the importance of researching your target audience in B2B marketing but, as a social and behavioral scientist, I understand how difficult that can actually be. The research process is influenced and shaped by the researcher, so understanding the process is integral to garnering accurate, and thus, valuable findings. Because of this, I’d like to dedicate this post to the research process in general, as well as certain guidelines you can use in your own B2B research.
There are a few different things to consider when researching your b2b buyers. This guide will walk you through the 6 things you need to remember when conducting your research:
- Secondary Research
- Choosing a Setting
- Developing Your Research Proposal
- Getting Started
- Conducting A Focus Group
- Accounting For The Different Agendas
1) Secondary Research
Before conducting primary research with your target audience, do as much secondary research on them as you can. Who are they? What do they like or not like? What might they need? And finally, how does that tie into your product or service? You might find many of these answers by reading trade publications or visiting blogs and websites your audience frequents. And don’t forget to ask other people about them, perhaps places they shop or businesses they use. These sources are already familiar with your target audience and, thus, may have further insight.
Researching your target audience before you interact with it can give you a better understanding of relevant issues you can then use to guide the interview or focus group. But this part is tricky; secondary research gives you a starting point, but that is all it is, a starting point. If you assume you fully know your target audience after conducting secondary research, you’re less likely to look for ways your product or service might be useful to them (other than the ways you’ve already considered).
The point of primary research is to discover how your target audience makes sense of its world, and to figure out how your product or service fits into that world. But if you go in there starting from zero, you’ll waste a lot of your own, and your interviewees, time. So do your secondary research first, and use that information to develop topics and questions that can guide the interview process. And if the conversation strays, let it. Your secondary research will help you better understand them enough to get them talking; and once they start talking, just listen (and document it!), because that’s when you really start to learn.
2) Choosing a Setting
Now that I’ve covered the importance of secondary research, I’d like to discuss the importance of considering where to do your primary research.
I suggest interviewing your target audience in their own space, if possible. This makes the interviewees feel more comfortable, allowing them to open up, which in turn can lead to more valuable findings. It also means they’ll have their stuff around them so, if they describe something to you, they might be able to physically show you an example of it right then and there. Or, if they think of a certain way your product or service might be useful, they could pull in other people and have a quick brainstorming session about whether they agree, disagree, or want to come up with a whole new suggestion altogether.
In addition to making the interview better, being in your target audiences space can also create additional benefits. For example, what sort of space is it? Is this a warehouse with a retail front where you could advertise your product? If so, think about how and what promotional materials work within that space; see if you could even take pictures to bring home to the creative team. Always ask for a tour too, you never know what you might observe or how many additional people you might meet who could be helpful to you in the future. And finally, be on the lookout for anything your competitors do; if this is a space where you can promote your product or service, and your competitors already are, you’re already at a disadvantage.
Remember, the entire research process is influenced and shaped by the researcher, and your findings depend on the design and research plan you create. So before interviewing your target audience, think about the setting; it’s a very important decision that can greatly influence whether or not you collect valuable information you can utilize in your B2B marketing strategy.
3) Developing Your Research Proposal
I have thus far written about the importance of secondary research in the B2B marketing research process, as well as choosing the setting where you will research. Now, it is time to develop your research proposal, which is essentially writing down everything you’ve learned in order develop your actual research plan and design.
What is it? Your research proposal serves two purposes: 1) It will guide you and keep you on track throughout your the research process; note that it is not a set of questions to guide the interview it is a document that guides the research process. It puts into writing everything you have been thinking about and learning up to this point; it takes intangible ideas and makes them a tangible document that can be held and discussed. However, it is not static and can easily change based upon what you learn from your target audience. 2) It is your proposal to your C-suite about why you think this is needed, and how you plan to answer that need.
What does it include? Your research proposal should contain at least the following, though it may change based upon the extent of your project. Also, you will be presenting this document to your client to explain what you plan to do, so always use a branded document, correct grammar, spell check, etc.
Title: Always choose a title that relays the topic and the content. You may also choose to include your methodology (i.e. focus groups, one-on-one interviews, etc.)
Abstract: Take a paragraph to succinctly describe what you will be doing. Who are you studying? What is your methodology? And most importantly, what is the purpose of your research?
Rationale: Why should this be studied now? Include this because when your stakeholders see it, they may want to know why this is needed. Including this in your proposal guides how that conversation starts (which can obviously influence how it ends).
Research Question(s): The whole point of research is to find out about your target audience, so keep these open-ended so you don’t guide the interviews in one certain direction. They should be broad questions based upon the secondary research you’ve done as well as any additional information you may have gathered up to this point.
Methodology: How will you do your research? You have already touched on this very briefly in your abstract, but now it’s time to be more detailed. For example, where will you conduct the research? When? Why did you choose this particular method?
Analysis: How will you analyze the information once you have gathered everything?
Schedule: And finally, always include your timeline for completing the research as well as the analysis.
Anything else? Remember that though this document will be useful for you in guiding your research, it is still a proposal; so always be ready to answer any questions that may arise from why you chose that methodology to why the research is needed in the first place.
4) Getting Started
Ok, so you’ve done your secondary research and you’ve developed your research proposal, now what? Well, now it’s time to get started! Developing your research will be dependent upon the relationship you develop with your research group (aka, your target audience), so devote time to getting this relationship started on the right foot. Here are some things to keep in mind:
You’re an Outsider! Remember that being researched can make some people feel uneasy. They may want to give you the right answer; they may be unsure about why you are asking something (and thus not know how to answer); and many times they may be unsure what they can/cannot say in terms of protecting their own businesss privacy. Whatever the reason, be aware that you are the outsider and that they may feel uncomfortable by that. Don’t get frustrated by this; simply talk through it.
Who Holds the Keys? Be sure you develop a positive rapport with the person who authorizes the research process within the organization(s) you are interviewing. Sometimes the person who holds the keys may not even really understand the importance, so be ready to explain it (and be ready to subsequently explain it to everyone you research). Discuss how what you learn from them may benefit them by approaching the issues, concerns and opportunities that you discover through your research.
To Whom Are You Talking? Know about the business whom you are interviewing. This not only helps you develop rapport at the beginning, but can also help you speak their language and understand where they are coming from when you ask them questions during the interview. At the very least, visit their website; do not go in there without knowing anything about them.
Stay Humble. Stay humble throughout the research process. Remember that they are giving you the most valuable thing they have: their time. So be appreciative, listen intently, ask questions, and do not waste their time. And remember to get their contact information and ask if you can follow-up at a later time; inevitably when you start analysis you will wish you had asked them something, and this way you have asked up front if it is ok to contact them if you do.
And finally, remember to keep this relationship and nurture it as much as possible. You never know when you may need to make a quick phone call or hold an ad hoc focus group and its nice to already have someone in the rolodex (who understands the process) should that need ever arise!
5) Conducting A Focus Group
Focus groups are an adaptable research tool for understanding your b2b buyers. Focus groups are valuable because they allow for group synergy that unearths information that may otherwise have been difficult to reach in a one-on-one setting.
For example, if you interview someone, that person may think a certain issue pertains only to him or her; but when that issue is made more public, you may discover that others feel the same way. Additionally, having people discuss and build off what others are saying further uncovers information you just cannot get without a group setting.
As a focus group moderator, how you administer the method directly correlates to the results you receive. If there is too much structure, such as an overly rigid set of questions, you may miss the magic that comes from just allowing people to sit around and talk. On the other hand, establishing too little structure, may leave the group unsure of what to discuss, thus not uncovering any information at all. How much structure you choose is ultimately determined by your objective, but I’ve always found that having a little structure (such as a set of questions you want to be sure are answered) is good, but also let the group branch off in another direction if their dialogue does so. After all, the reason for having a focus group is to hear what they have to say – thus, let them speak.
Focus groups usually last between one and two hours, most people have a limit of how much time they’re willing to devote to one, so be aware of this and try to keep it under two hours. The group size may vary, but the 6-10 participants is typical. (You may want to over-recruit, just to ensure there are enough participants left if some were to cancel at the last minute.) Additionally, base your group size on your objective. If you want deep-level information from your participants, keeping the size smaller will allow more people to talk more thoroughly. If what you’re looking for is more surface-level, keeping the size larger will let you hear more opinions.
So the next time you need to learn about your company or product or service, ask the people who know. After all, reading trade publications and interviewing clients may be great ways to do research, they aren’t the only ones. The focus group method can garner results you otherwise may have never had, and utilizing this information in your messaging and outreach may prove more effective, since it is relevant to your target audience.
6) Accounting For The Different Agendas
You have a product or service to market, and it’s your job to find out how it fits in your target audience’s lives. This involves going to them, seeing how they live their lives, and quite frankly just hearing them talk. (See my blog on sense-making theory for more information.)
In speaking with your target audience, you’ll find they have their own agenda as well. You may want to ask them about a new product you’re offering, whereas all they want to talk about is another product you offer and concerns they have with it.
Quite simply, in order to keep rapport and their trust, you can’t just rush them along. You have to listen to what they say. Just as you see them as your key to finding out information, often times they see you as their key to getting their voice heard.
Think of it as a symbiotic relationship, where each of you are helping each other. And I cannot stress enough, nurture the relationship as much as possible, because having a contact with your target audience who gives you honest feedback is truly worth its weight in gold.
Researching your b2b buyers can be time consuming, but it’s worth it. Need help knowing how to use your buyer personas? Check out this post: Why You Need B2B Buyer Personas and How To Create Them.
For more useful tips on research itself, check Qualitative Communication Research Methods by Thomas Lindlof and Bryan Taylor.