Consumer Behavior Research

We’ll look at how consumer behavior research tools can help your business and what practical tools you can consider for getting the most from consumer and marketing research.

In This Article

> Overview

> The Lure and Pitfalls of DIY Consumer Research

> How to Decide Whether Consumer Marketing Research is Worth It

> Choosing Which Consumer Behavior Research Tools Work Best

> Where to Start with Consumer Behavior Research

> What Consumers Do, What They Say – and What Actually Happens

> Understanding What Consumers Do – Versus Changing What They Do

> Consumer Marketing Research in Your Business


Understanding how consumers think and behave can be critical to helping move your business toward achieving established goals. Consumer Behavior Research is one tool that has been used for decades by companies to do just this. Whether decisions are about what new products to launch, communication elements, pricing strategies or product changes, consumer behavior research can help you understand what will most resonate with your consumers and help guide key decisions.

Historically, business owners did this themselves with their gut feel and personal experience. Many combined this with speaking with their customers, observing competitors and monitoring the marketplace to find out what was in consumers’ minds. All of these are highly valid inputs to decision making but don’t always give complete clarity into how consumers are responding to their business actions or required changes.

Now there are a plethora of consumer behavior research tools available and used by many businesses to help better understand consumer behavior and ultimately sharpen their business decisions.

The Lure and Pitfalls
of DIY Consumer Research

Let’s start with the potential risk of not doing any Consumer Research. Many people say that as their business is going well, they do not need to pay to learn about consumer behavior. They have years of experience in the trade, they themselves are consumers, and they observe what is going on in the market.

It is true that when you work in a given business, you develop a feel for how consumers think and shop, especially your product line if not always the broader category. You, your colleagues and family may also be consumers of the product, so feel that you already have quite some insights into consumer behavior.

While beneficial, this can be misleading. First, when you work in the area, you tend to have a level of engagement with the category which typical consumers do not. Not only is it hard to see things objectively, but it is also hard to see the product in the way real consumers see it. If you have a fantastic technology which offers what consumers say they want, it can be difficult to admit or even understand why consumers consistently reject your product at the point of purchase. For them, however, it may be that that category is one of thirty or forty they are shopping in a single visit on the way home from work and they simply do not have the engagement in it you may expect.

Secondly, you, your friends and family may well not represent the target group for your product. Even if you match it in terms of usage, a group of trained business professionals probably does not match the socio-economic spread most brands have as their target user group.

Put yourself into the shoes of being a consumer. Ask yourself a couple of questions about a business or category outside of your area. Have you ever wondered why the business owner or marketer didn’t change something? Have you switched services or brands because you were a dissatisfied customer? This can be very enlightening as you consider how your own consumers might feel.

Consumer behavior research and consumer marketing research can help fill in a lot of the gaps, building on what you already know.

How to Decide Whether
Consumer Marketing Research is Worth It

Even if you buy into the principles of consumer marketing research, there are often many reasons people give for not doing it. It can seem overly conceptual, expensive, not timely or unable to payout in measurable business impact.

This is a misconception about how consumer marketing research works. You first need to design the research to answer specific questions about your business that you know are important to the success of the business. You can then select the right combination of consumer behavior research tools to deliver what you need to know from within your budget.

Consumer behavior research isn’t suited only to sweeping overviews of the whole market. It can be tailored to answer particular questions which directly impact your financial results. For example, you can uncover how to maximize the in-store impact of your packaging for higher trial rates, what price point your product line can support by channel, and how different communication routes could drive sales. As well as showing how to improve financial return, research can also help you avoid significant losses, for example as a disaster check of consumer acceptance before a price increase, or a tool to make a go/no-go decision on a brand extension or new product line.

Choosing Which Consumer Behavior Research Tools Work Best

Today there are a wide range of tools available for consumer behavior research. At a high level, market research is categorized into two areas: qualitative or quantitative techniques.

Qualitative research tools involve a smaller number of target consumers and are suited to getting initial understanding and deep insight into consumer behavior – the why behind the what.

Some of the essential qualitative tools will be familiar to you from general marketing practice or pop culture references. For example, a focus group pulls together target consumers and uses a moderator to uncover their needs, wants, satisfactions and dissatisfactions with a brand, product or category. In-depth one-on-one interviews can cover similar territory, in more personal detail though without the possible group interaction a focus group provides. This can be helpful if looking for new ways to explain things to consumers, as an example. Diaries can be used for consumers to fill out their actions and thoughts in advance of the research, often over a more extended period, for probing by the moderator.

Other qualitative techniques are more complicated drawing from anthropology or ethnography, basically seeing consumers as study subjects to be observed, interpreted and understood. Facial coding links expressions and dwell time with specific items. In accompanied shopping trips, researchers follow consumers along the shopping trip and ask them about it before and after. Psychological tools such as semiotics research track how consumer react to images as a way of unlocking their deeper emotional feelings about products or brands.

Quantitative market research tools. Quantitative typically follows qualitative research to confirm or validate what you have learned or hypothesized. They involve larger numbers of target consumers and are recruited to understand on a broader scale, predicting what consumers will do and making final decisions.

Large-scale studies draw data about category usage, consumer or shopper behavior and attitudes and can include panel data of mass questionnaire, in-mall interviews, in-store or at home usage studies to name a few. Balancing speed with quality is important in how the quantitative research is done as it will involve more time and dollars. Getting to the “what” through techniques can be quicker and easier when the transactions are digital such as online shopping, although getting to the all-important “why” is not necessarily easier in the digital world than offline.

The variety of tools exist because they have a use in specific contexts, but they will not all be right for any given piece of research. You need to ask first what you want to discover, and then choose the right sorts of tools to help you do that. The budget can also be a consideration at this point. For example, if a large-scale semiotics study is too expensive for you, sharing some imagery over a coffee with a couple of consumers may at least give you some of the answers you need at a far lower cost. Similarly, getting creative about consumer recruitment can free up money to spend on other parts of the research. As an example, the last ten consumer complaints you received were from people who both used your product and felt sufficiently engaged to contact you about it. They may be more negative than typical consumers (or not – maybe other consumers feel the same way but simply left your brand without telling you) but calling them up they’ll probably feel happy to be taken seriously by you and have a wealth of insight to share about your brand straight off the bat.

Social media insights, either listening or understanding what consumers respond to through click rates and other social media measures can also be helpful, inexpensive and fast. These can provide valuable insights relevant to specific marketing activities. But keep in mind, they don’t help get at the deeper reasons or the “why” behind the “what.”

Where to Start with Consumer Behavior Research

Consumer behavior research should not live in a vacuum. You are not doing it for its own sake, but to help you design and implement more robust marketing plans which will drive your business success.

As a starting point, ask yourself a few questions: What am I trying to accomplish? What problem am I trying to solve? What opportunities might I be missing?

This mindset helps make it easier to decide what questions you need to answer in order to make smart choices for your business planning. This, in turn, will help you choose the optimal consumer behavior research tools to use.

Sometimes people think of research as something done after the event – a way to test a new prototype or get a reaction to a possible store layout. Much research is done at that stage and helps with final validation. However, other research is done earlier in the planning cycle. From identifying white spaces in your market mapping to co-creating the look and feel, packaging or communication of a product restage, it can be helpful to do consumer behavior research before or during your business planning, not merely after you have finalized it or moved to market. One way to think about this is to ask what are you looking for from the research – guidance, inspiration, problem fixing, validation or post-mortem? Each one can be useful, but it is important to make sure you research at the right time.

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What Consumers Do, What They Say – and What Actually Happens

Consumers often say one thing – or many things – but may well do another thing. What goes unsaid is often as valuable as what they say. For example, in a focus group, if you ask how moms do meal planning, they will typically mention considerations such as healthy eating and variety. In a one-on-one in-depth interview, the same moms may, without the social pressure of answering in front of their peers, start to talk more about time pressure or cost concerns. If you observe them in a shop along or home visit, the reality may be different again. For example, they could be driven on that day by limited cash, a promotion in store, a relative visiting at short notice or any number of other factors.

This gap between what people say and what they do isn’t a problem for consumer marketing research. It is actually a tremendous opportunity, as it is in these gaps between how consumers think about their lives and how they actually live them that some of the best marketing opportunities emerge.

Similarly, that is why consumer marketing research often involves rejecters and lapsed users, not just users – their insight is often powerful as they have thought pretty hard about the product. That’s why marketing research best practice helps you get out of the echo chamber of positivity from satisfied users on which most businesses rely.

Understanding What Consumers Do – Versus Changing What They Do

Is consumer behavior research about getting insight into what consumers do, or about shaping their behavior in the way that you want it to be? Actually, it is about both.

Understanding what consumers do is a crucial outcome of much research. This can be helpful even in simple categories where you think you already understand what consumers do. However, marketing research best practice should reveal all sorts of fascinating learning in areas where consumers act privately or use alibis to explain their behavior not only to researchers but also to themselves. If you want to know what really goes on with condoms, cars priced above the family budget, anti-dandruff shampoo or fast but unhealthy convenience food, you will learn a lot from the right consumer research, and much of it may surprise you.

However, merely understanding the landscape may only be part of the puzzle when it comes to improving your business results.

You may want to use consumer marketing research to learn how to drive outcomes you want. This can include behavior changes from getting consumers to pay more for a product to getting them to use it in the right or different way. Sometimes it may be as simple as getting an impulse purchase to at least be in the consideration set at the point of purchase, or helping consumers understand how to identify between different variants of your brand.

You can get the insights you need to help structure these behavioral shifts using consumer marketing research. Sometimes this may involve testing multiple variants of the product or communication and seeing which is most effective, as in a classic advertising copy test where consumers will rate different adverts or their subsequent purchase is tracked to see which executions worked best. Sometimes you can run a form of live testing, where you interview consumers in real time and mock-up iterations based on what you have learned from them, gauging reaction from subsequent consumers.

The consumer will give you facts or understanding, but you will need to translate that into the true insight and interpret what that means for the business. For example, if you hear consumers say that they always forget to make the next appointment at your dental practice unless they have a tooth problem, you could ideate different reminder techniques from a follow up phone call to a free calendar and test them with consumers to see how each fulfills your business objective, and how cost-effectively.

Consumer Marketing Research
in Your Business

Based on what you have read, how could consumer marketing research help your business?

A straightforward way to answer this question right now would be to write down two or three business outcomes you’d love to achieve in your next planning cycle. For each, write down even a couple of things which you’d need to understand correctly to be able to reach each outcome.

Right there, you have a rough starting point for thinking about your consumer marketing research needs.

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