How to Run a Complex Research Project

Conducting research is a key practice for any business, providing insights into how well the target market understands the brand and its products, and assessing the demand for new products and services. It also informs future marketing strategy and helps identify weak spots that need improvement.

A complex research project may involve numerous data collection methods, such as in-depth interviews with consumers, focus groups, surveys, as well as data from social media or other online platforms.  It may include both primary and secondary data, as well as both qualitative and quantitative data.

This article covers some best practices to consider when conducting in-depth research with many moving parts.

The Value of Research

Some common reasons for conducting marketing and branding research are:

  • Identifying customer needs and wants in order to develop new products or services, or optimise existing ones
  • Gaining more clarity about segmentation
  • Understanding how customers may respond to the introduction of new products and services
  • Identifying barriers to purchasing and gaining insight on how to overcome them
  • Predicting customer needs
  • Understanding customer perceptions of design
  • Understanding the competitive landscape and how customers interact with competitors
  • Defining or refining the brand’s identity
  • Understanding how accurately customers understand the brand
  • Understanding what messaging is most effective in marketing campaigns
  • Creating a more effective marketing strategy
  • Targeting more effectively
  • Personalising campaigns more effectively

Since a brand’s identity is the image that customers have in their heads when they hear a business’ name or see its logo, it’s so important to define it as clearly as possible and make sure it is communicated in a consistent way.

Researching customer perceptions of a brand can help the company in-question figure out how to differentiate themselves in order to stay unique and continue to appeal to customers. It may also reveal any differences between platforms or campaigns, indicating where the gaps are in terms of consistency.

While existing customers might already have a distinct idea of what a brand stands for, prospective customers may not; understanding any discrepancies in this regard helps in developing more effective messaging for targeting prospective customers.

A company will not always know what questions it needs to be asking. In these cases, there will be no specific objective and the research will be more exploratory in nature. Exploratory research often gives rise to specific questions that need answering through a more structured approach later on.


Once the project’s scope has been defined, the most important considerations when planning include defining the objectives of the research (as discussed above) then deciding on data collection methods and making sure the right questions are defined.

A combination of qualitative and quantitative data will often provide the most robust insights. Based on the objectives of the project, define which KPIs need to be analysed then conduct the required analysis on all appropriate channels.

Another factor to consider is the sample size. Generally speaking, the larger the sample, the better; however, considering the budget, it’s important to ensure that the quality of the research is not compromised in favour of reaching a larger audience.

Using a combination of different data collection methods is a valuable approach. For example, surveys make it easier to reach a large number of participants, but focus groups and interviews allow for more in-depth feedback as participants can be prompted for more detailed opinions and explanations.

As of 2020, 64% of researchers stated that they use mobile first surveys. To reach a large audience, using mobile methods is vital, especially if the target audience largely consists of younger generations. Another popular method is in-depth online interviews; 41% of researchers said they use this method regularly and that it’s one of their top three.

As well as the primary data gathered by in-house research, it’s worth considering looking at secondary data. The market intelligence that comes from thorough research by external market research companies is invaluable when it comes to making strategic decisions on large-scale or significant changes such as expanding into new markets.

Ask the Right Questions

As mentioned, customer surveys, interviews and focus groups are a great way to get detailed, quality feedback. When executed well, these methods will provide actionable insights that can help improve product, services, branding, and messaging. However, it is important to ask the right questions; collecting endless data that is irrelevant or inaccurate will not provide any useful insights.  

What are the right questions? Again, it depends on the project’s objectives; only the questions that are most relevant to those objectives should be asked. For example, a restaurant chain that’s struggling to get more customers may want to find out why their existing customers don’t visit more often. This would prompt various questions relating to their experience at the establishment. The aim is to get to the ‘why’ behind customer perspectives and decisions. 

Avoid Leading Questions 

A leading question is one that encourages a specific answer and can therefore lead to bias in research. For example, “Are you happy with your current job?” This question puts the notion of happiness in the respondent’s mind. They have a leaning towards an answer associated with the word “happy”. 

Leading questions can bias responses in a number of ways. They can cause respondents to answer in a way that they think the researcher wants them to, and they can cause respondents to give answers that are not accurate reflections of their true beliefs or opinions.

To avoid leading questions, use neutral language that encourages the respondent to answer without swaying them in any particular direction. For example, instead of asking if someone is happy at their current job, one could instead ask, “What are your thoughts on your current job?” or “How do you feel about your current job?”

Leading questions may arise as a result of confirmation bias – seeking out information that supports one’s existing beliefs and ignoring information that contradicts those beliefs. People may also interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. This can lead people to hold false beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence.

There are many reasons this may occur, such as a resistance to change. Even when change is required to take a business forward, those responsible for implementing changes to day-to-day operations may prefer things to stay the way they are. As a result, they may unconsciously choose questions that are likely to elicit a specific response from survey respondents that would lead to change not being implemented. (While this is less likely to occur in a larger organisation with dedicated market research teams, it may occur in smaller businesses where responsibilities are less distributed.)   

Confirmation bias is a major problem in many areas of life and can lead people to make bad decisions and inaccurate judgments. While it may be comfortable to avoid challenging one’s current ideas, the ultimate goal of any marketing or branding research project is to uncover the truth and develop ways to increase brand awareness, revenue, or achieve whatever the objective is.  

To prevent confirmation bias and leading questions, it is best for surveys to be designed by parties that are not personally invested in the outcome and only seek to gain genuine insights. Another way is to seek out diverse perspectives and opinions. 

Encourage Responses From All Segments

It’s important to survey all audience segments in order to gain the most complete insights. As well as surveying existing customers, it is important to survey those who have never purchased before as these groups will have very different perspectives on the branding and the business overall. 

Do a Test Run

To ensure everything is working correctly, do a test run on a small subset of participants. This ensures that any issues can be resolved before the research is launched in full; if any problems occurred in the first instance and a large number of participants had already responded, asking them to complete the survey a second time will not go down well, and finding new participants will require resources that could be better used for other purposes.

Interpreting the Findings

Use Multiple Data Points When Calibrating Findings

When collecting feedback from customers, it’s easy to make assumptions about what the findings mean, and it’s important to avoid this as much as possible. For example, suppose that the majority of customers ranked a certain feature as “poor”. One might jump to the conclusion that this feature is not worth maintaining and should be discontinued.

However, using other data points might reveal a different picture. For example, many customers may have also ranked that same feature as “extremely important,” suggesting that it should not be discontinued and that efforts should be made to improve it because it’s in-demand. 

Being thorough and methodical and always considering the bigger picture prevents bad decisions based on limited data points. 

Use Data Analysis Tools 

It’s much easier to find important patterns and trends in a dataset by using market research tools compared to processing it manually, and the algorithms involved are able to uncover complex relationships between variables. Allowing analytics software to find insights allows marketers to focus their energy on what needs to be done about those insights.

It’s not just quantitative data that can be fed into such tools – natural language processing and sentiment analysis are helpful in finding common themes in large amounts of qualitative data. As well as finding themes within survey responses, it’s an effective way to understand what the public are saying about a brand across various online platforms.

In Summary

The design of a research project will always vary depending on its goals. No matter the goal, collecting data from a variety of sources will provide the most robust basis from which to draw insights. Ask customers the right questions – questions that are relevant to the project’s goals and that get to the ‘why’ behind customer perspectives and decisions. By understanding the why, solutions that target the core of the issue can be developed.

Bias can easily find its way into any research project; to get the most accurate responses, use neutral language to avoid leading questions, and ensure that those designing the questions are neutral and have no reason to sway the outcome. Finally, leverage analytics tools and always consider the bigger picture when calibrating findings. 

If you need assistance with a research project, get in touch with us today to find out how we’re building insights for clients around the world.