Suppliers can and should write their own research briefs

GodzillaPost by Ray Poynter, 22 October 2020

If you are a supplier of research, I believe you should construct your own version of the research brief, to ensure you understand wat is needed and to increase the change of making an impact.

This post is an extract from my Finding the Story in Data workshop that I run for a wide range of organisations. (Its next outing will be 12 November for the UK’s MRS – an online, all-day course – email me if you’d like to commission this course for your organisation.)

‘A problem well stated is a problem half-solved’

This quote is attributed to Charles Kettering an engineer and inventor who was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. We can see the power of this approach by turning it around. If you do not define the problem properly you probably won’t recognise the answer even if you find it.

To understand the problem, look at issues such as:

  • The request for the project
  • The background (e.g. why is it being conducted now, not last year, not next year?)
  • Has the problem been addressed before? (If so, in what ways were the answers unsatisfactory?)
  • What would ‘success’ look like?
  • What actions do people plan to take when the results are known?
  • What do people think the results are going to be? (And why?)

The difference between Business Questions and Research Questions

Research is conducted because there is a business question that needs to be solved and it has been determined that part of the business question can be addressed by answering a research question.

Examples of research questions are:

  • What is our NPS score?
  • How many types of customer do we have?
  • Which of these 3 ads scores best?
  • How is our product discovered by new buyers?

Research questions tend to provide answers that are facts, numbers, examples, and explanations.

Examples of business questions are:

  • Can we reduce churn, and if so how?
  • Can we improve sales if we target segments, and if so how?
  • With the goal of increasing trial by non-users, which of these ads should we use?

Business questions tend to be answered with advice and recommendations.

Good research needs to answer research questions as a means to answering business questions. This means your version of research brief needs to be constructed in the context of the business question, not simply as a specification of the research that should be conducted.

Finding the business question

In many cases the business question is not included in the brief from the client. Quite often the reason for this is that the team commissioning the research does not know the business question. For example, a stakeholder tells the insight manager to conduct a new segmentation, and the insight manager issues a request for proposals, without any awareness of the business question the segmentation is intended to help answer.

The agency seeking to create its interpretation of the brief will, ideally, be able to probe the request for a study. Here is an example of the sort of requests I often receive.

Client:           ‘What are the drivers of satisfaction in hotel visits? (this is a research question)

Me:               ‘Why?’

Client:           ‘I want to know how to increase the number of repeat visits from business travellers’

Note:          this is a business question, and I know it focuses on a) business travellers, and b) repeat visits)

Me:               ‘What would success look like?’

Note:          I get different answers from different clients/projects

Client 1:        ‘I would have a range of options from the research that I could cost and implement’

Client 2:        ‘I would have two options, so I could pick one’

Client 3:        ‘I would have one clear recommendation’

Note, I can only successfully run this project if I know whether I am dealing with Client 1, 2, or 3. There is usually no such thing as ‘the right answer’, there is a right answer for a specific client with a specific need.

A more formal description of the asking why process is ‘finding the root cause’, applying techniques such as the ‘five whys’.

The Wider Context

The answer to most business questions does not come from a single research project. In most cases you will answer the question best by finding out what is already known and believed and building on that. An audit of what is known is an essential part of designing a good brief. What is known includes knowledge held by the client, information held by the agency, information held by other involved parties, and in the public domain.

For example, if the business problem is to choose a new ad that will increase sales of a new soft drink, there will be a wide range of things that are known. Other information might include: the client will have information about the market and they will have a view about how good an ad has to be if it is to be used (an Action Standard). The advertising agency will ‘know’ how the ad is supposed to work (e.g. the ad will appeal to millennials, a key group in creating momentum for this product). The agency may have benchmarks for other ads from a range of companies. Data about the market will be available from a variety of sources, including census data from the Government and consumption data from third-party data companies.

Your version of the brief should draw on what is known, determine which items need to be verified by the research, and identify what new knowledge is needed. I describe this as a framework of project knowledge.

Applying Backward Market Research

A good way to create a brief and to design the research is to use what Alan Andreasen called Backward Market Research in a 1985 HBR article (HT, Mark Ritson). Start by creating the debrief, the presentation you are going to make. Include dummy charts, include dummy findings and recommendations. This dummy report can be shown to the client, with the question ‘If we deliver this, will it be what you need?’

If the client can’t or won’t share more information?

Sometimes it is difficult to get more information from the client. The client may be too busy (or on leave), or the contact may not know what the ‘real client’ (the stakeholder) really wanted, or the client may choose not to share information for another reason. In such a case the researcher needs to try to be a detective, asking themselves (and others) questions such as “What might the business problem be?”, What research has worked well for this client in the past?”, “Has the client spoken at conferences or written articles setting out their preferences and key issues?”

The key thing in these difficult questions is to show the client an example of what you are going to deliver and get them to say whether or not this deliverable would answer the business and research questions.

Sharing your Brief with the Client

This post is about the process of you creating your own version of a client brief, so that you understand what is really needed. Remember, when you conduct your analysis and when you present your results, you do not want to tell the client everything you know, you want to answer the client’s questions – so a clear brief, that you have bought into, will help you design and focus your project.

I always recommend sharing your version of the brief with the client. This shows the client that you have taken their brief, deconstructed it, understood the business and research questions, and constructed a version of brief in your own words that will mesh smoothly with a) your proposal and b) the results you will deliver.