In this second article on marketing and promotion, Early Years Update, looks at how to use market research to find out more about the customers who use your services

This article follows the first in the series, on creating an image for your organisation. Starting up a new form of provision, or managing the expansion of an existing service into a new area, is a time-consuming and expensive process. Before putting in all this effort it is vital to be as clear as possible about how successful the venture is likely to be, how soon it will become ‘profitable’ and how good its prospects are of being sustainable in the longer term. The term ‘profit’ is applied here in its very broadest sense and includes all those ventures which are designated ‘not for profit’.

The importance of market research For any service, or product, to be successful it has to have a market – a sufficient number of people must want to use it, or to buy it. The initiators of a good idea to expand and develop services will probably be convinced that the idea is a good one, and that everyone will be queuing up to use the services.

The reality can be somewhat different, and unless notice is taken of that reality and use made of all the available information to carry out accurate, in-depth market research there is a risk of starting up a project which will at best not fulfil its potential, and at worst will be an expensive and disappointing failure.

You can never know too much about your customers No matter how good you think the service you want to provide is, if it isn’t something which the majority of your customers want it will not succeed in the long term.

To avoid this, a carefully thought out market research project will help to:

  • refine ideas to match needs
  • provide information to plan the detail of the services to be provided
  • suggest a suitable timescale over which the project should be developed
  • provide the necessary background information to support a business plan.

Broadly speaking there are two types of information which can be gathered through market research:

  • Quantitative information where the answers are expressed in numerical terms – How many? How often? How much?
  • Qualitative information about people’s attitudes and perceptions – How do you feel about…? What do you think of…?

Quantitative information is easier to collect and to analyse but qualitative information provides a more in-depth understanding of different behaviour and the reasons why people do things. A good market research project will gather a mixture both types of information.

Gathering information Once it has been decided what information is needed it is possible to work out the most cost-effective way of obtaining it.

Usually this will involve a combination of:

  • desk research
  • face-to-face interviews
  • focus groups
  • telephone interviews
  • questionnaires.

Desk research is the easiest and cheapest way to gather information. It involves analysing a range of information which has been collected for other purposes, but which contains facts, figures and opinions which are relevant to the questions you are investigating. Desk research will provide an overview of the current situation but it does have its drawbacks – as it has been collected for a different purpose initially it is unlikely to be directly transferable to another service, geographical area or population. Face-to-face interviews allow more time for in-depth questioning but must be well structured in order to achieve their objective. The interviewer can respond immediately to comments made by the person being interviewed but these interviews can be costly, time consuming, of variable quality and difficult to analyse. Focus groups consist of existing, or potential users of a service that are brought together to answer a series of questions and state their opinions, likes and dislikes. Telephone interviews are a less expensive option and can often be combined with telephone surveys. The questions should be clear and simple and the interviewer should sound friendly but efficient and be skilled at recording verbal responses on a standard recording sheet. Questionnaires are a commonly used tool to give structure to face-to-face and telephone interviews and can also be used to gather information through postal surveys. Well thought out questionnaires enable the collection of accurate information, which can be analysed easily. Structured questionnaires are used in large, quantitative surveys. They consist of a series of precisely worded questions in a particular order and are easily analysed. Unstructured questionnaires can be used in face-to-face and telephone interviews. They comprise a checklist of questions which the interviewer can explore in depth depending on the responses given by the interviewee. However, they are more difficult to analyse because of the much broader nature of the questions asked. Semi-structured questionnaires use a combination of the two methods to collect statistical data along with background information on the reasons why people think or do certain things.

Compiling a questionnaire

  • Always keep the aim of the market research in mind to avoid wasting time by asking irrelevant questions or missing any vital questions.
  • Think about how the questionnaire will be used – self-completion questionnaires have to be as clear and unambiguous as possible.
  • When phrasing the questions think about the person who will be completing it and the possible answers they will give.
  • Group your questions in a logical order so ‘areas’ of information are all dealt with together.
  • Try to make the questionnaire visually appealing so people aren’t intimidated by it – try using ‘smiley’ faces or scales for measuring attitudes.
  • Use plain English and avoid any terms such as ‘pre school’ which can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
  • If asking sensitive questions – such as income or age – consider using response bands, but make sure these bands do not overlap or the respondent will find it difficult to complete the questionnaire.
  • Avoid hypothetical questions and questions with a negative in them.

Once a first draft of the questionnaire is completed read it out loud to make sure it makes sense. Ask other readers for comments and use these to improve the structure and layout before launching into a major market research project. Read the other articles in this series:

Part 1: Creating an image

Part 3: Promoting your setting
Part 4: Promotional material
Part 5: Running a marketing campaign