How to choose a market research company

There are many options when you look to hire a market research company. It’s a competitive marketplace. We identify three sources you can use to find market research companies. We then take you through how to filter the list down to find the right market research company for your needs. 

Market research companies

How this guide raises your game

1. Identify sources for market research companies

2. Ways to filter market research companies to a shortlist

3. Identify challenging and ideal attributes in a research partner

Your search for a market research company normally comes at Stage 2 of the market research process. We have more detail about the market research process in our introduction to market research.

You should define the research question at Stage 1 and have written a research brief before you start to look for a market research company. 

You should aim to create an initial list of 5 to 10 potential market research companies. These you can then filter down to a shortlist you actually give the brief to. 

You have three sources to identify companies to be on this initial long list.

Handshake to symbolise agency relationship

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge on choosing a market research company?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-brains choosing a market research company quiz and see how much you know about choosing a market research company already.

Which of the following is the main benefit of working with a large research company? 

What sources could you use to develop an initial list of potential market research companies?

You would normally start to look for a market research company …

What factors should influence your choice of market research company?

Which of the following is the main benefit of working with a smaller research company?


Industry Associations

Most countries will have a Market Research association or society.  This is where companies in the industry will come together to set standards and work on industry-wide initiatives. As part of their services, these associations will offer a list of members.

In Australia for example, you can use the lists at the Australian Market and Social Research Society and the Association of Market and Social Research Organisations.

The AMSRC site has a better filter than the AMSRO site. You can search on geography, industries the company covers and the type of research they undertake for example.

The upside to using industry associations is that you know that to be listed, companies have to meet minimum quality standards. They need to have relevant qualifications and experience. You can be confident that any company on the list has experience and reputation in the industry. 

The downside is that the association needs to demonstrate fairness to all it’s members. So the list is generally unqualified.

If you don’t know these businesses, it is difficult to tell if any one of those companies on the list is better or worse than any other.

There are no quality filters other than the minimum level needed to become a member of the society. 

You need to research a little more to refine your list.

Your network recommendations

If you know people who work in marketing, they may well have direct experience of market research companies. You can ask them for direct recommendations. 

A lot of market research projects work on word of mouth. The best companies will generally have a reputation of being good to work with.

Check out your contacts on Linkedin. Check out relevant forums on Reddit. These are the two most obvious places to find recommendations. 

You don’t want to send out your entire brief to your network. Be careful not to give away anything that your competitors might see.

But a simple “Looking for a good qualitatitive researcher in Sydney to carry out a 6 week focus group based project for <$25k. Any recommendations?” for example could help you generate a list of suggestions. 

Welcome to LinkedIn sign on door

What we frequently find with these sorts of network questions, is that individuals tend to get recommended more than companies.

Particularly with the bigger market research companies, where people tend to move around more, you should check if the person who drove the recommendation still works there 

Search online

If your network are not able to help you filter down the list, then your last stand-by is a Google search.

Try to be as specific as you can in your search.

A broad search of “market research companies” will likely generate you a similar list of companies as you will find on the market research association lists.

Try to filter on research types e.g. qualitative, quantitative, secondary or on the category you work in.

Often market research companies will work in specific categories like financial services, travel or food and drink. It can be helpful if the company already has some previous experience in your category.

Research on your own using tools from Google

Ways to filter down the list of market research companies

Hopefully, between these three options you have narrowed down the list to no more than ten potentials. The next stage is to do a further screening to narrow down your list to three of four companies you will contact to ask for business. 

You should look over the companies website and their social media profiles. Start to get a feel for which companies have the highest potential to meet your needs. You should look at their research credentials, the size of the business and their communication approach. 

Research credentials (technical knowledge)

In simple terms, does their website and social content give you confidence? Do they have the expertise to do the job you need?

Do they tell you the qualifications and experience of their key staff who might work on your business for example? Have they published case studies or white paper which outline their process or techniques they apply. 

In our experience, this technical factor is a ‘hygiene’ factor. You would expect any reputable company to have minimum quality standards for the services they deliver. If this information is not freely available, it does not necessarily mean that company is not reputable. But limited detail on credentials raises concerns. 

Find the right size business for your needs

It’s likely that research credentials alone won’t be enough to narrow down your list. So the next criteria would be to look at the size and style of the market research company.

Smaller market research companies

Smaller, one-man band style agencies can be faster to carry out projects. They likely offer better value per project since they tend to operate without big teams and large offices.

These types of agencies are most common in qualitative research. The running costs of qual research are generally easier for smaller agencies to manage.

Typically, in these types of agencies, the ‘Director’ would have worked for one of the monster agencies (see below). They would have realised that there was a big gap between what research clients pay the monster and what research agencies pay their staff. So they jump ship and set up on their own.

Advantages and watch-outs

There’s a definite couple of advantages to working with this type of agency beyond speed and value.

Your fees are likely to be a bigger proportion of their income so they’ll value your business more. These types of market research companies thrive on building strong relationships with their customers. They tend to hold on to staff longer. So if you plan to carry out multiple projects over a longer period of time, they can be a strong option to build consistency.

We do have two watch-outs with these types of agencies, however.

Firstly, the ones that are good tend to pick up more and more clients. Which means they bring in extra staff to manage the additional workload. You can start to lose access to the expertise that you liked in the first place. 

And secondly, because you may work with the same person over a number of years, the relationship can get stale. 

Busker - one man band

You can end up with ideas and approaches that start to get repetitive. Both companies can end up getting a bit too comfortable. A bit too complacent. 

If you do have a research partner like this, we advise you set up regular reviews on the relationship. At least once a year, challenge them on how they will continue to bring in diversity of thinking into their research approach

Larger market research companies 

At some point, you will likely come across a monster-sized market research company. Most likely,  Kantar or a Kantar owned agency since they also own TNS and Millward Brown. And in fact, Kantar themselves are owned by WPP, one of the biggest communications companies in the world.

Employing over 30,000 employees globally, anyone who has spent time in marketing has probably sat through a presentation from one of these three ‘monster agencies’.

Advantages and watch-outs

On the plus side, you get the benefit of the scale of their operation. They will have a lot of behind the scenes specialists (data scientists for example) and technologies which the one man band agency won’t be able to afford.

They will sponsor a lot of studies and release lots of free white papers as part of their own marketing plan. This keeps them top of mind with marketers.

And most market research professionals will at some point in their career work for one of these agencies. They get exposure to lots of clients in different industries and benefit from lots of investment in training. 

Gargoyle - Monster agency

However, if you are the client, there are definitely a few things to watch out for. All those specialists and ‘free’ white papers that you get access to, those all clearly cost money, and in actual fact your fees are likely paying towards a lot of those costs indirectly.

You’ll also typically end up with a team of researchers working on your business which brings extra costs. Your business is likely to only be a small part of their overall business so the service you receive can be a bit more variable. You can feel that you are a small cog in a large machine and lose some of the personal contact that you have with smaller market research companies. 

Communication style – Creative thinkers or statistically driven?

At the end of your research project, the market research company needs to be able to communicate the answer to your research question in a credible and clear way. How they do this will be dependent on their communication style. 

In our experience, most market researchers will have a preference for qualitative or quantitative research techniques.

Researchers who specialise in qualitative research will tend to focus on generating ideas and finding unmet needs for you. They are good at exploring and developing as yet unknown ideas. Their communication style will give you a rich picture of your market. But this can sometimes lack the certainty of more statistically driven researchers. 

On the other hand, researchers who specialise in quantitative research on the other hand focus on measuring and validating known ideas. They offer more certainty in their recommendations. But, they can struggle to present a rich and inspiring picture of your audience. You may just end up with an 80 page Powerpoint presentation and a bunch of fancy charts that no-one ever reads. 

Your choice for the shortlist of companies should really be driven by identifying the best combination of these styles which best answers your research question.

From shortlist to decision

Dependant on the size of the project, it would be normal practice to reach out to around three shortlisted market research companies with your brief.

You should be open that you are also talking to other agencies. It may be that the company is not looking for new business or does not think there is a good fit. But in most cases, they would accept your brief and come back with a proposal on how they would respond to the brief.

This is unlikely to be a full research plan. But it would tell you the team they would use to answer the research question, the research methodology and the likely budget and time plan at a minimum. Strong market research companies who want the business might also cover any extra value they can add. 

For example, in a previous company, we pitched out a large market research project to three of the bigger market research companies in Australia. 

Forest and tree image with question mark symbolisinging strategy

One of those carried out an annual national survey in a related field.

This would normally have cost thousands of dollars extra to buy.

But they essentially won the businesses as they proposed they could integrate the findings from the national survey with our research project to create a much more statistically robust survey.

Find your ideal research partner – the decision

Unfortunately, there is no Tinder or Match.com for market research agencies. how you and the best research partner often comes down to knowing what your preferred working style is and finding a partner who can complement that.

As you meet people in the market research industry, we would advise you though to watch out for the following 3 ‘types’.  The purist/technician, the fencesitter and the schmoozer. 

These types are common in market research, and while we don’t necessarily judge or criticise these types of behaviours, as clients you would want to try and not have too many of these working on your research brief.

Three market research types to watch out for …

The market research purist

This type has probably worked in market research for at least 10 years if not much longer. But spending so much time in one function or role has made them quite blinkered when it comes to the rest of the business.

They will be great at championing the voice of the consumer. But they will tend not to have a strong grasp of the commercial realities of the business. They can get hugely stuck up on process and will tend to block or prevent projects moving too quickly.

The market research purist can become super obsessed with the details of the process of market research. They love to start every presentation with long detailed explanation of their methodology. They value the correctness of the method over the impact to the business.

Market research purist - cartoon with researcher saying 94.9% confidence interval? We have to re-do the research! As a piece of marketing research humour

The market research fencesitter

If you are the client, your main goal from the research is likely to improve the quality of decision making. So that your decisions are based on information and insight rather than speculation. Unfortunately, you will find many market researchers who struggle to make definitive calls and recommendations.

They will look at problems from multiple ways and give you a range of options to choose from. When you are looking for certainty, they will bring ambiguity and complexity.

 

Cartoon of market research fencesitter - woman shrugging and saying its absolutely, positively a maybe as a piece of marketing research humour

The market research schmoozer

These types are not unique to market research companies. You will find them in all sorts of marketing agencies. What these types are great at is making you as the client feel good. They will be sociable and chatty and focussed on building a good relationship with you.

The watch-out here is that when you hire a market research company, these things do not necessarily have any impact on the quality of the business outcome. You should make sure if you have a schmoozer on your business, that that person also has some business saviness behind their social skills.

You can also read more about some of these quirks of market researchers in our blog. 

Market research schmoozer - smiley guy in a suit saying of course you're right, what do consumers know anyway as a piece of marketing research humour

Three ideal attributes in your market research company partner

There’s no hard and fast guaranteed way to pick the best market research company. What works for you depends on your business context, your research objectives and your own preferences when it comes to working style. 

However, in our experience, the best market research people have the three qualities listed below.

They have done something else in marketing before they got into market research. 

Ideally, they have had another commercial role in marketing or sales.

This means they are more likely to understand your needs since they have been in your shoes.

These types understand that the market research process is only of passing interest to the client.It is the quality of the outcomes and recommendations that are the most important part of market research. 

They have empathy for you as the client and can adapt their style.

This sounds like a basic human social skill. But we’ve met many people in the industry who have a one size fits all style and who find it very hard to adjust.

If you as the client want detail and certainty, be clear about this up front and ask your market research company to be structured and formal.

But if your style is much more action and results focussed, ask the market research company to start their debrief with the results rather than the methodology for example. 

Handshake to symbolise agency relationship

And finally, they have a genuine interest in how humans interact with each other. 

It is the essence of what market research is. So this ‘human-centric’ approach should be visible in the way they talk and present and interact with you.

Do you walk away from your conversations with them feeling like you understand the world of your consumers better than you did before?

This is essentially what you most want and need from market research so you can use it to create relevant and profitable experiences.

Find these three things in your research partner and you are well on the way to getting the best market research answers to drive your business growth. 

We have created a downloadable checklist of the five toughest questions we can think of to test your market research company.

Click on the link or image to download the pdf.

Challenge them on how well they know your business and see if they understand the sales and cost mix. Are they prepared and give you confidence they will be good to work with? Or do they flannel and rely on technical jargon?

It has 7 pages including the questions and a guide to evaluate HOW they answer the question. For each question, we break down why ask this question, what would be in a good answer and watch-out that would be poor answers.

Great market research companies will be able to answer these questions well.

Powerpoint and Keynote versions available via email

Also available on our Resources page. 

5 tough question for your market research company
Click to download the pdf

Three-brains and market research

We coach and consult on market research and often include market research skill development and market research project delivery as part of our services. We help businesses commission, manage and apply market research.

If you’d like to talk about raising your game in market research as part of our coaching and consulting services, click on the button to fill out the contact form.

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.

3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our research on your own skill guide.

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

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