A market research agency can design, carry out and analyse bespoke market research on your business' behalf. Using a professional market research company can ensure that you get the information you need, so that you can make strategic decisions based on reliable evidence.
Market research agencies will make sure you're complying with current data protection legislation. They will also make sure the feedback you get, and the conclusions drawn are fully objective - difficult to achieve when a business owner researches their own ideas, products or business.
Market research companies won't generally take on projects with budgets of less than £1,000. However, there are services available to firms with smaller budgets, including online surveys and omnibus surveys that allow you to include a few questions of your own in a larger survey.
If you have less to spend, but need professional help, you may want to consider using a freelance market researcher. A freelance consultant can conduct objective surveys and questionnaires and also do qualitative research using face-to-face focus groups.
Finding a market research agency
Your trade association and business contacts may be able to suggest market research groups with knowledge of your industry and experience working with small firms. Organisations such as the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Marketing can provide information on members, and you can also look in local and online directories.
If you are using unaccredited marketing consultants, it's worth checking whether they have the market research capabilities you need. Specialist marketing consultants will often be able to carry out related research: for example, your advertising agency should be able to research advertising effectiveness.
Integrated marketing consultancies can offer a wide range of marketing services, including market research.
Drawing up a market research agency shortlist
Some market research agencies are heavily focused on a particular type of research (such as online surveys, qualitative research or quantitative research) or a particular industry. Others specialise in areas such as brand research or offer marketing research as part of a broader marketing consultancy service.
As long as you understand your own research needs, a quick check of what each agency offers will allow you to eliminate unsuitable ones. Smaller businesses tend to find that smaller agencies know how to get useful insights from a tight budget.
Unless you know what type of research you need, you may prefer to work with a company that offers a wide range of market research services, rather than a specialist who only offers one particular type of research.
Choosing a market research agency
You should draw up a brief to circulate to the market researchers on your shortlist, explaining your background, target market and what you want to achieve.
Ask each market research company to provide a brief proposal, setting out what kind of research they would suggest, their timelines and costs, and enclosing examples of past projects.
You will probably want to meet the agencies with the most promising proposals to get a feel for who they are and how well you get on together.
It may not pay to cast your net too widely. Some market research agencies may ask for payment for writing a proposal if you invite more than three companies to pitch.
And be wary of comparing different market research agencies on the basis of cost alone. Cutting corners - for example, by using small sample sizes or cheaper forms of research - can undermine the accuracy and usefulness of the results.
Instead, you should choose an agency that understands what you need to know, and has shown that they know how to get the right information within your budget.