The Market Research Toolbox: A Concise Guide for Beginners


Edited by: Edward F. McQuarrie

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    This book is aimed at managers and business people. I assume that however accomplished in your own field—computer engineering, perhaps—and however experienced in business, you approach the topic of market research as a beginner. The aim, then, is an initial orientation, a guided tour of the topic—an overview.

    Until this book came along, the manager seeking such a briefing had few good options: (1) purchase a bona fide market research textbook, up to 1,000 pages in length, and try to extract what you need; (2) purchase a series of small volumes on specific market research techniques, aimed at specialists and often written at an advanced level, and try to integrate these accounts on your own; (3) put your faith in a consultant and their research technique of choice; or (4) wing it.

    The goal, then, is a thin volume intended to provide an overview to the interested reader seeking a place to begin. My assumption is that you need to get your bearings (What is conjoint analysis anyway?), or maybe to conduct some market research (Would a focus group make sense here?), or perhaps to interpret a market research effort that someone else has championed (Can I trust the results of this survey?).

    I want to emphasize that this book is written primarily for decision makers. In tone, manner, and approach, the envisioned reader is a manager who has to decide whether to do market research, what objectives to pursue, and what specific kind of research to implement. This is not a standard textbook, as a glance through the pages will make clear: it lacks the boxed inserts, the snazzy graphics, and the chunking of text into bite-size morsels expected in that marketplace. And as will soon be apparent, it doesn’t read like a textbook: the tone is direct and the style more oral than written.

    Instead, the treatment strives to be concrete and specific: Do this. Don’t do that. Watch out for this problem. Try this solution. The guiding idea is that managers are impatient people subject to conflicting demands who must act now. This book offers a practical approach addressed to their needs.

    On the other hand, the book has been used successfully for many years at diverse educational levels, often as a supplemental reading, and this fourth edition includes a number of adaptations to address its use in a classroom (see “Note on Pedagogy,” below). In my view, because of its intended focus on adult learners, it is best adapted to an MBA course aimed at working professionals, or to similarly targeted Executive Education offerings. The instructional materials that accompany the book assume an MBA class setting and further assume that the book will be combined with other readings and with Harvard-style cases. The book has also been used at the undergraduate level, but here the instructor should have a definite reason for not adopting a conventional market research textbook (i.e., distaste for that style or the typical topic coverage), and a plan to supplement this book with other material. Whatever the level, the more the class consists of adult learners with some business experience the more successful this book is likely to be.

    In this fourth edition I have tried to keep these two audiences clearly in mind, labeling certain content as aimed at the one or the other, and incorporating some pedagogical material into the text, so that the nonstudent reader can grapple with it if he or she chooses to do so.

    * * *

    This book is distinctive in one other way: It focuses on business-to-business and technology examples. Modern market research as we know it was pioneered in the early middle of the 20th century to meet the needs of companies like Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, and Ralston Purina. Soap, cereal, pet food, and the like continue to be prominent among the examples and illustrations used to teach market research in the typical university course. This is entirely appropriate for textbooks aimed at a broad audience because consumer packaged-goods companies continue to spend large sums on market research and to provide many of the career opportunities in market research. However, living in California’s Silicon Valley, my experience base is different. The research problems with which I am familiar preoccupy companies like Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Cisco, and Oracle. Markets may be small and concentrated, products are often complex and expensive, customer expenditures are driven by the need to solve real business problems, and technologies are dynamic and rapidly changing. Although much of the accumulated wisdom of market research is just as relevant to Hewlett-Packard as to Procter & Gamble, I have found it has to be taught differently. The readers I have in mind are impatient with examples based on the marketing of soap. They don’t want to have to make the translation from mass markets, simple products, and stable technologies to their own rather different situation.

    If you fall within the core audience for this book, then you are a beginner and not a specialist. One of the important contributions of the book is to direct you to further reading. There exists an enormous amount of specialized material on market research. Part of my job is to help you sort through it so you can find the next book you need to read. If you intend to execute a particular market research project yourself, you certainly will need to read more than this book—for the sake of brevity, this book won’t go into a great deal of depth on any single technique but will merely open the toolbox and explain its contents and application. This book will tell you what a hammer is, what it does to a nail, when it is useful to drive nails, and when you might be better off using a bolt and wrench, but it won’t train you to do carpentry. The assumption throughout is that “carpenters” (experts) are available to you. Thus, the focus can be on the background context and the questions that need to be asked before you hire a carpenter (or embark on your self-taught career as a carpenter).

    In summary, the target audience for the book is a person who has established him- or herself in business but who has never had occasion to take a course on market research—or, perhaps, any business course. Now in your new position the buzzwords come flying, budgets are under review, and the question presses: “What the heck is market research, anyway?”

    Plan of the Book

    Part I describes how to think about market research in the context of business decisions. Market research is only a means to the end of business success. It aids in but can never guarantee the achievement of profit. Market research almost always costs money—hard, assignable dollars that come out of an individual manager’s budget. Therefore, like any investment, market research has to be justified in terms of an expected return. Part I answers questions about what market research is, what kinds of market research techniques exist, what objectives can be met by market research, and what payoff to expect from market research. The purpose of Part I is to equip you with the necessary vocabulary and organizing concepts to think intelligently about how market research might assist you in your own situation.

    Part II describes two archival research techniques: use of secondary data, and application of what is typically called “Big Data.” The latter chapter is new to this fourth edition. The unifying theme of Part II is that here you do not need to collect data—it has already been compiled. The task is to figure out what to do with this data, and more particularly to examine whether it could save you the time and expense of collecting data yourself. All of the chapters in Parts III and IV, by contrast, presume that you have taken archival data as far as it can go, and that wasn’t far enough, forcing you to go out and collect new data.

    Part III introduces the two major qualitative research techniques in use today: customer visits and focus groups. The overview puts these two techniques in the context of other qualitative research techniques. Subsequent chapters discuss interview design and sampling issues that are common across all qualitative research techniques.

    Part IV presents the major quantitative research techniques in use today, beginning with the technique most familiar to beginners to market research: the survey. Separate chapters discuss issues of questionnaire design, sampling, and data analysis. This part also includes two chapters on experimental methods in common use in commercial market research.

    The departure from the conventional textbook approach is most stark in the case of Part IV. The typical market research textbook, whether undergraduate or graduate, devotes hundreds of pages to sampling theory and to the statistical analysis of data. The goal in this book is more limited: to provide the briefest possible introduction to these foundational skills consistent with providing useful insights for the managerial reader. The fact of the matter is that most managers will outsource to specialists the tasks of drawing a sample and analyzing the data. Nonetheless, managers are responsible for selecting these specialists and vetting the results of their efforts. The chapters on sampling and data analysis aim only to give a manager in that situation a leg up.

    In Part V the first chapter describes how market research techniques can be combined to address a major business decision, and then steps back to assess the boundary conditions on market research. The goal of the first chapter in this section is twofold: first, to link individual research techniques to the business problems for which they are best suited; and second, to show how multiple research techniques can be combined over time to address large-scale business problems. That is, execution of a single market research technique may be sufficient to answer some specific question or to close some narrowly defined knowledge gap. However, most substantial business challenges, such as selecting a new market to enter or deciding where new product development efforts should be focused, require the application of multiple research techniques in sequence over time. Thus, the initial chapter in Part V gives examples of how techniques can be combined and sequenced. The final chapter wraps up the book by considering some particular cases, representative of a large number of business situations, where market research may be neither possible nor pertinent. It circles back to the basic theme of the book: Managers are people who have to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Sometimes market research can reduce uncertainty to a manageable level; sometimes it cannot. The manager still has to decide, research or no.

    Who Should Read This Book?
    Product Manager–Marketing

    You may already have a business education, perhaps an MBA, and may even have one or more market research courses under your belt. If so, this book provides a refresher course, reinforcing your grasp of basic principles now that your schooling lies years in the past. Perhaps more important, it provides a resource that you can give to members of your work group in order to bring them up to speed on the contribution of market research generally and the rationale for individual research techniques. Especially in technology firms, market research won’t get done—or worse, won’t get used—unless multiple constituencies outside the product management function accept the need for and value delivered by market research. Thus, this book can help to elevate the discussion of research issues in your work group. Finally, if you are in a business-to-business (B2B) or technology firm, you may also find this book helpful in linking your business education, which may have emphasized packaged-goods examples, to your current job, with its rather different imperatives.

    R&D Project Manager

    You have the responsibility to create and design what the firm offers, with development of a new product the clearest example. It is your job to marshal people and resources to achieve a project goal. Today, that includes doing market research. Although you can reasonably expect considerable assistance from marketing staff, the effectiveness of the market research done for you will often be a crucial determinant of the project’s success; hence, there is a limit to how much you can delegate in this area. You will probably be among the most intent and focused readers of this book inasmuch as when you finish, you will have to act: to request a budget, spend money, commit employee time. This book tries to answer as many of your questions as possible.

    Quality Professional

    Your charge today is customer satisfaction, not defect minimization. Depending on the culture of your firm, you may have assumed responsibilities classically assigned to the marketing function, for instance, building a commitment to customer satisfaction on the part of employees throughout the firm. You have solid statistical training but have grown uneasy about the heavy reliance on surveys commonly found within the quality literature. This book helps you to grasp the possibilities inherent in the whole toolbox. It also helps you to think about statistics in the context of social science—that is, the behavior of humans—rather than the production context where your statistical education probably began.


    You are at a level where business strategy is set. Like many contemporary executives, you are probably receptive to the idea that being market focused is important, but, also like many, you are not entirely sure how this laudable goal can be implemented in a timely and cost-effective manner. For you, this book serves two purposes. It provides a briefing and reminder of what market research can and cannot do (this is particularly helpful if your background is technical and not business based), and it provides a resource you can recommend to your people and to the training function within your firm.


    You may be considering this book for use as a supplement in courses on product planning, customer analysis, competitor analysis, B2B marketing, and the like. These are courses that often include a project or other activity where students must gather data or make recommendations about data gathering. You’ve often wished there was a book you could assign as supplemental reading that would help students think about how to gather market data (including where to find additional information on specific research techniques). Until finding this book, you faced the unpalatable alternatives of (1) expecting them to find on their own a comprehensive market research textbook and read the appropriate sections (because you can’t assume that your students have necessarily taken a market research course); or (2) hoping they will find, assemble, and read specialist volumes on focus groups, surveys, and so forth, and then make an intelligent choice among them; or (3) scheduling enough office hours to help students work through the above issues.

    Instructors who adopt this book can obtain a sample syllabus along with a guide to selecting and teaching cases to accompany the book by visiting If you do assign this book in your class, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences—e-mail me at

    A Note on Pedagogy

    Because the book has frequently been used in classroom settings, I’ve added some pedagogical elements to this fourth edition to facilitate that use. Even if you are reading this as an independent professional, you may be able to use this material to engage more actively the content of the book.

    • Near the end of each chapter I’ve listed several discussion questions or exercises. These are meant to stimulate reflection, not foreclose it. For most of these questions, there is no short answer, and for many of them, there is no straightforward or obvious “right” answer. Their purpose is to deepen understanding. My metric in writing these was, Could I use this as an essay question on a final exam? Or, Could I use it to engage an MBA class of working professionals in an extended discussion?
    • After over thirty years in the classroom, it is nearly impossible for me to teach a marketing class without placing heavy reliance on Harvard cases. Hence, at the end of each part you will find the cases that I use when teaching market research to MBA students at Santa Clara University. The purpose of these cases is to provide extended, vivid examples of the kind of market research planning decisions faced by actual managers.
    • For each of these cases, I give a brief synopsis, generally with a different focus than what Harvard supplies on its website (, where the complete case can be purchased. The goal is to show how this case can be used in a class that also uses Toolbox. Not all of these cases were originally designed to be “market research” cases, and my use of them may not reflect the intentions of their authors.
    • After each case I supply questions to guide students’ reading. These are also the kind of questions that I use to structure class discussion of the case.
    • In a few instances, there will also be fictional cases that I wrote, and the full text of these is included.
    • Finally, at the end of each chapter there are suggested readings. In most cases, these are more in-depth or specialized readings that can help you go beyond the introductory treatment provided in this book. Annotations explain what each suggested reading might accomplish for you.

    I received all of my training in market research “in the field,” and I’d like to acknowledge some of the individuals and firms from whom I learned the most. Particular thanks go to Nick Calo, Mike Kuhn, Ron Tatham, and many others at Burke Marketing Research, where I got my start moderating focus groups and doing copy tests of advertisements; to Dave Stewart of the University of Southern California and Bill BonDurant of Hewlett-Packard’s Market Research and Information Center, for introducing me to best practices in the planning of market research; to Lew Jamison and Karen Thomas at Sun Microsystems, for inviting me to design a course on market research, thus giving me the confidence to attempt this book; and to Klaus Hoffmann and Tomas Lang, of HP Marketing Education in Europe, for the initial opportunity to teach marketing research to managers. In more recent years, I’d like to acknowledge Richard Mander and Sandra Lukey for opportunities to teach on these topics in New Zealand, Alex Cooper and Tracey Kimball of Management Roundtable for opportunities to reach a broader spectrum of professionals and managers, Chris Halliwell for insight into market research and new product development, and John Chisholm, formerly of CustomerSat, for stimulating discussions about survey research in the age of the Internet. I also want to thank the editor for the first edition, Marquita Flemming at Sage, for actually giving me the impetus; Al Bruckner at Sage, editor for the second edition, for encouraging a revision; Deya Jacobs, for believing enough in the merits of the book to encourage a third edition; and Pat Quinlan and Maggie Stanley for bringing this fourth edition to fruition. Over the years, I’ve benefitted from discussions with many of my colleagues in the marketing department at Santa Clara, beginning with Shelby McIntyre and continuing most recently with stimulating discussions of the limitations of market research with Kirthi Kalyanam and Kumar Sarangee. I would also like to thank the following individuals who assisted in the preparation of the manuscript through their careful and thoughtful reviews: Stacey Barlow Hills, Southern Vermont College–Bennington; Vaidas Lukosius, Tennessee State University–Nashville; Christopher P. Hogan, University of Chicago–Chicago; Dennis Devlin, University of Cincinnati–Cincinnati; Ronald E. Goldsmith, Florida State University–Tallahassee; and Michael A. Jones, University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of the thousands of managers and professionals who’ve sat through one or another seminar of mine, where we strove together to differentiate qualitative and quantitative market research and come to some defensible conclusions about the comparative merits of each.

  • About the Author

    Edward F. McQuarrie

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