Q: To what degree is gut feeling a good substitute for market research when your budgets are tight?
A: If I interpret it correctly, the crux of your question relates to decision-making. The purpose of market research is to capture views, opinions or information, or to assess potential future behaviour in order to influence and provide rigour to the decision-making process.
The issue of budgets is very interesting. When times are tight it can be tempting to cut down on what might be seen as 'back-room' or 'nice-to-have' expenditure, but on the other hand it is also the time when we need the best possible return on investment and are least able to cope with taking risks.
So one could argue it is at this very time that we should be investing in research.
Let's take a step back. In charities we use market research for a wide range of purposes. This might include, for example, understanding donor motivations, evaluating our services, supporting new product development or helping to monitor factors such as brand awareness.
We have a number of specific tools at our disposal, ranging from paper or email questionnaires to omnibus surveys, in which you pay to ask a question as part of a larger survey. However, it is important to remember that other routes - such as analysis of data and the use of testing - can be equally valuable. Asking people what they think of a direct mail pack does not always tell you how they will respond if they receive it. Doing a split test to see how a new pack performs in comparison with a tried-and-tested one will give you hard data.
On to your question about gut feeling. It is important to differentiate between two aspects of the expression. The first is when it actually means market research based on such a feeling - in other words, assuming the views of the decision-maker represent the views of the target audience. As the decision-maker rarely is the target audience, this invariably leads to bad decisions.
The other aspect has a great deal of merit, however. Experienced operators will have built up knowledge and understanding over time and are often able to make good decisions by using that intelligence, simply because they know their audience well. Rather than being frowned upon as the poor relation, this can and should be seen as a valuable asset.
So you should see market research as an important investment that helps you in the stewardship of your donors' money. In tough times, consider the full range of research tools to ensure you find cost-effective solutions. And finally, build up confidence in your staff so that you can maximise the benefit of their knowledge and experience.
Valerie Morton is a trainer, fundraiser and consultant.
Send your questions to Valerie.firstname.lastname@example.org