Investing in marketing research

Editor’s note: Suzanne Lugthart is the founder of Fathom Research. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “Why you should never cut your research budget in a recession.”

Let’s face it, most people under the age of 40 probably haven’t had to make tough decisions about budgets in a recession during their career yet.

Those of us who do have a recession or two under our belts know there’s plenty of real-world evidence proving the brands who continue to invest in marketing during a recession emerge stronger and grow faster when things improve.

But what about market research? The latest IPA Bellwether report suggests that, on the cusp of recession, whilst marketing budgets are holding up well overall (+11%), market research is looking like an early and significant loser (-8%).

What should you be doing? 

1. Adapt your budget

When recessions loom, businesses adjust their short-term plans accordingly. Research plans should also be reviewed to reflect any pivots and challenges. But whatever question is asked of you as a team, don’t let it be how can we do what we’re doing now but for less. Changing circumstances demands new thinking.

2. Protect the large projects that will shape the business’s future

Peoples’ first instinct is often to scrap those big, often expensive, strategic projects that won’t deliver their real impact for a few years. But it’s unlikely that your business’s long-term goals will change anytime soon. If you lose momentum now, your competitors who didn’t stop spending on research might get there first. 

3. Find new and cost-effective ways to monitor how consumers are feeling

This doesn’t mean investing in an expensive new tracking program. There will be plenty of data in the public domain you can tap into for free. 

  • Collaborate with your competitors: After all, you’ll all be asking the same questions. Take inspiration from the cinema industry which did just that and formed Cinema First, a joint industry research collaboration, in response to the pandemic.
  • Start your own informal customer closeness program: If you’re B2B, go and spend the day with a customer about once a month. If you’re B2C, visit them in their homes. Walk in their shoes, listen to their stories and share them back to the office. 
  • If you have a small amount to spend, a syndicated study will help you measure the mood of the nation on a weekly basis.

4. Find value in what you already have 

Woman looking at a whiteboard with data.

Most research teams are sitting on a wealth of research, little of which gets used much beyond the debrief. Synthesize what you already know before deciding to invest in anything new. Whilst it may only be an 70-80% solution, what you have may be good enough to keep the business moving forward so you’re ready for the upturn when it comes (and it will come.)

5. Consider the value of your continuous research program and divert some money into value creating research

Frankly unless your NPS program is closely tracking your most important business metrics, you should have dumped it years ago. If it is a lead/lagging indicator consider cutting back on the frequency so you can reinvest in research that will support the business’s short-term needs. 

The same goes for brand tracking. It’s crucially important to track your brand but peoples’ feelings about brands don’t change overnight and the world won’t end if you move your tracking to once a year.

6. Don’t shift to in-house research to save money

This is probably the single worst thing you can ever do, recession or no recession.  

Doing so will merely devalue what you do and risk turning you and your team into a survey sausage factory. Sure, you’ll get lots of brownie points from your CFO for “saving the company some money”. But research teams don’t exist to save money, they are a part of the business that creates value.

Trust me, every minute you spend scripting surveys or moderating online communities is time you’re not spending influencing stakeholders, shaping strategy and raising the profile of your team as a valuable investment in the business.