All sorts of things can come under the heading ‘research’. A project doesn’t have to involve asking people their opinions. Sometimes, it may be a question of checking facts or figures, such as making sure a list of names and telephone numbers is correct.

Richard Halkett is chief executive of e-learning company Boxmind, which offers universities and other educational establishments an online archive of lectures and other learning materials.

“We needed to get in touch with all of the right e-learning people at UK universities and colleges. We commissioned research agency Fresh Minds to put together a list of names, titles, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers which we could then use for a direct marketing campaign,” Halkett says. “They did the research on the telephone and the internet, and delivered all the right people. It just wouldn’t have been cost-effective for us to do it in-house, and it was fundamental to our launch. It would have been a disaster if they’d got it wrong.”

Katy Chan is UK marketing and product development manager for electronic toy company VTech, which markets simple computers, calculators and similar products for younger children. Chan recently commissioned research on a new product called Me Mo Mo. This is described as an ‘educational, interactive learning friend’ and represents a departure from VTech’s normal product range. “We usually make desktop-style PCs for the younger kids market, and this was very different for us. It was developed in Hong Kong, and it was vital that we understood how it was perceived in the UK market.”

VTech brought in Outlook Research, which organised a series of focus groups, two in the North of England and two in the South. One group in each area involved mothers and children aged five and six, the other involved mums and kids aged seven and eight. Each group lasted an hour, and was conducted in a real front room in someone’s house, to make participants feel more comfortable.

In addition to the research agency staff, two people from VTech attended each session. Outlook then conducted a full debriefing and made a formal presentation of the results to VTech. In all, the project cost around 5,000, and Chan says it was very useful in putting together the marketing campaign for Me Mo Mo’s launch for this Christmas.

Focus groups

But you have to be careful with research, particularly when it involves focus groups, warns Richard Watson, founder of marketing and new product development consultancy Global Innovation Network. Watson has 18 years experience of running focus groups, both as a client marketer and as a consultant. “There is a particular mind-set to people who agree to come to focus groups,” he says. “Usually, you’ll get six or seven people to come. One of them will know the person running the group so well they know their kids’ names; one will arrive late; one will be pissed; one won’t say anything and one won’t stop talking. It’s the others you really want to talk to.”

Watson believes that some of the best research is observational – for example, he was involved in a project for Nissan on how women drive. “We got a group of women together, and got them to watch one of the company’s engineers, dressed up as a woman – complete with beard – get in the car and drive off. And they said things like ‘we’d never put our handbags on the ground like he did: the bottom would get wet’. By showing them someone else doing things they wouldn’t do, we found out what they would do.”