David Ogilvy’s quote of “give me the freedom of a tight brief” is as true for market research briefs as it is for advertising. It is hard to doubt the importance of writing a brief both for the agency and for yourself. Yet they take up precious time needed to get other things done and can appear to require you to give direction when it is the direction you need.
The benefits of writing a brief are not just in ensuring you get what you need but it also in speeding up the process. For most research projects a brief should be brief and give only what is needed with subsequent conversations with the consultant filling any details feel are required to give you the best design, outcomes and service. Beyond getting what you need a well-written brief an agency can get a proposal back to you faster, and increase both the speed and actionable results from the project.
When setting up an insights management system for clients or working on-site to manage projects for a client one of the first things I create is Market Research Brief Template to greatly reduce the time and effort for all involved. A template helps improve productivity for Insight Managers to engage with other stakeholders and where there is no insights manager a Market Research brief Template helps ensure their market research delivers actionable results. By having a template, managers not use to doing research briefs are not faced with the things that scare even professional writers, a white screen for a blank piece of paper.
Based on my experience as an Insight Manager pulling together simple and complex projects, and as a consultant responding to briefs, what follows is an outline of what your brief needs to cover, why and its suggested form. I’ve also used this approach when training new Insight Managers and consultants. At the end of this article is a copy of the template in PDF and Microsoft Word that you can download and that include content examples.
In my briefs as I prefer the term ‘Decision Context’ rather than ‘Business Background’ to emphasis a focus decision-relevant information that is driving your businesses need for insight and recommendations and what will impact consultancy design decisions. A simple way of thinking about what to write in this section is in answering these two questions:
- What is the situation you are faced with?
- What is the complication that makes this project a necessity?
The Decision Context section serves two main roles. Firstly, it gives the project meaning. Having meaning is a powerful human motivator for those you hope to will commit time, costs and other resources to the project. If the need for the project is challenged internally by others it also provides a clear reminder on why the business is investing in the project that senior management has signed off against. Secondly, this section provides direction to the consultant on what factors are likely to be driving the market’s behaviour and what is already known by the client. Detailed technical information like brand shares, media spend by media type is often best left to the appendix.
Writing the Decision Context can be one of the most time-consuming parts of writing the brief and is often best left for the end so that it reflects the actual decision context. New to client consultants may need some broader information on your business which could also be addressed in a briefing meeting.
What is the business using the information for? Building from the Decision Context is the Business Objectives show what the insights and recommendations will be used to help the business. Understanding the business objective can affect fundamental design choices in the research. For example, an objective to successfully launch a new product that will drive overall brand growth by x% through increased market penetration. Tells the consultant the research will need to focus on understanding how to convert non-customers and that they will also need to factor in a total brand perspective in their design and analysis. Not knowing the business objective can lead to market research or consultancy services that do not deliver actionable results.
Business Objectives are not Insight Objectives. By separating out what you need from the research from what the business is trying to achieve you define the project’s scope. The Insight Objectives define the knowledge gap that needs to be filled in order for the business to make the right decisions for achieving its objective. Ideally there should be three or fewer objectives needed to address the Business Objective. For projects that are part of a larger business activity, such as brand repositioning or the development and launch of a new product, it is also worth noting in the brief the stage that the research is focussed on.
A good consultant will also compare the Insight Objectives to the Business Objectives and Information Needs to help ensure you have the right framework in place.
“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” – Charles Kettering
In some briefs, this section is called the ‘Research Objectives’. By calling is the ‘Insight Objectives’ we focus on what we want to know and our needed outcomes rather than the process.
If there are some specific questions you need to be answered, this is where you put it. To remove duplication and to show how the information relates to your needs, I like to list information needs under their respective Insight Objective. This approach also clearly shows any scope drift, errors in your thinking, and how the insights build into the ultimate Business Objective.
Information Needs that do not relate to a specific Insight Objective can go under an ‘Other Information Needs’ heading to tell consultant and others in your organisation the order of priority for research design priority.
It is tempting to write down every question you have and even prescribe what measures a consultant should use. Like creative briefs, avoid bloating the brief with mandatories that are not actually mandatory. Long Information Needs directly impact research costs and your budget.
“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” – David Ogilvy
Do you need detailed recommendations or just data? Separate presentations to marketing and sales? Interactive reporting? Implementation of a strategy? An algorithm for matching customers to segments or propensity to leave? Maybe a simulation model? This is the place to put what deliverables you need for the project to be accepted and embedded in your business. A consultant, however, should also look at how to best address your needs based on what you have in your brief and their understanding of your business.
Apart from the Insight Objectives, how you define your Sample Frame has the largest impact on the study design and costs. Your Sample Frame needs to include all those people which allow the research to address the Insight Objectives in a way that they assist the Business Objective. It research speak, the sample frame along with the sampling method determines whether your results will be generalisable and diagnostic.
In this section, you may also need to outline any specific market segments that need an adequate level of reporting. Note that the incidence and degree of analysis reliability for segments has a dramatic effect on costs.
Define your Sample Frame too tightly and your insights will not reflect the actual market. Define it too loosely and the insight signal will be too weak for it to be detected. Define a lot of groups and you are likely to have an uninterpretable mess. It is in the Sample Frame that the skills of consultant with string research skills will shine.
I prefer to use the term ‘Sample Frame’ rather than ‘Target Market’ for this section so that who I am researching is not confused with who my clients are targeting with their marketing. They may be the same, but more often the Target Market is a sub-segment within the broader Sample Frame.
This is where all the key delivery and decision dates are outlined, including the dates when any stimulus like pack design or advertising will be available.
The Insight Objectives, Information Needs and Sample Frame will give the consultant a very good idea of the costs. In this section I often ask for what type of budget scenarios, costing detail and the type currency the proposal needs to use for overseas and multi-country studies.
If you have no prior relationship with an agency, it is good idea to give some indication of your budget. Where you have been overly ambitious with your needs the budget will help the consultant focus on the priority needs and Sample Frame segments. When I’ve given a budget in the past I’ve made it clear that I need a design that fits with the budget and the option to design something outside the budget.
Large projects where there is a competitive pitch process should be highlighted along with any selection criteria. Transparency benefits you as much as the consultant.
Background Reports and Data
Where ever there is uncertainty a consultant is likely to assume the worst. Most research is rarely done in an information vacuum. Sales, media, internal reports that give the consultant a better understanding of your business and decision context will improve the quality of results. If not, you are using the wrong agency. This information is likely to be commercial in confidence so you only need to indicate its existence and that the agency would be given access to the information on commissioning. If it is important for design and costing considerations then it should be in the Decision Context section.
Having a Conversation
The market research brief is neither the beginning nor the end of the briefing process. If working with one agency, have a conversation before writing to help you explore what you need. If working with multiple agencies in a pitch setting then discussing the written brief with them will help you understand how likely an agency will deliver what you need and be the right type of agency to work with.
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” – T.S. Eliot
The Market Research Brief document is the blueprint that defines whether or not you are likely to get actionable results from your research. While it does not need to be long, it does need to provide direction. In the end, it will need to be you and your the client, who has to implement the results of the research so it is in your best interest to get it right.