Make 2021 count with fresh ideas to help your business survive and thrive.
There is no hiding from the fact the past year was challenging for so many sectors and for smaller businesses or the self-employed the chances are it was even tougher. With the current vaccine roll-out many of us are now trying to plan for some kind of phased return to 'normality' - but where to start? In such a short space of time there have been lots of social, economic and work-placed changes prompting trends that are likely to persist well beyond lockdown. Being ready and willing to adapt to the "new different" within your own industry should therefore be a key part of your thought process. For some this could mean repurposing services or products for existing audiences, while for others it may mean pivoting into completely new areas. Because knowing where to begin is often the hardest question to answer, I want to advocate for marketing research giving your plans a clearer sense of direction.
Finding your business mojo!
Given that so many viable businesses have been mothballed or furloughed for so long, its not surprising that many of us may be feeling less enthusiastic or motivated about their industry. My own recent experiences have been in the wedding sector which generates over £4 billion per annum and employs more than 400,000 people. But, last year the large majority of wedding suppliers lost more than three-quarters of their annual turnover due to the restrictions placed on ceremonies, wedding postponements and cancellations (source: UK Weddings Taskforce survey, January 2021). To make matters worse only a minority of wedding professionals were eligible for the Government's various business support schemes - no doubt there are similar narratives from the sector you work in.
But for businesses that have managed to "tread water" during lockdown there is at least some "light at the end of the tunnel" thanks to the vaccine take-up, so now is a good time to be planning for post lockdown. In a previous article I explored how the pandemic had already generated new ways of working within the wedding sector in the face of adversity. So whether you are needing inspiration for new products or looking to adapt your business for different audiences, undertaking some research provides a simple and practical way to start making plans - market research is much more than opinion polls!
Don't be afraid of change.
It is only natural to feel uncomfortable or hesitant when it comes to the prospect of having to change well-established business practices and ways of doing things. Let's face it, most of us are conservative by nature and given a choice will opt for the familiar of sticking to "what we know". Unfortunately Covid-19 has no respect for tradition, so dealing with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths is probably going to be a default position for many of us.. I am always reminded that 8 out of 10 UK businesses cease trading within five years (source: Office for National Statistics, 2019).
Even before the pandemic, the rate of digital and technological change was encouraging or forcing innovation across so many sectors - for the 'fleet-of-foot' this brings exciting new opportunities to be grasped, while the more cautious often get left behind. Take for example the trend in music buying where previously dominant companies such as HMV failed to adapt their business model, compared to companies like Spotify who saw how things could be and now dominate the sector. As I write this, the news headlines are of online shopping giants Boohoo and Asos taking over former high-street bedrocks Debenhams and Arcadia - but in both cases the take-overs are focused on buying websites and brand names, not on buying the physical stores.
Online fast-fashion brands devour Debenhams and Topshop
Up to 25,000 jobs and more than 500 stores are at risk after Boohoo agreed to buy the online business of Debenhams and Asos entered into talks to buy the Topshop brand. The deals signal a reshaping of the retail market, whose transformation is being accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. John Lyttle, Boohoo's chief executive said that Debenhams had failed to keep moving with the times and that the shift to online shopping during the pandemic was "permanent and not going to go back to where it was.
(Times, 26th January, 2011)
Begin your business review by seeking out EXISTING market reports. With a simple Google search there is a strong likelihood that marketing publishers Mintel, KeyNote or similar will have produced a market report covering your sector with lots of useful facts, figures and commentary. But don't stop there because most of these reports will have been compiled prior to the pandemic. Maybe it was the case that most of the sales in your sector prior to March 2020 came from a physical location, but may now need to be moved online in the so-called 'Amazon-era'.
For the wedding sector one of the most noticeable concepts to emerge during lockdown was the rise of 'virtual wedding shows' which have now replaced the hundreds of local, regional and national wedding fairs that were previously the promotional cornerstone for many wedding suppliers. Additionally, many wedding professionals have now created their own online events - live demonstrations, performances or Q&A sessions - to fill the prolonged void left by the absence of face-to-face contact. When wedding fairs are permitted again it will be interesting to see how many suppliers will choose to spend hundreds of pounds for a show-stand, or will instead prefer to channel more of their time and money digitally.
Being able to innovate and adapt.
Your team might be amazing, but you and your colleagues simply can't experience your product or service the way your customers do. Customers might use your product in a way that surprises you, and features that seem obvious to you might confuse them. Refusing to test your assumptions is a waste of time, money and effort because you will likely need to make changes once your untested plan gets put into practise.
(Bernadette Jiwa, Founder, The Right Company)
If you are considering making major changes or new investment in your business - products, services, distribution, pricing, advertising, promotion - you should first check with your target audience what it is they want or need from you right now. Find out how their expectations or behaviours may have changed during the pandemic. If there is one thing I've learnt from my years in business is that it can be a dangerous game trying to second-guess what an audience will say or think. At the very least a survey can confirm your assumptions, but more likely it will throw up thought-provoking findings to give your review impetus. In particular, what may have been true in the past for your sales, advertising and marketing may no longer be as relevant or effective. That is why its important to keep an open mind as the feedback from key audiences can be very different to what you or colleagues will have expected - this is something to be embraced, not feared.
Case study 1: Sarah Higgs founder of Sarah's Book Shop is a provider of children's books for schools. At the very moment of the first lockdown the business faced a potential cliff-edge in sales at what should have been their busiest time of the year focused around World Book Day. By quickly adapting to the new realities and pivoting sales toward online her company was not only able to ride out the initial shock of lockdown but benefit from the subsequent rise in interest for home-education services from parents. By further researching what her customers wanted from the online service the business not only maintained cashflow but enjoyed their best six month trading, and it now has a sustainable long-term strategy.
Case study 2: Susannah Simons, Marquee TV's editorial director, has helped theatre, opera and dance companies create bespoke digital versions of 'live performances' for streaming. The performing arts sector continues to be among the hardest hit sectors as a result of theatres and other performing arts venues being closed. But her company has responded to the subsequent trend of people being lured to the streaming of productions. Marquee TV, like other players in this emerging market, avoids a "straight" shoot of a production on stage instead placing cameras around locations to provide what Susannah says is a "reimagining for a digital space".
Knowing your target market.
Copywriters who earn thousands for a 2-page sales letter earn their money in two ways. First by researching their client's ideal customer - the target market - and what are their pain points. For the pros, it's 80% research and 20% writing the content (Robin Waite, Founder of Fearless Business)
It may sound obvious, but having a clear idea of WHO buys your products or services and HOW they purchase is a must. But it is still surprising how often a business owner can only describe their target audience in general or vague terms. I have spoken to hundreds of wedding suppliers who respond to this question by saying "people getting married in my area". But anyone who has worked in the sector will tell you how varied weddings are in style and budget, so relying on notions of 'average' or 'typical' can often be misleading. With the digital world increasing the level of competition in so many sectors it is beneficial to really "get inside the head" of your ideal customer in terms of what they look like (demographic profile) and how they think (psychographic profile). The more you know about your ideal customer or client and what motivates them to purchase, the greater empathy you can show in the way you nurture enquiries and deliver meaningful communications. The strapline we used for our wedding research service was 'Marketing is easier when you know What Brides Want' (2019).
Research beats assumptions. Have you ever watched your colleagues rally behind a terrible decision? Bad ideas are often the result of guesswork, emotional reasoning or death by defaulting to the Highest Paid Person's Opinion (HiPPO). By listening to your users and focusing on their experience, you're less likely to get pulled in the wrong direction. (Bernadette Jiwa, Founder, The Right Company)
Maybe its not so surprising that many smaller businesses overlook market research given the huge time pressures we all face as small businesses. And it is tempting to dive straight into spending money on advertising, directories, Facebook or Google without really understanding if this is going to be the most effective way of reaching your audience. Are you just spending money this way because you think everyone else is or maybe you've been seduced by an advertiser's "sales pitch". When we conducted wedding research prior to the pandemic we found that the top five sources of information being used by couples to choose suppliers was different or out-of-sinc with the ways many wedding suppliers were advertising and promoting themselves. Our conclusion was that lots of wedding suppliers were not generating as many enquiries as they could or as economically.
4 common market research methods:
- Surveys: the most commonly used. Surveys ask respondents a short series of open or closed-ended questions, which can be delivered as an on-screen questionnaire, via email or by post.
Interviews: face-to-face, zoom or telephone conversations with a sample of key members of your target audience. Interviews are less structured than a questionnaire.
- Focus groups: a discussion group bringing together a carefully selected group of people who fit your target audience. A trained moderator will lead a conversation around the product, service or theme under discussion, such as the customer experience.
Observation: 'fly-on-the-wall' observation is an alternative to focus groups. Monitoring customer discussions on review sites, social groups, etc. can help bring to your attention problems or issues that need to be addressed, but also opportunities or gaps in the market..
Looking to the future.
Being able to plan for "what happens next" will be a pressing question for many of us right now, but knowing where to start is often problematic. Conducting research with key audiences should at least give you the basis for moving forward with your marketing, product development and advertising. Whether its delivering or promoting existing services in a slightly different way, changing your advertising message and method of communication or a more drastic move towards new audiences, market research can give you the impetus to move forward. Unfortunately the only certainty for the year ahead is likely to be uncertainty, but any business tool that helps you monitor key audience opinions, behaviours and preferences should be welcomed.
This blog was written by Robert Rayner (MA Marketing), founder of The Market Research Service and formerly of Wedding ConneXions and Accord Marketing & Research.