What’s More Important, Market or Impact Research?
First of all I feel I probably ought to explain what I mean by market research and impact research. I imagine there are quite a few of you out there thinking that really they probably are the same thing. Well, I disagree. I see market research as the collection and analysis of information about a market, about potential customers and their characteristics.
I see impact research as the collection and analysis of information on an organisation’s stakeholders; about the changes or differences that come about as a result of the organisation’s programme/project. It is distinct from market research, though there is some overlap and there is massive opportunity for cross-learning.
Where an organisation has customers rather than beneficiaries, are market research and impact research the same thing? Again, I don’t think so; they collect different information and have a different focus.
SolarAid created SunnyMoney, a social enterprise, to achieve our goal (to eradicate the kerosene lantern from Africa) and we did this because we felt the best way to reach that goal was to build a market for small solar lights. This means we see our key stakeholders as customers not beneficiaries, but nobody will be profiting from any surplus funds we may generate. In essence, we have a double bottom line; financial sustainability/viability and impact.
By treating the people we work with as (potential) customers I believe we are able to better serve their needs as we are listening to what they want. If we don’t respond to this then we are unlikely to reach as many people as we want. By having customers, not beneficiaries, we’re more accountable. People ‘vote with their feet’; if they’re not happy with the service or product or price, they simply won’t buy. Our success rests on us supplying what is demanded and that relies on us listening and adapting. We don’t have the ‘luxury’ of having beneficiaries who may accept a donated solar light, no matter what. Instead we have to persuade and highlight how useful a solar light is for people’s lives and make sure that they see that to be true once they make a purchase. They also gain customer rights by way of a warranty. Listening to our (potential) customers also forces us to question on a frequent basis not just if we’re doing things right but if we’re doing the right thing.
Our (potential) customers are happy to tell us their opinions and that’s how we can evolve and adapt as an organisation and that makes us more relevant, more appropriate and more effective in the changing world we work in. No matter how participatory impact research is, there will always be a different dynamic between a donor/recipient than between a supplier/customer. Impact research can often focus on gathering information to prove impact afterwards with only a nod (if any) towards learning at the outset and adapting as we go.
In my opinion, market research and impact research is essential for any organisation that truly values the opinions of its stakeholders, be they customers or beneficiaries. I think there is a lack of that in this sector and in some cases it is because we feel threatened by the process – it is a brave organisation that is open to hearing whether they really are doing what is needed, rather than just assessing whether they achieved what they set out to do. It is also a special organisation that can be truly open to listening to what their stakeholders want rather than delivering what they think they want or worse, what they think they should want.
In some elements, SolarAid has integrated its impact research into its market research practices and there are real links between the two. Learning about the impact we are having enables us to better engage and ‘sell’ our programme to new/potential customers; marketing. Doing market research not only provides critical information to inform our programme delivery but also can provide vital information as ‘baseline’. Learning from our potential customers enables us to deliver bigger impact by being more effective and relevant. Therefore, integrating both market and impact research into organisational processes, strategy and decision-making can maximise both your bottom lines: finance and impact and it forces you to be accountable to your stakeholders.
I’d love to hear what you think about different types of research, whether you feel your organisation has the tools and processes necessary to fully engage with your stakeholders or whether you think market and impact research should or is the same thing. You can discuss these topics with me and others on Thursday 24th October at 3.30pm on the Business Fights Poverty forum.