The 2011 cycling season was around the corner, and Mike Brcic was designing a new poster campaign for his Toronto-based bicycle-tour operator. His plan was to post the ads in bike shops across the city, calling out to potential customers. But which image would pack the hardest punch?
Brcic, “lead guide” and owner of Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Adventures, browsed through photos he’d collected over 15 years of touring and came across one of his personal favourites: “It’s a guy standing on the edge of a cliff in Chile with his bike and the Andes in the background at sunset. It’s a spectacular photo.”
But he wasn’t sure what his customers would think. So, what did he do? Set up a focus group? Call a market-research firm? Not even close. Without thinking twice, Brcic posted a mock-up of the poster on Facebook and waited for his firm’s fans to tell him exactly what they thought. In other words, he did his own market research.
Brcic is far from alone in embracing doityourself research. Free or cheap online tools—including social-media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as survey generators such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang—offer an array of new research options that businesses of all sizes are clamouring to exploit. Business-data provider Thomson Reuters forecast last October that the US$500 million now spent using DIY methods—less than 2% of the US$32 billion spent worldwide on market research—could reach US$3 billion by 2016.
Despite this rapid rise, however, DIY research is no panacea. At best, these tools offer a quick and cheap way to gauge customer sentiment. At worst, they lead amateur researchers to flawed results and faulty business decisions. The trick is to know when to rely on DIY tools—and when not to. Brcic, for one, is a veteran in the field. He has been using online tools to do research since 2007, when Facebook launched its fan pages. Since then, Sacred Rides has built a community of 8,200 mountain-biking enthusiasts. Most of them aren’t customers. They’re just people who enjoy videos and articles on mountain biking.
But that makes them potential customers, and Brcic doesn’t miss an opportunity to reach out to them. He writes a weekly email newsletter sent to 10,000 subscribers, as well as a blog that incorporates a Facebook widget so the company’s legions of fans can join the discussion. And Brcic has everything he posts on Facebook set to publish automatically on Twitter.
For more specific answers, Brcic conducts surveys. The free-to-use Facebook Questions app comes in handy for quickly testing a hypothesis. And for about $300 per year, SurveyMonkey provides deeper analysis, with charts to organize data and graphs to visualize results.
Last March, though, when Brcic posted his “rider on a cliff” photo, he was just looking for feedback. Within minutes, surprising insights started to come in. One was that about a quarter of the respondents expressed terror at the thought of biking near what appeared to be a 10,000-foot drop—a perception that Sacred Rides has struggled with. “People have this idea that we only cater to super-hardcore mountain bikers,” says Brcic. “That’s absolutely not the case.”
Later that first day, he posted a few more images (less frightening ones) and noticed that fans were voting for their favourites by clicking the “Like” button. This inspired Brcic to conduct an experiment: he announced to his Facebook fans that Sacred Rides would be “crowdsourcing” the design for its poster and invited them to participate by voting and commenting.
From there, the process was iterative. Brcic posted a series of images of bike riders; his fans questioned why all of them were men. Brcic posted potential taglines to go with the posters; the company’s fans voted on the ones they liked best, even chiming in with their own.
In the end—after nine rounds of feedback and hundreds of comments over a week of research—Brcic and Sacred Rides had their poster. In fact, Brcic decided to go with two posters: one with a man and one with a woman. He also chose two taglines: one written in-house and another written by a fan. Overall, says Brcic, he was thrilled by how the process turned out.
Brcic makes it look easy, but there are pitfalls to consider when it comes to DIY research. Luke Zukowski, co-owner and director of Reveal Research Inc., a Vancouver-based market-research firm that caters to small businesses, says tools such as SurveyMonkey and Facebook can lead amateurs to make errors. “The problem is that these are just tools,” he says, “and many small-business owners lack the expertise to design a research project properly.”