How to get the most out of working with market research agencies: tips for academic researchers in the health and social sciences

A market research agency can help academic researchers recruit and collect data from research participants. This guide gives researchers in the health and social sciences advice on how to get the most out of market research services.

At Accent, a considerable proportion of our clients are academic researchers who have outsourced their data collection or participant recruitment to us. A better understanding of how to work with market research agencies can make your life as an academic researcher easier and help you get better value for money. In this piece, I will give some advice and tips based on my own work experience, both as an academic research psychologist and a market researcher who works with academic clients. My focus will be on participant recruitment and data collection services. Whilst market research agencies provide a larger range of services (e.g. data analysis, reporting etc.), those other services tend to be less relevant to academic researchers.

What do you want from a market research agency? How can you get what you want?

I will make a simple assumption here: you are looking to collect high quality data, for the best possible price, with the minimum hassle.

Data quality

In order to guarantee data quality, academic researchers will typically prefer to collect survey and other data themselves. However, this may not be feasible for a number of reasons, including not being able to access research participants, a lack of resources to conduct a large number of (face-to-face or telephone) interviews, a wide geographical spread of participants, or the need to outsource the programming of complex surveys.

Therefore, a key concern when outsourcing data collection is the quality of the data. Naturally, you would be looking for an agency with a good track record in fieldwork similar to that required for your own study and robust quality control standards. If an agency does not offer this information spontaneously, ask for it. Personal recommendations can of course also be helpful if someone you know has recently had a good experience with an agency.

Equally important, however, is to ensure the agency is sufficiently engaged with the study; ideally, from your funding application through to publication. Engaging agencies when applying for funding can help you to think through the practicalities of your research plan, budget realistically and amend plans at an early stage where necessary. At the bare minimum, you need to ensure your chosen agency has (ample) opportunity to provide feedback on your draft research materials, such as questionnaires and topic guides. Your agency will be able to provide advice on how to make the research as participant-friendly as possible. Making materials easier to understand tends to be the most effective way of improving the quality of your data. Poor data quality is more often a result of poor comprehension of questions and instructions than a failure to engage with the study seriously. Furthermore, a good agency will be able to advise you on the logistics and other practicalities of your data collection. The sooner you involve the agency, the more likely it is that you will be in a position to take their advice on board when designing your study. And last but not least, even if the agency is not actively involved in the data analysis and write-up of your study, keeping them informed about the progress of your study, such as conference presentations and journal publications, is a nice way to show appreciation for their work and, most importantly, help them understand your research needs better. If you continue to work with the same agency in future, their increased understanding of your work could benefit your subsequent studies.

Value for money: price and customer service

Just like any customer, you are most likely interested in the value for money you are getting from a market research agency. For this reason, you may want to encourage agencies to give you the best possible price they can. You might also want a good customer service from the agency.

So how to get the best bang for your buck? Getting quotes from several agencies is a sensible starting point, but the question is how you are going to compare apples with oranges.

A good, clear brief will help you compare agencies, as they are more likely to get back to you with comparable information. Ideally, you will give them a concise overview of your research objectives, the detailed fieldwork requirements, your expectations of the agency, and possibly your indicative budget. Describe who fits your target population, the data collection method (i.e. online, face-to-face, telephone etc.) the sample size, the expected survey/interview length, any quotas or sampling methods you would like to use, expected quality control checks, and project timings.

Being as prescriptive as possible will help you obtain comparable information, although if you are unsure you can specify various options (e.g. “please quote for face-to-face and online options”) or ask agencies to suggest alternative approaches to the one you are putting forward in the brief. Stating an indicative budget will help agencies to think of alternatives or better suggestions if they cannot fulfil your research requirements within the given budget.

Common pitfalls and tips

I have discussed what you, as an academic researcher, would typically want from an agency and how to go about it, but what could go wrong? A reminder of the obvious that is often overlooked:

  1. Communications, communications
    Although blatantly obvious, much stands or falls on the quality of the communications between you and the agency. Bear in mind that you do not work in a similar environment and therefore may not use the same jargon and share similar expectations about how to work together. Be as clear as you can on your research requirements and how you wish to work with the agency. It is worth the extra time to talk things through and, if at all possible, meet the agency staff you are going to be working with in person to establish rapport.
  2. A singular focus on costs
    Whilst price can be an important factor when choosing an agency, you should ensure you have enough information to compare agencies on factors other than price. As with everything in life, you tend to get what you pay for. Make sure you understand the assumptions agencies have made when quoting for your project. Different agencies may not have made the same assumptions about the fieldwork, quality checks and the agency’s involvement in your research. It is important that everyone has realistic expectations of how much time and resources are needed.
  3. Failing to use the expertise of the agency
    Knowing what you want and how you want to do it does not equate to wanting minimal input from your agency. I made a similar point earlier, but it is worth repeating. Remember that your agency recruits participants and collects data as their bread and butter. They are likely to have a better feel for what will and will not work in field than you do. Furthermore, they can provide a much-needed detached perspective to help ensure your research materials are understood and received as intended. And last but not least, they are usually as keen as you are to get a good result, so you might as well get the most out of them!