Measuring Your Organization's Market Awareness and Perceptions Provides a Solid Basis for Moving Forward

(Originally published in the February 1997 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal)

By William K. Pollock

Introduction

A service organization's market awareness and perceptions are among its most valuable assets, but they require high levels of maintenance and a great deal of attention. However, unlike other important contributors to an organization's overall market positioning and economic well-being, market awareness and perceptions are almost always entirely out of its control, except for the ability to continually attempt to shape, nurture and cultivate them in the eyes of the universe that comprises the overall service and support marketplace.

Even after utilizing all of the available state-of-the-art marketing and promotional tools; exploiting the full resources of the organization's own marketing, advertising and promotional staffs; and employing the use of outside public relations consultants and the like, an organization's levels of market awareness and perceptions ultimately rest entirely within the minds of the market's decision-influencers, decision-makers, purchasers and users of your organization's products and services.

There is never a "best" time to begin to measure and evaluate your market awareness and perceptions; although, if you have not already established a benchmark assessment, now may be an appropriate time to do so. Too many services organizations wait until after they have launched a new product or service, changed their corporate name, acquired new companies or undergone some other major form of "disruption" before they attempt to measure and assess their now-existing market position.

However, the problem with waiting until then is that there is no basis for comparing the levels of awareness and perceptions resulting from the most recent "disruption" to what the organization's levels were prior to the change. In otherwords, there is no way to evaluate what the impact of a specific change, or event, is to the organization's overall position. This is why most services organizations, and businesses of all types, choose to establish a formal benchmark of their market awareness and perceptions well in advance of any planned, or unplanned, future events.

Program Goals and Objectives

In most cases, the primary objectives for conducting a market awareness and perception study are (Figure 1):

  • To establish benchmark measures for the awareness and perceptions of the organization, its products and its services, among its target markets; and
  • To identify the factors surrounding the decision-influencing, decision-making and purchasing behavior associated with the sales and marketing of the organization's products and services.

More specifically, the objectives for embarking on such a program may also include the measurement, assessment and evaluation of such market image- and position-related factors as:

  • Awareness of the overall breadth of the products and services available from the organization;
  • Awareness of the organization as a provider of these products and services in the marketplace, both as an independent entity, as well as in conjunction with any of its primary channel partners, such as OEMs, VARs, dealers, distributors and resellers, etc;
  • Perception of the company vis a vis the competition, both overall and by individual product/service lines;
  • The importance of key factors in the purchase decision-making process, both overall, and for its primary product/services lines;
  • Awareness of specific organization characteristics and features that may be perceived by the marketplace as unique, or niche, market differentiators;
  • The propensity, or likelihood, of the relevant market base to purchase/use the types of products and services sold by the company;
  • The identification and description of the general decision-making process utilized by the market ultimately leading to the purchase of the company's products and services, including the identification of the preferred means for communicating with the primary decision-makers; and
  • Additional insight into the structure of the market through the identification of principal market user characteristics, such as user type, size, vertical industry segment, geographic location, etc.
The uses of the findings from such a market awareness and perception study would be multifold:

First, the organization would acquire new, current and useful input/insight directly from its relevant market base regarding:

  • Their awareness of the organization with respect to their own perceptions of product and service needs and requirements;
  • The product/service offerings perceived to be presently available through the company, and their corresponding value-in-use;
  • Existing levels of company and competitive market positioning;
  • Expectations for future purchases/use of the company's products and services; and
  • Other key factors relating to the market's purchase decision-making process.
Second, the analysis of the survey results could then be used to establish a "benchmark", or baseline, of market awareness and perception for the organization, as well as to serve as a basis from which future changes and trends may be monitored over time. Further, the organization would be able to identify and assess each of the key internal and market "players" that will ultimately impact its levels of market awareness and perceptions (Figure 2).

Third, this information would contribute directly to the ongoing improvement of the organization's product and service offerings, and could ultimately lead to the development of new, modified or enhanced product and service features designed to meet the total, or expanded, needs of the marketplace.

Undertaking an Awareness and Perception Study

Since the results of the market image and perception study will be used to establish baseline measures upon which all future movement and trends will be gauged and measured, it is clear that the overall quality of the collected data is absolutely critical. Consequently, the program should be based on a design that addresses all of the principal issues of market awareness and market/user perceptions, as well as all other relevant market attitudes, opinions and beliefs.

The ongoing measurement and tracking of market image and awareness represents a critical element of any business's marketing plan. Still, when evaluating the market, many business managers tend to focus very narrowly on either their existing customer base (typically the marketing managers) or the prospective customer base (typically the sales managers). However, a sound marketing plan will incorporate the analysis and assessment of market awareness and perceptions among both of these key groups.

When planning a baseline, or benchmark, study of an organization's market awareness and perceptions, it is generally necessary to conduct the research on a discreet, or "closed" basis in order to attain the most objective and non-biased results. For this reason, most businesses tend to utilize the services of an outside consulting firm or advertising agency to conduct the actual market research under their name, rather than the company's own name. Most of these firms will recommend a methodology that consists of three major areas, each with its own set of specific tasks and activities (Figure 3). These major areas include:

  1. A Discovery Phase in which the initial liaison and coordination between the services organization and the consultant team is established; the initial qualitative study effort is conducted; and, as a result, the quantitative market survey questionnaire is developed;

  2. The Survey Execution/Data Collection Phase in which the actual measures of market awareness and perceptions are obtained through the carrying out of an appropriate survey design via a discreet telephone or mail interviewing methodology; and

  3. The Analysis and Reporting Phase in which the results of the overall study are analyzed, interpreted and presented to client management in terms of a written report, executive presentation and recommended action plan.

Among the first steps to be taken upon commencing a study of this nature would be to identify any existing internal data, past survey results or other internal and external sources of information that may be available to provide some initial insight into the market. This is typically where the participation of the organization's advertising agency or public relations firm may come in handy.

A meeting between services management and the consulting firm would then serve to identify the key tasks that need to be accomplished before moving forward with the actual survey interviews. As part of this meeting, the client and consultant project teams could jointly identify, establish and refine the overall study design and plan; set the program schedule; identify internal data sources and contacts; and agree on a means for monitoring the progress of the overall program effort.

Further discussions between services management and the consultant should then be held with respect to gaining a comprehensive overview of the organization's internal "mindset" with respect to its market awareness and perception goals and objectives; its internal perceived competitive market position; its desired market targets and performance expectations; its key perceived service differentiators (both positive and negative); and its management's thoughts with respect to the possible ways in which the business could enhance its overall market awareness and position through the use of the data and information that would ultimately be generated as a result of completing the study effort.

These management discussions are very often important in contributing to a greater all-around understanding of the full range of internal company perceptions and expectations which could serve as a benchmark from which the external (i.e., the market's) perceptions can ultimately be evaluated and compared. As important as it is to understand how the market perceives the business, it is equally important for the business to understand what its own internal perceptions are. In otherwords, changing the business to meet the needs of the market is of critical importance; but knowing what the business will be changing from, is of equal importance in making it all work politically within the organization itself.

Based on the results of these initial tasks and activities, the survey questionnaire and design can be finalized, and the survey can be conducted (preferably by telephone, to ensure a statistically valid and representative market segment sample). The survey questionnaire should be designed to provide management with a full quantitative and statistically valid assessment of the broad array of market awareness and perception factors that define the markets in which it serves, as developed during the course of conducting the earlier qualitative tasks.

Using the Results of the Study

The analysis of the program survey data would provide management with specific market awareness and perception data that would be of great value in helping it to identify specific areas of future opportunity, including:

  • The assessment, analysis and evaluation of the responses to all of the market survey questions, supported by the earlier insight gained from the previously conducted qualitative interviews;
  • Specific study findings and strategic implications for services management based on the patterns of data resulting from the analysis of the market in the aggregate, as well as from each key user/market segment; and
  • The identification, assessment and prioritization of key market awareness and perception issues that will serve to define specific opportunities for the business.
The analysis of the study should focus on the strategic market implications resulting from the analysis of the study findings, and the areas relating specifically to the organization's perceived levels of market awareness and perceptions. An action plan to take full advantage of the knowledge gained from the study results should also be developed, and a tracking program consisting of follow-up survey "waves" at regular intervals should also be considered for tracking changes over time.

Summary

Merely tracking trends in market awareness and perceptions over time does not, in and of itself, provide a services organization with the information it needs to improve its overall market position. However, without doing so, an organization will not be able to effectively identify where it must make necessary improvements, or where it can most successfully cultivate new market opportunities.

The results of an awareness and perception study, once converted into an appropriate action plan, including specific tactical recommendations, can provide services management with all of the tools it requires to work immediately toward increasing existing levels of market awareness, identifying areas of awareness and image requiring further strengthening; and improving its perceived market position within the organization's relevant services marketplace.


William K. Pollock is President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a Westtown, Pennsylvania USA-based consulting firm specializing in business planning, customer service and customer satisfaction research. He may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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