Forget one-trick ponies; better understanding of consumers and markets is gained from analysis using as broad a range of sources as is feasible.
In last year's Greater Insight supplement, a few of the articles were - understandably - on cost-effective research for budget-savvy research managers.
Of course, we all want to cut costs. Finance departments would like us to think that everything is on Google these days. Focus-group researchers might argue that a couple of groups in Scunthorpe and Doncaster will provide better understanding of the Great British Public. Trend research companies argue along the same lines. However, it's online quantitative research that often promises most when it comes to cost-saving.
Now, don't get me wrong. Much of Mintel's research budget is spent with a wide variety of online research suppliers. Online is neither the starting nor finishing point, however; it's one tool among many to help better understand consumers.
'Half the time. Half the price. Twice the number of questions,' promise many suppliers. Yet, like software development, where the reality is often 'Half the functionality. Twice the time. Twice the cost', gaining greater insight is a bit more complicated than simply asking more questions online.
It is not sexy to talk about 'nat rep': influencers, advocates, thought leaders - they're sexy. When trying to understand all consumers and potential consumers in the marketplace, however, a more representative sample of the population is needed. While online quant research may be 40% cheaper than face-to-face, the issue is that almost 30% of the UK population is still offline.
In market segments where consumers are predominantly young, old, rich or poor, online quant research often struggles. Ironically, young people, who are most willing and best able to complete online or mobile surveys, are the most heavily restricted from a legal perspective. Consent requirements for under-16s complicate online and mobile surveys among this group.
The term 'silver surfers' has been part of the English language for 15 years, but they remain the minority among the over-65s (just 42% in January 2010). The interesting question is why they are not online - but that's not a question for an online survey.
Everybody wants to know more about wealth management and luxury goods. Unfortunately, people who spend money on these services and products need greater persuasion than Amazon vouchers to while away their spare time filling in online questionnaires.
In the leisure sector, a high proportion of the poor's discretionary expenditure is spent on the on-trade drinks sector (worth nearly £30bn), gambling (upwards of £8bn) and domestic tourism (£10bn). Unfortunately, less than 40% of socio-economic group E had access to broadband in 2009.
In a similar vein, niche or irregularly bought products demand bigger sample sizes. Farewell cost savings. Most Mintel reports on the travel industry, technology and housewares require a sample size of 2000 to have any chance of statistically valid research output.
Should we ask the question of who actually spends big chunks of their day filling in online questionnaires? Websites such as Moneysavingexpert.com and most national newspapers regularly recommend questionnaire completion as a method of earning extra cash if money is tight, but are these frugal respondents truly representative of the Great British Public?
And, as one in 10 of the British population was not born in the UK, can we be sure that this 10% - often non-native English speakers - are being properly represented?
This brings me back to the statement 'analysis using as broad a range of sources as is feasible'. Feasible! We need to balance time to carry out research, time to analyse results, management time, research costs, accessibility of the target market, production values, production deadlines, IT and legal constraints, frequency of market changes, importance of timeliness, market opportunity, opportunity cost, and appropriateness and consistency of methodologies.
Don't believe anyone arguing for a single solution to help you understand your consumer. Trade interviews, store checks, trend research, product innovation analysis, underlying perceptions of advertising and brands, the databases of other organisations, (eg TGI) and online focus groups all have a role to play.
Finally, the most important ingredient of all is time to assimilate and think.
Ronnie McBryde is director of research at Mintel. Contact Mintel at email@example.com