As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense from 2001-2006
The former Secretary of Defense may not be the first person you would ask for advice when conducting your market research. But his quote above does apply to how you can develop effective surveys and questionnaires to grow your business.
If you collect geographic information on your customers as they purchase, you can easily plot a map showing where those customers live and visualize where your products are sold. You know this, so why waste valuable survey space asking what you already knew?
Here you understand the question and possible answers, but don’t know what those actual answers are. For example, you know that your customers experience a level of satisfaction with your product, but you don’t know what that satisfaction is. Or, perhaps you understand the content segments that you include in a newsletter, but you’re not sure how your customers feel about each segment.
Known unknowns are where the analysts who parse your data have the most fun. Because you know what you want to measure, you can generate a pre-given set of responses. If you want to figure out satisfaction by content area, tell your customers to rate, on a scale of 1 through 5, their satisfaction with each area. When you receive the responses, your analyst can report on which content works and which doesn’t.
Let’s say you inherit a newsletter whose objective is keeping financial folks up to date with news on the latest software packages. And we believe that they read it to help them make a purchase. But if we were to challenge that assumption, we might ask an open-ended question like “Why do you read our newsletter?” Perhaps the answer that comes back most is “For your job ads.” If you knew that job ads were a main feature of your newsletter, then it would be a known unknown and you could have included it as a choice among other choices. But if you hadn’t known this, and wondered whether there was some unknown reason why subscribers did read your newsletter, then this open-ended question would have given you a surprising answer.
As another example, marketing managers sometimes forget that their response rates are driven by an emotional need for their product. What is that need? Try asking your customers, “List the top five challenges in your job today” and give them five open text-boxes to fill in themselves. As a follow-up, ask “of those five challenges, where does our product help you most?” As another follow-up, pose “of those five challenges, where would you trust our company to develop a new product to help you.”
Here you’re letting the customer fill in the unknown unknowns. Once they are “known”, you have them answer their own selections to help you discover their emotional needs and new areas you could explore to help them.
So whatever you may think of our former Secretary of Defense, his philosophy on what we know and what we don’t may just help you get the actionable market research you need to grow your business.