Market Research and Life Sciences: From Laboratory to Market

Jean-Francois Denault

February 16, 2018

13 Min Read



Start-ups in life sciences are constantly reshaping and redefining markets. As such, these companies must understand their unique markets because potential partners and investors seek out companies with such understanding. In my experience, it is not unusual for entrepreneurs to believe that they already know their market. They might have been active in their market for a long time, or they might have operated in similar industries and are making parallel assumptions. But markets are fluid environments, and they change rapidly. Bringing compelling arguments based on solid market research is the key to convincing people (both internally and externally) that you know your markets.

Hence, market research is conducted for two audiences. First, it helps the organization itself make optimal decisions. Market research is conducted when a lack of information will cost more than the cost to acquire that information. Second, market research is conducted to inform potential partners and investors, to demonstrate the validity of a company’s business plan (e.g., business model, market entry strategy, product viability). The results of market research are a key element of a company’s business case.

Basic Market Research Concepts
Market research is full of dichotomies. To fully appreciate a market research effort, it is important to understand the difference between primary and secondary research and between quantitative and qualitative research.

Primary market research is an activity in which an entrepreneur is engaged actively in research and data creation. Simply put, it is the collection of data that did not exist until a researcher completed the market research activity. Some popular tools that can be used for this include Internet surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Although more costly than secondary data, primary market research is tailored to specfic needs.

Secondary market research is the collation of data that already exist. It could be collected through an Internet search or by aggregating news posts or blogs, for example. A researcher collects and then transforms those data into coherent and useful information. Although less costly than primary market research, this often is less directly tailored to a a company’s individual needs.

Data can be quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative data can be measured and numbered. “Counting” the number of potential clients for a product or calculating the number of products or drug doses a consumer uses each day or the average distance a patient is willing to travel to visit a specialized clinic produce different types of quantitative data. Experts in life sciences usually are familiar with quantitative data to quantify the technical aspects of products. Quantitative data in market research often are used to size markets and identify market segments and opportunities. Some data collection tools are better adapted for quantitative data. For example, surveys (both online and in person) can be the best way to generate an important amount of quantitative data.

Qualitative data are subjective and subject to interpretation. They can include stories, discussions, observations, and pictures. Examples of qualitative data include personal reasons for preferences in consumer products, the effect of quality on customer purchasing patterns, and the effect of packaging color on purchase decisions. Data collected through interviews, focus groups, and observation are usually qualitative. In general, quantitative data are perceived as “more real” and are easier to convey to an audience, but qualitative data are very useful toward understanding and contextualizing the story behind the numbers.

Planning Your Data Collection
Building your data-collection tools correctly is important to ensure that data are collected consistently, especially if multiple people will be collecting data independently. That helps ensure that your data sets are equivalent and can be interpreted. Doing so also ensures that a researcher does not forget a question and covers every topic. That is important especially for voice interviews because it is easy to get wrapped up in a
conversation and forget to ask about a specific topic. I propose here a four-step methodology to develop your data-collection tool.

The first step in conducting market research is to define the information required, the target respondents, and the tool to use. Defining the information required helps researchers focus their questions, and identifying target respondents helps conceptualize the knowledge level of respondents, influencing which data-collection tool you will use. Finally, choosing the data collection tool will dictate how questions will be asked and worded.

Next you can build your question bank. A brainstorming session with other interested parties is a great way to start building your question bank. During this creativity phase, the objective is to cover all topics you want covered by your market research activity. So generate as many questions as you think you will need to ask, and try to cover as much ground as possible.

Once you believe that you have generated enough questions to cover all the ground you need covered, it is time to place your questions in a meaningful order. Start your data-collection tool with a brief statement explaining why you are collecting the information, and include warm-up questions. After this, put your most important questions in the middle of your data-collection tool. When building your tool, be critical of your questions. Ask yourself, “Is this question really useful?” Is it “need to know” or “nice to know?” Participant attrition occurs when data collection takes too long, so make sure that you keep only the important questions you need answered. At the end of your survey, remember to include questions related to demographics: This will ensure that you can compare the answers from segment to segment, as well as correlate answers and identify trends.

Finally, test your data collection tool with a sample of your target population before implementing it at large. If your objective is to interview end users, try your questionnaire beforehand on a few such people to identify gaps or misunderstandings your participants might have. Pretesting your data-collection tool also lets you validate its length. So if you notice some participant attrition during the testing phase, it might be a good idea to cut some questions.

Developing Your Data-Collection Tool

Define the information required, the target respondents, and the data-collection tool you will use.

Build a question bank.

Shortlist the most important questions: Distinguish the “need to know” from the “nice to know.”

Test your data-collection tool with a sample of your population.

Overview of Market Research Tools
You can choose from a number of means for collecting data. Some of the more popular ones in life sciences are in-depth interviews, online surveys, and focus groups.

In-depth interviews are conducted one-on-one between a researcher and a participant. They mostly consist of open-ended questions. The objective here is to explore a topic in a semiformal format, gathering qualitative information. Although in-depth interviews can be expensive (in terms of time and money), they present a number of advantages over questionnaires and online surveys.

For example, interviews provide more opportunities for a researcher to motivate a respondent to participate truthfully and to not abandon an interview halfway through. Interviews also allow the flexibility to explore topics as opportunities in the interview occur. The more exploratory the topic, the more useful an in-depth interview can be because it allows a researcher to change the order of questions.

A researcher also can prioritize some topics if time is short or to go into more depth if a participant is an expert on a specialized topic. A researcher can take different approaches to enhance an interview. First, prepare your interview: Perform a quick due diligence on the interview target before you meet to identify potential specializations and fields of specific interest. Also, record the interview. When you record the interview, you can focus on a participant’s answers and ask questions and explore topics with your interviewee, rather than spend time taking notes. Finally, listen to your interviewee: You are trying to collect data, so the participant needs the opportunity to share information. Be careful not to spoon-feed the answers you want. That leads to bad data collection and would not reflect real market conditions.

In-depth interviews in life sciences are a popular way to get needed information, especially when dealing with sensitive topics. It is a great way to speak to people confidentially and obtain their views on healthcare topics such as their personal health and those of loved ones as well as their use of pharmaceutical products. Interviewing doctors and medical personal can be especially challenging because they are often solicited for their time. Because of that, you might have to set aside an important per diem to interview them.

Focus Groups
A focus group is a small group of individuals brought together to discuss a specific topic. The added value of a focus group (rather than individual interviews) is that the interaction among individuals generates a wealth of additional information. Therefore, focus groups help researchers gain a better understanding of what people are thinking and why they are thinking it. Many participants will provide more information in a group setting in which they feel safe and do not feel that they are the sole focus of the interview. Finally, the information gathered in a focus group can be useful to designing a quantitative questionnaire or to use in interpreting information gathered from a quantitative research project.

The main issue with focus groups is similar to those of peer groups. Social pressure (the desire to conform to a group and not disagree), an individual’s domination of a group, or the “halo effect” generated by key opinion leaders all can compromise the quality of interactions and the information generated. It is the role of the moderator to step in, rebalance a focus group, and ensure that it does not become biased. Another concern is that although focus groups can be used to evaluate a group’s feelings or views on a topic, they cannot be used as final decision tools. A focus group is exploratory in nature (not statistically valid), and the information you gather — although invaluable in interpreting existing data or setting up more research — cannot be an end game in itself.

Ideally, a focus group will have eight to 10 participants. Such groups need to be sufficiently large to generate dynamic conversations, but not so large that some participants are left out or that they become difficult to manage for a moderator (when parallel discussions start to be generated).

The ideal time frame for a focus group is 45 to 75 minutes. If the time is too short, you will not generate deep insight; if it’s too long, you risk participant fatigue, and participants start to agree quickly with one another in hope that the focus group will end. Three to four focus groups usually are necessary to explore a topic fully. Beyond that, you might find the same information repeated.

In life sciences, focus groups are especially useful for interacting with end users (doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians) and obtaining feedback from patients. As such, this approach can generate valuable information relative to marketing, branding, competitors, and product issues. Nonetheless, some researchers have found that focus groups are not an ideal environment for eliciting emotional information from physicians, because they tend to be rational (not emotional) decision makers (1). It can be especially challenging to reach and recruit specific participants.

Online Surveys
The rapid pace and development of technology has created new opportunities for collecting data. Using the Internet for surveys has grown immensely in popularity. Online surveys are cost-effective and simple to use. If conducted properly, they can reach a wide range participants who can complete a survey quickly, on their own time, and with little effort. Most online surveys today use a web-based survey tool.

Researchers can face considerable challenges when trying to obtain participants for a life science survey, particularly clinicians. A study conducted in 2015 found that an online web survey targeting clinicians got a 35% participation rate, with deep variances across specialities — ranging from 46.6% (neurology/neurosurgery) to 42.9% (internal medicine), 29.6% (general surgery), 29.2% (pediatrics), and 27.1% (psychiatry). Lack of time and survey burden were the most common reasons provided for not participating (2).

Another study found that general practitioner survey rates could be increased with incentives (the larger and more upfront, the better). Other strategies included peers precontacting targets by phone, personalized packages, and sending surveys on Fridays (3).

Several factors should be remembered when building a web survey to increase your response rate. First, keep the survey short and simple to reduce user attrition. Second, be straightforward about the time to answer: Announce upfront the length of the survey and, if possible, use a progress bar on top of the pages to keep participants engaged, Finally, optimize your survey for mobile devices: Use a survey platform that will optimize your survey for mobile platforms. More than ever, people use mobile devices to do mundane tasks while waiting, and if your survey does not properly display on a mobile device, potential participants might simply drop out and move on.

Ethics and Market Research

Identify yourself and the objective of your research project clearly.

Stay neutral when asking questions.

Respect the confidentiality of all participants.

Remember, primary market research is not a commercialization activity.

Ethics and Market Research
I’ve discussed some tools that a market researcher can use to collect primary data. But you should remember a few things before engaging in your market research activity.

First, it’s important to be honest when collecting data. Identify yourself and describe the purpose of your research. Misrepresentation is a huge problem in data collection because it is tempting to misrepresent in an attempt to ease data gathering. For example, some researchers will pretend to be a potentially interested client or pose as a student gathering information for a school project. Both are clearly unethical. Instead, spend your efforts identifying who are likely to have the information you seek and to share it such as academics, technology vendors, advertising agencies, and journalists.

Be neutral when asking questions. It is easy for a market researcher to influence a participant’s response. Asking leading questions can cause a participant to answer untruthfully. Even agreeing with a participant rather than impartially acknowledging their answer can influence his or her response. Remember that leading participants might get you the answer you want to hear, but it will not necessarily reflect the real market’s appreciation of your product. Wouldn’t you rather find out the true market conditions during market research than shape that research to fit your preconceived ideas and then to fail during commercialization? Although market research shapes our vision of a market, it does change the true nature of that market.

Respect participant confidentiality. If you have assured participants that you will protect their responses, be ready to do so. If you believe you cannot ensure confidentiality, or if do not intend to (by sharing raw data to other stakeholders), then inform participants upfront so they will have the chance to opting out.

Finally, primary market research is not a commercialization activity. Engaging participants in market research and then trying to sell a product midway during data collection undermines market research as a whole. In some cases, a client might express interest in a product that you are researching. When that happens, my approach is to ask the participant, “You seem to have some interest in product X. Would you like me to refer you directly to Company X as an interested party? Do you accept that your contact information be shared directly to the appropriate person?” That way, the participant can authorize you to share his or her information and personal interest. You thus can serve both parties, and with consent, you are relieved of other obligations that you might have (such as keeping the data anonymous).

1 Kelly D, Rupert E. Professional Emotions and Persuasion: Tapping Nonrational Drivers in Healthcare Market Research. J. Med. Marketing: Device, Diagnos. Pharma. Marketing 9(1) 2009: 3–9.

2 Cunningham CT, et al. Exploring Physician Specialist Response Rates to Web-Based Surveys. BMC Med. Research Methodol. 2015; doi:10.1186/s12874-015-0016-z.

3 Pit SW, Vo T, Pyakurel S. The Effectiveness of Recruitment Strategies on General Practitioner’s Survey Response Rates: A Systematic Review. BMC Med. Research Methodol. 2014; doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-76.

Jean-Francois Denault is owner of Impacts Solutions; [email protected];

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