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Tracking research: the state of the art.

Tracking Research: The State of the Art

The large majority of U.S. corporations conduct tracking research, a term that encompasses any type of marketing research whose primary purpose is to monitor changes over time. Each periodic reading uses the same or similar measures, and is conducted among the same or a similar ("matched") base of respondents.

The practical applications of tracking research studies include the measurement of such marketing activities as: . New advertising campaigns . Different levels of advertising expenditures . Different media usage patterns . Promotion tests . Levels of category and brand usage . New product introductions . Improvements in current products . Changes in competitors' products . Effects of specific marketing activities.

Tracking studies can take place over a relatively short period of time, or over such longer terms as a year or more. They can relate to new or on-going brands, and can take place on a test market, regional or national basis.

Basic Consideration

The basic purpose of a tracking study is to monitor changes over time. It is used, therefore, primarily as a scorecard for a marketing effort. Often, though not always, questions other than the base evaluative measures are added in order to provide clues that will help in understanding the actual level of performance. These other measures, plus knowledge of the specific marketing activites as well as overall and category conditions, provide the background to interpret performance.

However, despite its longevity as a research tool as well as its high level of use, the methodologies of tracking research have exhibited little change over the years. As research tools go, tracking research is still relatively simplistic, and the analysis of the data output is usually rather simplistic as well. Unfortunately, one result of this is that tracking studies are often designed and analyzed by "rote," which frequently leads to deriving less than the full value that could be gained from such research.

Tracking research studies needn't be complex in order to be effective, or to derive their full value. But in order for the job to be done properly, the same kind of thoughtful input must go into the pre-planning of all its facets and stages as is done with any other type of marketing research. This type of input starts with study objectives, and moves through sample size, sampling methodology, respondent eligibility, interview timing, and questionnaire content, to data analysis and interpretation.

Using "matched" samples of respondents from wave to wave is basic to a tracking study because of the need to draw data from comparable sets of respondents (no "sampling bias"). As a result, most tracking studies are conducted by telephone (this tends to be the most efficient and least costly approach), while a lesser number use personal in-home interviews. The rationale for this procedure is that people can be drawn at random from the target population, whether or not there are specific user type or demographic eligibility factors, and these samples can be replicated from period to period by matching them on a geographic basis (using telephone exchanges or zip codes/small geographic clusters).

A second basic aspect of tracking studies is interview timing. For the longest time, the standard was to conduct the waves of interviewing at discrete points in time: a base period if one was not starting at "ground zero," plus one or more subsequent waves at specific intervals (monthly, quarterly, yearly, or whatever). There has been, however, over about the past decade or so, a growing use of continuous interviewing on tracking studies, especially among packaged goods manufacturers with relatively high turnover products. With this methodology, a certain number of interviews are conducted daily or weekly, with these interviews cumulated and tabulated at any desired points in time. The advantage is that the effects of frequent purchasing, as well as short term promotions, are not lost with more widely spaced discrete points in time. In addition to flexibility, this interviewing procedure also negates the effects of seasonality and smoothes out the effects of specific activities or events that relate to the category or brand under study.

Design and Methodology

The following lists some other aspects that marketing researchers have learned to consider when planning, conducting, and analyzing tracking studies: . The objectives of the study should be clearly and tightly defined. Well-defined objectives reduce disagreements over their interpretation, and are far easier to implement. . Action standards for the study should be developed and related to specific marketing objectives. . The sampling plan must be created and applied. It should be designed in such a manner as to be easily replicated to ensure consistency over time. Factors such as comparable respondent selection procedures, time of day or day of week, and the callback procedure should be determined in advance, and remain consistent from wave to wave. . The determination of sample size should be based on the ability to identify significant differences from period to period, in total as well as by key sub-groups. Since substantial changes from wave to wave are unusual in most tracking studies, except for new product introductions, sample size designation is critical for evaluating differences in results. . The person most responsible for category purchase decision should usually be the person to be interviewed. Random digit dialing should be used, whenever applicable, in telephone studies. It has the advantage of covering all telephone households, including unlisted numbers, and also provides complete randomization.

A benchmark reading is obviously necessary in almost every tracking study (except when you are starting from absolute zero). However, using control areas or control markets is also important to avoid misleading results when evaluating the effect of various marketing and marketplace activities.

Additional information added to a benchmark phase can provide direction as well as eliminate the need for other research. Such measures as importance ratings of category benefits, user lifestyles, and media exposure can be helpful in evaluating the long-term effects of the activity being measured in the tracking program.

Reinterviewing the same respondents (a second time) should be considered in order to provide measures of brand and market dynamics that cannot otherwise be obtained in a "standard" tracking procedure study. This can provide information on the proportions and types of people entering or leaving the category or brand, movement from awareness to trial to regular usage of a brand, changing of attitudes impacting on trial and usage, source of brand usage, repeat purchase patterns, and brand or type cannibalization. In addition, the relationships can be determined between recall (brand and advertising) and trial, extent of attitudinal change influencing trial, and specific attitudes vs. purchasing.

The Questionnaire

Based on experience, here are some "golden rules" for designing the research instrument. . The sequence of questions should be based on two key factors: .. The relative importance of each measure to the evaluation of results .. The minimization of bias from one question to another.

For example, unaided awareness measures, which tend to be most sensitive to brand and advertising activities, should be given the earliest possible position within the questionnaire. In addition, evaluative measures directly related to brand purchasing, such as attitudes changes, should be asked prior to advertising recall, which only indirectly affects purchasing activities. . In obtaining brand ratings, it is sometimes difficult to decide which brands the respondent should be asked to evaluate, in addition to the test brand. Consider having the respondent rate only those brands in his/her own "frame of consideration" for the product category, rather than using a pre-set group of brands. This may represent a more realistic set of competition for your brand. . Be careful about questions that ask where advertising was seen or heard. This often produces unrealistic results. TV, even when not used, frequently wins! . Tracking your competitors' activities can often be extremely helpful, both in terms of how they may be exploiting your brand's weaknesses as well as learning from their successes and failures. . Consider including a section for topical questions, in one or more waves, to cover strategic marketing issues and areas of tactical interest related to the product, service, or category being measured. These questions can provide valuable information for developing strategy, as well as being an evaluative tool. For example, they can aid in determining changes in attribute importance, trends in brand discrimination, buyer loyalty and category usage, specific product usage habits, and family member participation in the purchase decision.

The Analysis

Once the fieldwork has been completed, analysis and interpretation can benefit from the following suggestions and insights. . Report the data in terms of the results of both individual measures and the relationship between specific measures. Study measures thus become more useful, especially when serving as input for sales forecasts. Advertising efficiency, brand conversion, net brand switching, and brand loyalty are but a few of the relationships gleaned from tracking studies that enter forecasting equations or other marketing activity evaluations. . Trends in movement, especially longer-term trends, can often be better assessed by reading moving average data rather than single period data. This reduces the seasonality influence and the effect of any unusual market activities. . For a better understanding of test results, it is important to report all outside factors that may have impacted on results and even to estimate their possible levels of effect. These factors can include new brand introductions, competitive activities, increased advertising expenditures, category promotional activities of various types, pricing changes, and the effect of various economic events.

Recent Trends

A notable trend in tracking research has been the growing utilization of omnibus surveys as vehicles for conducting such studies. Omnibus surveys are services offered by a limited number of marketing research companies in which various client companies can add their own questions -- as few or as many as they would like -- to a single interview, paying on a per questions basis, and thereby sharing the costs. These omnibus surveys are conducted by telephone or personal interview. What they have in common that is particularly appropriate for tracking studies is the fact that they are national probability studies that are replicable from period to period, which is ideal for multi-wave tracking research. With the increased pressure on the bottom line, they have become particularly attractive because of their lower cost per interview.

Although most tracking studies are conducted by means of telephone interviews, there has been a modest movement back toward employing personal door-to-door interviewing, especially among higher turnover consumer products. The basic reason for this is the recent proliferation of brands and line extensions which are confusing consumers, carrying over to their responses to certain kinds of questions usually included in tracking studies, thus leading to some inaccurate data. In-person interviewing that utilizes pictures as cues has helped to mitigate that confusion.

In sum, tracking research is a long established and standard marketing research methodology, which has evidenced relatively little change over the years. Some minor modifications or modest changes have been taking place but nothing that can be considered substantially different. This is in spite of its considerable level of use and importance to marketing management. This longevity contrasts markedly with the emphasis on newer marketing research tools which have far less usability and impact but are currently fashionable in the industry.
COPYRIGHT 1989 St. John's University, College of Business Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Frank, Newton
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1989
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