Foundational Research

Foundational research helps you prioritize actions that will help you find traction early. This means that what you know drives what you do.

“Figuring out how to position your company, zero in on your target audience, and articulate what you do best is hard.”

Foundational research helps you prioritize actions that will help you find traction early. This means that what you know drives what you do.

At Tuff, we work with founders who often approach their business in one of two ways:

  1. One way is like off-trail hiking. You’re in the wilderness. You see a bunch of trees and plants and you’re breathing in the wildness of it all. There are glimpses of a path or the sky but, let’s face it, at some point you’re going to be lost in the dark. It’s an experience, but not one that gets you anywhere. This is the mapless wandering of folks who don’t do foundational research. They’re trying it all and just along for the ride. Thrilling, but short-lived.
  2. The other way (you’ve already guessed this is the better way), is like sitting down to build a road. You enlist the help of a city planner, engineer, maybe an environmental specialist. Your team spends time gathering data, scoping out the site, buying materials and training personnel. The road is built to spec and it gets you effectively where you want to go.

Now, it may not feel as exciting as a jaunt in the woods, but a well-researched plan is one that goes as close to the plan as possible, allows you to adapt more frequently, and delivers you to your destination.

When you step into business development with full clarity, you will intelligently prioritize and make growth-oriented choices, waste less time, and learn more quickly.

Here are five key areas of research to tackle:

  1. Target audience
  2. Customer research
  3. Competitor research
  4. Value props
  5. Marketplace trends

Ready to do your homework?

Tuff Tip

These five pillars of research should be done in the context of marketing. It’s likely that brands have done some of this work for investors or as it relates to product development. This process is separate from that. Put on your marketing lens and think about your real market, your real customer, your real competitors, etc. This unique framing will ensure this research is directly applicable to growth marketing strategies and work.

Target Audience

“Who is your audience and what stories are they seeking?”

Researching, and defining, you target audience helps answer two key questions:

  1. Who is my customer?
  2. What do they want?

A paradigm: brand centric vs. customer centric

Remember when headsets were first a thing? You’d see someone out in public who looked like they were talking to themselves. Funny, but, for many companies, a little too close to home. In fact, finding your target audience and speaking to them—rather than monologuing—is a challenging task. It’s one that even the largest, well resourced, teams struggle to accomplish with consistency. And it’s one that begins with a deep dive into data and analysis.

Most teams focus heavily on product or service development. A lot of time is spent talking about their origin story, their process, their deliverable. From this vantage point, marketing looks a lot like shouting from the rooftops: “We’re here, world! Love us!”

This is, forgive the French, ass-backwards.

In fact, customers don’t care who you are. Until they know how much you care. Corny but true. Like all other humans, your target audience is focused on finding solutions for their own problems. You must go to the people and convey messages to them in a way they understand.

This knowledge is uncovered through research that answers the two foundational questions we started with.

Who is my customer and what do they want?

No matter if you’re sending a cold email or running a Facebook ad, you need to be extremely specific about who you’re selling to.

A target persona, or buyer persona, is a fictional archetype. The persona is a fleshed out, illustrated representation of your ideal buyer. It isn’t just a whimsical exercise: a buyer persona is crafted based on collected data.

Tuff Tip

To the Source

The data points you need are coming up, but there are some prime sources you need to tap to find them:

  1. User surveys
  2. Google Analytics
  3. Facebook/social insights
  4. Groups and forums
  5. Industry/expert pages

There are more – but that’s a good start.

Here’s what you can leverage to research and create a detailed target persona:

  • Characteristics
  • Buying motivation
  • Objections to purchase
  • Life before
  • Life after

In case you’re a little dizzy from reading through two lists in a row, here’s what it looks like:

See a Tuff Target Audience Research Example

There are two methods of analysis to gather the data you need:

Quantitative Analysis

Collect demographic information on:

  • Age
  • Income
  • Family
  • Race
  • Location
  • Occupation/job title
  • Affiliations
  • Buying behavior
  • Online behavior (non-purchasing)
  • Social behavior
  • Purchasing history with your brand (may be segmented)

Qualitative Analysis

First, let’s say that qualitative customer research at scale is hard. “Big data,” “quantifiable data,” these are a bit intimidating and, well, vast.

While a team may be able to take this on handily, there is one essential skill that you undoubtedly possess: the ability to listen. And that’s really what qualitative research is all about.

You can collect information directly from consumers, and the two best ways to do that are through surveys or interviews:

  • Surveys are great if you have a large set of customers and contact information. You’ll get enough responses for the data to be representative and the numbers to be meaningful.
  • Interviews are great if you have a very small set of customers, or even if you’re in pre-launch. You can get to the heart of buyer behavior, intent and solutions people want.

Ask basic, lifestyle-related questions like:

  • Where do you live currently?
  • Do you have a bachelor’s degree?

To probe deeper, if the context is right, you can ask pointed questions like:

  • What’s the biggest problem you have with [relevant scenario or life issue]?
  • Do you buy___?
  • How often do you___?
  • What is your experience with ___?
  • What do you like about ___?

Keep in mind qualitative data might not give you numbers that are easy to interpret. It’s going to take a little legwork to get to the good stuff.

Tuff Tip

Qualitative Analysis for a Start-Up or Scale-Up

If your company is a start-up or scale-up, you don’t have to forego qualitative analysis in identifying your target audience. In fact, there are methodologies that are easy to translate for future audiences. Ask questions about similar products or even competitors. Simply extract the relevant feedback to enhance your understanding of who will buy from you, and why.

Tuff Tip

Go Deeper

With personas, you can actually drill down much further and expand this exercise to include definitions of detractors, anti-personas, influencers and more. Depending on the nature of your business, it may round out your data set to fully understand all of the people who interact with your brand and how you need to strategically position yourself in growth marketing.

All of this in-depth understanding of your “who” will give you the bits and pieces to Frankenstein together a (non-monstrous) target persona. Once you have that profile, you can really get to the “why,” which is to laser in on customer research.

Customer Research

“The Tuff process is about how we look at and USE these things. You’ll come away with insights you can use to reexamine and refine your existing research.”

Trying to give customers what they want without doing research can feel like talking to a one-year-old. Do you want the toy? Are you tired? Are you hungry? Impossible.

Research pulls the signal out of the noise. Believe it or not, people aren’t always forthcoming about what they want or need. But, you can get to the heart of the matter and start observing patterns of buyer behavior. The ocean of data that is the internet offers up some juicy tidbits, but, believe it or not, this global data is just the beginning.

Performing analysis on both existing customers and future customers is where the traction can really kick in. Getting granular with this kind of information is key.

It’s the difference between,

“Moms buy diapers.”


“Millennial moms with two or fewer kids living in suburbia are highly likely to order a subscription box of organic diapers once a month.”

You can imagine that the latter carries far more weight for strategic decision making and growth marketing.

Here are the two pools to draw insight from.

First: Analyze existing customers

The best source of data for why customers buy from you is the customers themselves. Deploy customer surveys on the reg. In addition to calculating important marketing metrics, like your net promoter score (NPS), this will provide real insight.

Spoiler alert: most customers aren’t going to reach out to you on their own … unless they’re mad. You need to proactively go after feedback from people who are elated or satisfied with your product.

Pulse surveys, email surveys, incentivized surveys (enter to win, free gift card, etc.) and more can get valuable feedback that tells you why people buy from you, why they keep buying from you, why they stopped buying from you and more. Bottom line? Talk to your buyers. A lot. Seek them out and ask them questions. We did, and you can see what we learned here:

How We Learned From 1,000 Customers in One Afternoon

Second: Analyze potential customers

There is something new called predictive market research (we know, it sounds like we’re about to say “AI”). Essentially, you take data and then predict consumer action. If you’re in a start-up or scale-up and going all-in on growth marketing, this is important. In some cases, all customers may be potential customers because you’re pre-launch.

Here are some ways you can use surveys, interviews or other methods to get to the “why” of the buy for people who haven’t bought from you yet:

  • Get feedback from customers of similar products.
  • Analyze buying behavior for customers that fit your persona and are buying items in the same category as yours.
  • Ask customers what they like about competitor products.
  • Ask customers what they don’t like about competitor products.
  • Ask customers generally about their frustrations or complaints around a pain point.
  • Ask customers about the frequency of their purchases.
  • Ask customers about gaps in a product, or what they wished a good or service could provide to them.

Your angle will be shaped by your industry. Keep in mind, there is some psychology to all of this: people say things differently to different people in different contexts. Often, a third-party team may be ideal to pull this off with as little bias response as possible.

To sum that up

“How you think about your customer influences how you respond to them.” – Marilyn Suttle

So, we’ve got the body of data that now answers the two all-important questions of who your customer is and what they want. We also have in-depth customer research that sheds light on the patterns of buyer behavior.

Tuff Tip

Get it on Paper

Having these questions explicitly answered will allow you to build a much stronger marketing strategy based on both qualitative and quantitative data. At Tuff, we help clients get core target audience data on paper. This provides a shared understanding of who you are talking to, and how you talk to them.

Of course, you’re not the only company talking to your ideal buyer. Because you want to capitalize their attention like a jealous ex-boyfriend, you need to know what you’re up against. That’s what competitor research is all about.

Competitor Research

“Who are your competitors and what stories are they telling?”

In the ring. To the mattress. On the field. However you spin it, competition is part of doing business. In the digital space, researching the competitive landscape is a high priority. Turns out, you have more than one type of competitor.

At Tuff, we think of competitors in two different ways:

  1. Market competitors: these are the brands with whom you directly compete for dollars in the market. Think: Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. Similar product, similar audience, man on man combat.
  2. Search competitors: these are competitors that may be answering some of the same queries as your business in search. Think of the search: “music app.” Someone could be looking for Spotify or Band Camp: two totally different services, but the search is exactly the same.

In both contexts, it’s imperative to know who you’re going head to head with. The first will shape product development, positioning, elevator pitches and sales tactics. The second will shape your on-page SEO strategy and digital marketing efforts.

Tuff Tip

No Posers Allowed

At Tuff, we don’t do competitor research to just steal or replicate what someone else in the space is doing, but to learn more about our own product or service and how it’s different from others in the market.

Our version of competitor research isn’t fancy or overly time consuming. It’s scrappy and direct and effective.

Any manhunt (in this case data-hunt) needs some objectives. Obviously, we’re not finding the guy, rather, you want this endeavor to result in the following insights:

  • Key values: what does your competitor say are their top three features or benefits?
  • Marketing/copy: what stories are your competitors telling? How are they describing their products and services?
  • Pricing and product: what are they selling and for how much?
  • Website: what is their positioning, emphasis, calls-to-action and other standout phrases?

And, finally:

What’s the difference?

After you do all of the due diligence and sift through your competitor’s online presence, where do you see your business standing apart from theirs? These identified differentiators can be the nitrogen tank of your marketing engine.

Competitor report template

At Tuff, we like the idea of inviting clients behind the curtain. There is no Great and Powerful Omniscience in what we do: there is real work with real results.

This is how we do competitor analysis:

—Competitor Analysis Sample—

—Competitor Analysis Example—

Here’s what it looks like filled out:

This format is truly rinse and repeat, and captures all of the essential data you want to understand about your competitors.

Value Props

“Get SUPER specific.” (Yes that’s the entire quote: it’s that important.)

“I don’t want to hear problems: I only want to hear solutions.” Sound like a boss? Sound like you? Well, prepare to be disappointed. When it comes to shaping the ultimate value proposition, we like to start with what’s wrong.

First, a level set on terms:

A value proposition is the value that your company promises to deliver if someone buys from you.

It’s the: no more bad breath, integrated calendars, obedient pets, seamless back-end, dinner cooks itself, optimized payroll promise of a better life.

At Tuff, our value prop process starts with the problem. Here’s the thought train:

Problem > Implication > Solution > Benefit > Value Prop

In case you’re not chugging along right away, let’s see what this looks like in living color.

Knowing your key value propositions is an a priori task – that’s the extent or our Latin vocab and it basically means, “comes first.” In other words, nailing down succinct, coherent statements about the value you provide is priority number one. These statements will shape every ad, every email, every blog and every skywriting message you send out.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards.” Steve Jobs

Here’s another example:

Those two examples share a few important factors:

  • They clearly delineate a global, shared problem that our target audience faces.
  • There is an inherent implication, pre-defined in the problem.
  • The solution is specific to the problem.
  • The benefit is customer-centric and includes relief from the problem.
  • The value prop is very concise and sums up not just a solution but makes a promise.

A value proposition is about how your product solves a customer problem. There are factors that relate to each side of that coin:

*Adapted from Peter Thomson’s Value Proposition Canvas

Now, you try. Consider your business. Can you fill in the following to create a value proposition statement? Give it a whirl:

You may find it helpful to sit as a team and go through any current value propositions you have. Reverse-engineering existing value props may provide insight into whether they accurately describe your promises of value to your target audience. After all, if you aren’t solving people’s problems, they aren’t going to be interested in what you have to say.

And it should be remembered: you are not shouting these value propositions into the void. In fact, all of your research and growth marketing efforts are occurring as the world spins on. Every moment, new marketplace trends emerge: are you ready to react to them?

“When you know what your competitors are doing, who you’re targeting, and what you do best, a lot of the ??? start to melt away.”

We’re going to rip a band-aid: you can’t just fill a book with what you don’t know about the market, you could fill the internet. And, in fact, the internet is full of things you don’t know. While it’s impossible to master all areas of research at all times, the five core pillars are essential to maintaining the right momentum in growth marketing. We’ve talked through the first four. The last is marketplace trends.

No business exists in a vacuum. Knowing the pool—whether you’re a big or little fish—is essential to making wise business and marketing decisions. At Tuff, we advocate for Advanced Market Intelligence.

Advanced Market Intelligence

The four components of Advanced Market Intelligence are:

  • Macro demand trends
  • Brand benchmarking
  • Search rankings
  • Social media

The result of all of these is to pick strategic investments. We’ll circle back to the investments after we’ve fleshed out these steps.

1. Macro demand trends

Macro demand trends are uncovered through industry-specific keyword research. The trends that occur in online search provide useful insights into the relative interest level and cycles of interest a product or service has.

Here’s an example:

In case you don’t have a PhD in data analysis, the good news is this information is relatively accessible. You can find data like this in a variety of places, including:

  • Google Alerts
  • Moz Pro
  • Twitter Search
  • Yahoo! Answers
  • SEMRush
  • Google Analytics
  • Spyfu

Some platforms do the fancy presentation for you – others are pretty easy to export for data point comparison on another tool (like Excel).

2. Brand benchmarking

Compared against equivalent companies with similar products, how do you stack up?

Here are the four key things you analyze:

  • Website
    • How is the user experience, or UX?
    • Is your website clear and easy to use?
    • Is your website fast and free of errors or bugs?
    • How does your website compare to competitors’ sites?
  • Organic search rankings
    • What is your monthly organic traffic?
    • What are your top-ranking keywords?
    • What are your top-ranking pages?
    • How is your site health and traffic?
    • How do your traffic and keywords compare to your competitors’?
  • Social media
    • How do your competitors perform on social?
    • Who’s running ads?
    • How do you perform on social in comparison to competitors?
    • How is the cross-current (multi-channel nature) of your marketing as it relates to social media platforms?
  • PPC (or Google Ads)
    • Who’s running Google Ads?
    • If your brand has a history of running Google Ads: what are the performance metrics like?
    • Does your paid ad strategy have design and purpose?
    • Where are there opportunities for improvement in your paid ad strategy?

There are two areas in which you need a microscope. Those are search rankings and social media (so important they have their own sections).

3. Search rankings

This data was gathered globally when identifying macro trends, but now you need to glean more from information about your search engine results.

Analyze on 3 levels:

  • Your overall website
  • Individual pages
  • Individual keywords and phrases

You should know what you are ranking for and what you should be ranking for. Each keyword and phrase has its own score related to search volume, difficulty and value. Use one of the aforementioned tools (SEMRush, Spyfu, Surfer, Moz, etc.) to do this work and create a content plan to shore up your site SEO.

4. Social media

A full-scale audit of the effectiveness of your social media platforms is mission critical to growth marketing. You simply cannot have abandoned Twitter accounts collecting dust, or a half-hearted podcast attempt. There is value everywhere, but you need to fully understand which channels your brand performs best on, and leverage those to the fullest extent.

This can be a manual process (each platform has dashboards of data for business accounts), and will require some time and attention. Once you know which platforms work – and which don’t – you can more thoughtfully execute a high-conversion content strategy.

5. Strategic Investments

As promised, back to strategic investments. After all, the goal of all of this hunting and gathering is to have a proactive plan about marketplace trends. Rather than just reacting blindly to what occurs, your ability to predict what’s coming is very important, and very possible.

Here are some examples of the strategic investment decisions this research can inform if/when/how much you spend on:

  • Paid ad campaigns
  • Organic growth
  • Content
  • Existing efforts/infrastructure
  • New efforts/infrastructure
  • Staff
  • Branding
  • Influencers/affiliations
  • Programs
  • Website
  • Webinars
  • Thought leadership
  • Expansion to new platforms

Knowing what your competitors are doing, what’s working/what isn’t working, and living ahead of the curve will make or break your growth marketing efforts.

Strategy >

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