�Tis the Season� For Bias

Imagine for a second the following scenario: you work in the marketing research department for a company that manufactures ice cream. The product development department has come up with a top-secret new flavor they are certain customers will rush to purchase. There is an enormous amount of pressure from within the organization to bring this new product to market by the end of the year, and company management is eagerly anticipating a fourth quarter boost in profits resulting from the new product. However, results from the initial market research testing, which was conducted in November, shows consumers have not embraced the new product as the product development department had expected. Should the company move forward with the product launch?

In this situation, there clearly is not enough information to make an informed decision. What is for sure, however, is that the product managers should be very reluctant to base a decision on a seasonal product (such as ice cream) using research conducted during a time period where there is extreme minimal demand for that product. With research conducted in this fashion, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish seasonal effects from genuine trends in consumer preferences.

Seasonality is not limited to affecting individual products or industries -- it can also complicate things for marketers trying to conduct research during certain times of the year. Seasonal bias is particularly pronounced during the traditional November-December holiday season. During this time period, the effect of the cyclical influences on survey respondents can result in what is essentially a completely different mindset. Respondent moods can vary from flustered, depressed, or busy to extremely happy and cheerful. Whatever the situation, researchers need to be cautious when working during this time of year and understand that people often do not behave as they normally would during the rest of the year.

For tracking studies that are held throughout the year, seasonal effects will often skew the data for a particular time period or periods. For example, many customer satisfaction studies will show a significant decrease in their overall ratings during December as businesses deal with resource shortages during the peak shopping period. There may also be a noticeable drop in response rates as well, as businesses and consumers become busy with their holiday agendas.

Here are some rules and guidelines that will help minimize the effects of seasonal bias on your studies:

Now that you have a better defined problem and an identified set of objectives, the next step of the marketing research process is to specify the approach to reach your objectives. From deciding on the best methodology to funding the project:

  • Be aware of seasonal effects that are unique to your industry. Ski resorts should be wary of surveying during off periods such as the summer, for example, while a company that manufactures candy should be aware of seasonal effects during the time periods immediately surrounding Easter and Halloween. It is important that any company conducting research be aware of potential seasonal sources of bias.

  • Seasonal effects can be an even greater problem for companies conducting surveys in foreign countries. There are countless examples of Western companies that have made bad decisions because of data in a Muslim country during Ramadan, when normal consumption patterns are altered greatly. In order to minimize this problem, companies can involve research team members who have experience dealing with the peculiarities of a particular market, or partner with a company that can provide this type of insight. Before doing research in an unfamiliar country, it is important to do the homework and understand the potential sources of seasonal bias in that market.

  • If possible, avoid performing ad hoc research during peak holiday periods. Companies are frequently in a rush to complete a research project before the end of the year, but as our initial example shows, this can be a huge mistake. Researchers need to be aware that respondents are frequently in a very different mindset in the period following Thanksgiving, and thus performing ad-hoc research then is to be avoided.

  • When analyzing data collected during the holiday period, it is best to compare the data against a like period the previous year. In this way, it is possible to isolate actual trends in the data from any seasonal effects. Do not try to compare only against the previous period or periods, as this may result in false conclusions

  • Budget for reduced response rates if forced to survey during peak holiday times. This advice is particularly relevant if the target group you are surveying consists of retailers or small businesses, many of whom gather a large percentage of their yearly profits during this time.

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