Guest Column

Services Marketing: Building A Strong Marketing Foundation With The Right Market Research

By Kevin Olson, CEO, Industry Standard Research


Is your services marketing strategy constantly being questioned, critiqued, and disrupted internally? Too often, marketers lack vital information to create an effective marketing strategy and your organization and department suffer due to constant disruption of marketing plans. You, as a marketer, may suffer from lack of influence and respect, limited resources, and limited professional development.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you want your opinion to be valued among your decision-making peers, your marketing strategy must be built with a strong foundation. That foundation requires a deep understanding of the market, customer needs, and the decision-making process. Using this approach can elevate your credibility, the credibility of your strategy, and the overall impact of marketing plans in your organization.

What is the basis of your marketing strategy?

Complex service provider marketing strategies, like that of pharmaceutical contract manufacturing and clinical research organizations, are often not grounded in solid foundations. If your strategy is based on opinions, your strategy is a sandcastle. It may be aesthetically pleasing, but any storms that come along, such as internal criticism or a change in market direction, perceptions, or behaviors, continually erode the marketing strategy you put in place.  

A grounded marketing strategy means understanding your marketplace using data from direct assessments of your market. It does not come from opinions of your marketing team, opinions of your company executives, opinions of your sales staff, and opinions of your operations staff. Those are all important, but they’re wildly insufficient. Grounded marketing strategies also come from a genuine and thorough understanding of the decision makers who buy your services, as well as an understanding of how those individuals make decisions, why they make them, what drives those decisions, and whom they impact.

Complexity of the Buying Decision

In services marketing, both the decision-making process and decision-making unit are highly complex. A decision-making unit is often composed of three to 10 people. Within that group, each person has different personal biases and drivers for making decisions, but the group shares similar organizational dynamics inside of which they make these decisions. These might include the existence of preferred provider agreements, master service agreements, tightening budgets, and numerous other constraints upon individuals’ decisions.

When a marketer or marketing organization understands the decision-making unit and process, their marketing strategies are more informed, more solidly grounded, and less vulnerable to the waves that erode a sandcastle.

This requires a deep and firsthand understanding of the market. That understanding does not come from conversations with internal stakeholders, because as soon as your stakeholders change their minds or have another conversation with a customer, your marketing strategy must change. You can’t expect to have a durable marketing strategy when it comes from everybody else’s opinion.

How can market research help?

Market research provides an understanding of decision makers, uncovers personal biases and context, and opens a window into professional environments and how they influence an individual’s decision-making processes. 

This type of market research is called decision-making unit (DMU) and decision-making process (DMP) research. DMU market research helps marketers understand the decision-making group. To understand the archetypal roles commonly represented when a company makes a specific purchase decision, picture a table where these decisions are made. Who’s sitting at the table? What does each person care about? DMP market research helps you understand the stages at which different individuals are involved, at what stages individuals have varying degrees of influence, and who ultimately makes the decision, if there is an ultimate person.

When it’s done well and comprehensively, DMU/DMP market research helps marketers understand the nuances among different buying segments. Marketers in the pharma services industry will quickly declare that large pharma decision making is different from emerging biotech decision making. And many could articulate how and why they’re different, although many will be incorrect.

Adding to the nuances are buyers in other countries, buyers of different services, and buyers of one-off services vs. buyers of full-service projects. How confidently could we articulate the differences among these buying segments? Quantifying segment differences, and solidifying them in marketing strategy, is both challenging and important because marketers who understand buyers and share their vocabulary will influence behavior and capture market share. Those who do not will rise and fall with the market’s overall demand for services.

How does a solid foundation protect the marketing strategy?

When your strategy is built on a solid foundation informed by actual buyers, it does not falter under scrutiny because it is grounded in a deep, firsthand understanding of buyers, their intentions, and their needs.

Consider a typical conversation that could undermine your marketing strategy. The head of sales has a big idea and wants to change your marketing strategy, although they don’t use those terms, based on a recent conversation with a customer. The conversation is as follows:

Head Sales

“It’s good and important to know what Phisher’s doing. Let’s look at that in the context of what the rest of large pharma is telling us about their intentions. Let’s put that in the context of what emerging and midsize pharma companies are telling us. Is that the same in the U.S. as it is in Europe? Should Phisher’s intention be the catalyst for a change in our strategy, or is that a one-off, account-level strategy?”

Head of Marketing

“We just got off the phone with the head of clinical development at Phisher Pharmaceuticals, and they’re going to switch their outsourcing model from X to Y. They’re no longer going to buy services using a preferred providers model. Now they’re going to outsource everything functionally. They’re going to give all their data management to one company, all their clinical monitoring to another, and their biostatistics to a third company. We need a functional services offer because Phisher is a leader and others are going to follow suit. So, let’s be a leader.”

That’s quite a different conversation than the one you might have when you build your strategy on internal opinions. If your strategy keeps getting knocked down, if it keeps changing on a whim, you are using a sandcastle strategy — a building with no foundation.

Why measure marketing effectiveness?

Today, more than ever, marketers can have a greater impact by applying a disciplined approach to developing and gaining alignment to marketing strategies. This comes from deep knowledge of the customer and is the strategic responsibility of the marketer. In a fast-paced industry where customer needs, organizational strategies, and marketing best practices are rapidly changing, marketers need a market research-based approach to elevate the influence of marketing in the organization and improve marketing effectiveness. The way to own your company’s marketing strategy is to build it using substantial tools, processes, and frameworks.

About the Author

Kevin Olson has spent 20 years in and around the pharmaceutical industry, much of it in marketing and market research. In 2008, he founded Industry Standard Research (ISR Reports), a company focused on providing high quality custom and syndicated market research products and services to the drug development and manufacturing community.  ISR Reports’ areas of specialization include service quality assessment, buyer-driver analysis, market opportunity analysis, and new product/service development. 

About ISR

ISR Reports is a full-service pharmaceutical market research firm that delivers relevant and trustworthy insight into the complex and dynamic pharmaceutical environment through syndicated industry reports, and custom research and consulting services.