The most common pitfall to conducting market research when implementing your Blue Ocean Strategy project

This article is the 3rd in a series of 6 common pitfalls to implementing a Blue Ocean Strategy— and how to avoid them. If you missed the first two, go back and read them here and here. And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss any of them.

If you’re familiar with Blue Ocean strategy, you know how important market research is to the value innovation process. The “fieldwork” of getting out and talking to your potential market is key to successfully identifying growth opportunities.

And while many companies do indeed perform market research, it is not the study of customer behavior, message recall or unmet customer needs that will help us find a Blue Ocean Strategy.   

Why? They focus on existing customers, rather than looking beyond existing markets.

In this article, you’ll learn why focusing on existing customers is the most common pitfall to conducting market research in a Blue Ocean strategy project – and what to do instead. The insights I share come from 12 years of helping companies implement Blue Ocean strategy, including doing the necessary fieldwork.

Before we look at the pitfall, let’s start with a case study.

The “hidden” opportunities among non-customers

One company that achieved massive results with a Blue Ocean Strategy approach was Nintendo. While not one of my clients, Nintendo’s launch of the Wii has become the standard for companies looking to grow beyond their existing customer base.

Before the launch of the Wii, Nintendo was already a strong player in the gaming consoles industry, competing with Sony and Microsoft for the existing gaming market of males between the ages of 12 and 35.

With the Wii, Nintendo intentionally ignored the current customers because they had understood the huge potential of females, family members and even seniors – in other words, “non”-customers of the gaming console market. Instead of creating yet another gaming console that competed head-on with the others, Nintendo created an active, social, family-friendly console that appealed to an even larger market outside the traditional gaming demographic.

As a result of focusing on the “blue waters” of people who had no interest in owning a console, sales in units of the Wii eventually surpassed those of Playstation and Xbox combined.

Pitfall: Focusing on value creation for existing customers only

Rather than focusing on existing markets and serving those customers better, Blue Ocean Strategy requires companies to look beyond their current customer base.

In order to find new ideas that no one has thought of before, the company needs to speak to people they’ve never spoken to before and develop fresh insights into the problems that need solving. While customers can be a good place for incremental wins, the significant, game-changing opportunities are more likely to come from previously unexplored markets.

The “fieldwork” of speaking to non-customers can feel far out of the comfort zone of many, however it’s one of the most important steps in the process. Talking to non-customers is the best way to develop a visceral understanding of what goes wrong in a potential customer’s experience — and to identify new problems to solve rather than focusing on the same problems as your competitors.

The temptation to outsource fieldwork

A big mistake companies face when doing their fieldwork is outsourcing it to market research agencies. They sometimes think that they don’t have time or the expertise to speak to non-customers. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable moving beyond established markets, or don’t feel ready to speak to non-customers.

Regardless of the reason, such outsourcing poses two significant problems.

First, companies that outsource this important fieldwork to a market research agency will never get a firsthand understanding of the untapped market’s pain points– which is key to creating fresh solutions that will remove that pain. The personal experience of having one-on-one conversations with individuals provides far more insight into the end-to-end customer experience than a report that’s quickly skimmed between two conference calls.

Second, relying on market research reports instead of personal experience reinforces the ways that leadership usually makes strategy decisions, which means they are unlikely to challenge existing industry boundaries and look for new problems to solve — as well as the solutions that will bring unprecedented value to the market .

Remember, if you want results you’ve never gotten before, try doing things you’ve never done before. By sticking to “the usual way” of conducting market research, companies will continue to do things the way they’ve always done– which means they aren’t innovating.

A new perspective

The greatest benefit to focusing fieldwork on non-customers is the outside perspective it provides.

Rather than speaking to existing customers who are already convinced of the company’s value, the project team has much more to gain by speaking to people who haven’t yet bought into what the company – or even the industry – offers.

The hidden value isn’t found by asking the converts, it’s found by understanding those who remain unconvinced.

  • Why aren’t they customers?
  • What are the biggest pain points in their end-to-end customer experience?
  • What do they need that the industry doesn’t offer?

Getting out and speaking directly to potential new customers creates an opportunity to hear feedback unlike anything an organization would hear from existing stakeholders– and that new feedback is what helps generate new ideas.

The bottom line

When conducting your Blue Ocean Strategy fieldwork, ensure you are focusing your efforts on non-customers, rather than your existing customer base. By having one-to-one conversations with individuals in untapped markets, organizations can gain a deep, firsthand understanding of their pain points– and create innovative solutions to address them.

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