Briefing a Research Agency

Theo Muller, md MMResearch™


The success and usefulness of any piece of market or social research starts with the brief and probably even long before the research brief is put together. A good brief provides the researcher with all or most of the information he/she needs to design and execute the project.

Over the years we have seen some very good briefs, but also some briefs that were hopelessly inadequate. The best you can expect from an incomplete research brief is an average piece of research. Incidentally, whilst it is the client’s responsibility to provide a thorough research brief, the experienced researcher should never hide behind a bad brief and it is up to him/her to obtain the required information. Go and talk to the client and find out the facts!

A good research brief should at least cover the following topics:


Purpose of the brief

This need only be a short statement which tells the researcher that the client is seeking a proposal, based on the information supplied in the brief. Usually, this statement also gives the date by which the proposal should be received by the client.


Background information

Long is not necessarily good. I have seen briefs where the client threw in everything from the company’s strategic plan, their HR policy, sales histories and much more. The rule of thumb here is that the information supplied in this section should be relevant to the project. By all means, refer the researchers to the website, the annual report and past research studies and how they can obtain this information, but do not send the reader into overwhelm. It is tempting in this day and age to cut-and-paste from company archives and publicly available information, but is all that information relevant? Besides, the experienced researchers will look for additional information anyway if they feel that it will help them putting forward a compelling proposal.


Research objectives

This is where the client needs to do some hard thinking. Why do this research in the first place? Is the information not already available somewhere in company files and records? How is the information going to assist the business or organisation? By having this information, what decisions will you be able to make, or, conversely, by not having this information, how will that impact on the organisation?

In answering these questions, the client needs to make a clear distinction between useful information and interesting information. If it is the latter, why bother! Do you want to spend good money to obtain information that at best is interesting? Probably not.

The onus is on the client to carefully formulate, in plain English, the specific research objectives for this project. The client may want to do a bit of research of his/her own, by checking with colleagues, customers or stakeholders whether the wording of the objectives reflects their intent. No room for ambiguity here. It’s no good (but almost certainly very expensive) to say afterwards, “I thought you meant …………!”



Ask the researchers in your brief to demonstrate back to you their understanding of the objectives and issues of this project. If they can’t or miss the point, it might be that the objectives are unclear. Obviously, the researcher should seek clarity. If the researchers simply regurgitate in their proposal what you wrote in your brief, then it tells you something about the researchers. Not very creative, haven’t given the objectives much thought, how much effort are they going to put into this project?

How many research objectives should you include in the project? This depends entirely on the size and scope of the project. There is no hard and fast rule for this, but it is generally accepted that fewer is better than more. Three or four clearly formulated research objectives, seems to be the norm, but that is not to say that it cannot be more or less. As a researcher I would be suspicious of any brief with more than six stated objectives, because I immediately think that the client may not have a good handle on what they want to achieve and that the focus is too broad.


How the research is going to be used

This item is closely related to the research objectives and also requires a lot of thought by the client. In this paragraph, the client will have to think ahead what information he/she is going to get and what he is going to do with it. We have heard all too often that reports are being produced at great cost, only to collect dust on the shelf. That is a waste of time and money.

Both the client and the researcher need to have a clear picture in their mind how the information is going to be used. For instance information from a customer satisfaction survey should filter through to line managers so that they can take corrective action in the form of additional staff training. Also the HR department should be in on this; after all they hire the people who provide customer service. Remember, research is a tool, a means to an end. Like the tradesman using tools to achieve a certain result in an efficient and effective manner, market and social research is also a tool that enables the manager, business owner or entrepreneur to make better and informed decisions. If there was good reason to invest in good tools in the first place, then use these tools. Not doing so is dumb.


Time frame

If the client has not worked out a time frame in which he wants this work to be completed, then he/she should ask the researcher to put together a time table. It is good discipline to put a time frame around the various research stages, which enables both the researcher and the client to plan ahead. A phased time table also allows the parties to review the outcome of each of the stages, which no doubt will have an impact on the rest of the project. Time tabling is an essential element of planning and time management. The days of an open-ended diary are well and truly over and society demands that everything is done in a timely fashion.



Inexperienced clients often overlook this item in their brief. Yet, it is very important. Ask the researchers how they intend to communicate the research results. If the client doesn’t think beforehand how he/she wants the research results communicated and, by definition, leaves it to the researcher, then the client may get a report with information that is potentially less useful than it might have been if there had been some discussion on this issue prior to finalising the written report.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this issue is to ask the researchers in the brief to provide topline results at the conclusion of the data collection phase. Topline results are essentially nothing more than the answers to the questions in the survey, without any further analysis, interpretation or cross analysis. The researcher and client should then sit down, review the data and jointly determine what information and research findings should be analysed for the report. Obviously, this discussion closely looks at the research objectives. Based on this discussion – often in the form of a workshop – the researcher writes up his/her report.

Presentation of the research findings should also be covered in the brief. Simply dropping off a report is hardly acceptable in times when access to modern technology is available to everyone.



This has always been a contentious issue. Should the brief make mention of a budget or leave it open? Often clients prefer not to disclose a budget, because they argue that price is part of the competitive tender. From their perspective I can have some sympathy for that viewpoint. Researchers on the other hand would like to know the parameters they should work to and as a researcher I can also have sympathy with that viewpoint. Fact is, some briefs do and some don’t. RFP’s by government departments often mention a budget and also the big companies and organisations in the private sector. SME’s often prefer not to disclose a budget.

One thing that should be included in the brief is a request to the researchers to provide a reasonable breakdown of the costing.


Contact person and method of communication

Who are the project managers, who talks to who and what are the contact details. Also important – particularly for the bigger projects that run over a longer period of time – the project managers on both sides of the fence should agree on how to be kept informed and how often. This is not rocket science, but simply basic communication practice.


What information are you seeking from the researchers in their proposal?

 Whether you have dealt with the researcher in the past or not, it is good practice to ask the researchers to demonstrate in their proposal how well suited they are to do the work. It is also an opportunity for the researchers to present themselves in the best possible way without going over board. There is a golden rule for both parties. The client should only ask for information that is relevant to the project subject to the brief and the researchers should be honest in how they project themselves. Below are a few pointers that I have seen in many RFP’s over the years.


1. Experience with similar projects. Examples

2. Quality procedures and complaint handling

3. The people who will be doing the work and their experience

4. Use and type of technology available for this project

5. Relevant references and contact details.

November 2004

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