Multiple times I've seen those terms used interchangeably, even though there are major differences between market and customer research. Not understanding the full complexity of market research might lead to bad product decisions.
These days everyone doing some research. Right? I hope so. Product leaders have been talking about the importance of research for years. Companies that invest in research have higher chances to achieve product success. Managers, designers, marketers, many people are skilled and could do research in a company. However, it's important to recognise what kind of research you're doing.
Most companies start with customer research. Why? Because it's usually the simplest. You already have access to those folks, they have vested interest in talking to you - it's easy to make a case for it.
Customer research is great and you should, by all means, do it. However, you should not forget that customer research is only a small part of a much bigger - market research.
If we define a market as a set of actors (individuals, organisations) who experience the same problem - we can then see that to research this market we need to understand many more actors than just our customers.
So let's see whom we need to reach to properly understand our market, from simplest to hardest.
The easiest group to reach, they want to be heard - just pick up the phone and call them.
Pro tip: never ask them for solutions, only problems.
A bit trickier but they still are your customers, who can reach them. You'll just need to find the right incentive for them to give you feedback.
Pro tips: focus on behaviour questions, not opinion judgements.
Slightly harder to reach than your customers. Here you need some valuable, personable incentives to reward people for talking to you.
Pro tip: forums, review sites, tradeshows are good places to find your competitors' customers.
People who have a solution already
They might use your solution, or your competitor's. Or they might use a solution you had no clue about. You'll need to engage your creativity to find those folks. Start with a problem and look for non-conventional ways to solve it.
Pro tip: question-answer sites are usually good places to start.
People who look for a solution but didn't find one yet
Those folks already realise they have a problem and they want to solve it. They just didn't find the right solution yet. If you have a potentially viable solution to the problem - they might come to check you out. Or some of your competitors. Or maybe some of those other solutions, you've discovered above.
Pro tip: try engaging these people with creative use of ads.
People who don't look for a solution
The hardest audience to reach. They have no incentive to talk to you. They might not even realise they have a problem or might think it's too small for them to solve. I guess less than 1% of all product teams ever talk to this market segment.
Pro tip: the reward should be really cool for those folk to get interested.
And that's your market. You can see and self-evaluate how much market research you're actually doing. But don't be upset if you're not doing the whole market research. First and foremost, anything is better than nothing. And secondly, it's not always the more the better. Different market research depth should be applied according to the stage of your product. There is no simple prescription to follow here, but an experienced product team will know what part of the market they need to prioritise for research to achieve the best outcomes.
Market research is much broader than what most people do, which is customer research. It's important to define your market and understand its actors. Depending on the stage of your product - the appropriate market research should be applied. Having the right feedback from the right market research in the right stage of product development - significantly increases the chances of product success.