Apple refuses to do it. Google’s sales depend on it. Procter & Gamble doesn’t launch without it, and Disney builds dreams on it.

Yes, I’m talking about research: the big to-do or not-to-do question that seems to be bearing down on so many smaller newspaper publishers as the days of milk and honey disappear, and every dollar is harder earned and more carefully spent.

In practice, we depend on research as an industry. Audited circulation and readership statistics can make or break a newspaper’s success with advertisers. But beyond those numbers, how many of us seek more insights?

As a 107-year-old institution, at the South China Morning Post we’d be forgiven for thinking we know everything there is to know about our audiences, our products and our market. As a newspaper that delivers a newly refreshed product every day — or rather, every hour, with the online editions — we have a constant dialogue with our audiences. We continually hear what our audiences think via phone calls, e-mails, blogs or online surveys. People get very vocal about the news they read, and often very concerned about any changes to their daily habit.

However, it’s not about what you already know. It’s about what you don’t know, or the little nuggets of information and insight that trigger inspiration. It’s about understanding those who don’t read you, or who simply stopped reading you. And it’s about what will make your existing readers more committed and pick up a copy more frequently.

Hong Kong’s readers are voracious. In one of the most newspaper hungry cities in the world, where eight out 10 of the adult population read newspapers for an average of 70 minutes a day, we have a relatively enduring newspaper habit. Our competitive environment is made up of a large proportion of bilingual readers, many of whom have a repertoire of at least four different papers, in English and Chinese. So it’s critical for us to understand what creates product preference and loyalty, audience behaviour, and unique audience segmentation across different platforms.

Over the past year, we embarked upon a significant body of research to help us challenge what we know, and find those triggers for inspiration. This research enabled us to create a much deeper, actionable vision of who our bulls-eye targets are for future growth, and their motivations for consuming our product. What we also discovered was that the majority of the players in the market depend on very functional benefits to drive their sales, so brand loyalty is thin and readers have little passion for any of their choices.

The lesson learned from research, beyond the question of content evaluation and product testing, is the more elusive one of what deeper value your brand holds for your audience. Newspapers have rarely focused on their brands in the past, confusing the unique product attributes with more emotional brand values. However, the relatively recent commoditisation of news makes having a unique brand voice even more important in the selection process.

Procter & Gamble has long been the master of turning commodity into must-buy brands with the help of research. As habits and competition change, research can help by challenging us on whether our brand values are keeping up with the times, and creating the engagement and relevancy we want with tomorrow’s consumers. This is the principle upon which P&G can transform a shampoo’s promise from simply shine, to makes you confident and sexy, and why Disney doesn’t just entertain, they make your dreams come true.

Research won’t give us all the answers, but it may point us to the tough questions we need to ask ourselves. To quote Jonathan Ive, the Apple product design vice president, Apple’s primary goal is to make great products that people will love. There are two parts to that equation: function and emotion. The true value of the research you conduct will be its ability to inspire strategic decisions that succeed in satisfying both.