Conducting quality market research is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term growth of your business. Just last week we talked about exactly what market research is and how it can help your business grow. From crafting perfect products to finding new audiences, the benefits are clear!

But let’s be real for a minute. Not everybody can just throw a bunch of money at market research and hope for the best. Spending time or money on anything that doesn’t directly lead to gaining revenues or cutting expenses is, at best, tough to justify.

So how can you reap the benefits of marketing research without wasting a bunch of money? Turns out, there are a lot of things you can do, and we’re going to name fourteen of them in this article!

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1. Gather info at industry events. 

Industry events, whether they’re trade shows, expos, social mixers usually are not free. In many cases, they cost a lot of money to attend, and even more when setting up a booth and arranging travel. Nevertheless, many businesses make a habit out of going to them already, even without any marketing intentions beyond the abstract notion of “networking.”

And you know what? This is actually good. Industry events are tremendous for getting your name out there and helping you meet people who care about what you do.

If you’ve already decided to go to an industry event, why not go in with a few marketing questions you want to answer? Through asking your industry peers or by simply observing others’ behavior, you can answer many of your most pressing marketing questions at no extra cost!

2. Check the news headlines.

News organizations and bloggers alike put an enormous amount of thought into headlines. Whether online, on TV, or in print, headlines serve one purpose: get the attention of interested people by telling them things that pique their interest.

Try checking out the headlines for your industry. Google your competitors’ names. Look up the name of your products and services. Without even clicking on the articles, go through 10 or 12 pages of headlines. This exercise alone can help you understand what market demand looks like.

3. Look for market data through resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Small Business Administration.

The US government puts an enormous amount of money and effort into gathering useful information. This is a good thing since this data is publicly available and small business owners can use this information to their advantage.

Here are a few links to get you started:

4. Read trade journals.

Trade journals are a great place to look for industry-specific, detailed market research data. The data provided in trade journals has a few advantages over what we’ve mentioned before.

Industry events are often hectic, networking-focused events. You can perform market research at them, but not at your own pace as you can with trade journals. You just go there, experience what you experience, and takes notes as fast as possible. In many cases, this is good enough! But if you’re looking to do really nuanced, careful research, it might not be.

Similarly, searching for headlines will tell you a lot about your industry, but it only scratches the surface. Headlines will tell you what’s trending, but they won’t tell you why.

Government data does the same basic thing, but more empirically. It can tell you what is happening in your industry, often backing up their data with great detail. Yet it doesn’t answer why.

Trade journals allow you to research at your own pace, in great detail, with context provided by experts in your industry.

5. Perform text analysis on social media mentions or survey data.

Collecting data from industry events and trade journals is useful because you hear from people in your industry. Similarly, headlines and government data can give you a sense of larger trends in the market.

But what about your customers? What do they have to say? Sometimes you cannot ask customers directly, but you can read what they voluntarily say online. Social media is wonderful for that.

We won’t get into the specifics of how text mining works, but suffice it to say, there are tools that will help you see which words pop up in correlation with others. You can even gauge the sentiment of the data being mined.

6. Read competitors’ websites.

This almost seems like a no-brainer, but it’s such a valuable research technique. If you want to understand your industry or potential industry’s norms, look at your competition! What do their websites look like? What are they doing on social media?

By looking at your competitors’ websites, you can answer a few of the following questions:

7. Ask questions on social media.

One of my favorite methods of marketing research costs nothing. If you have a reasonably large following online, you can just…ask people questions. Seriously, it’s that easy. Just ask people what they like, what can be improved, where they shop, and so on.

Even if you don’t have a big following online, you can often do this in popular Facebook groups or on websites like Reddit. However, please take care when posting in other communities not to come across as a sleazy marketer. You either want to come across as genuinely curious or you want to be straightforward about what you’re doing. That is, say you’re running a business and want to make great products or services!

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8. Require customers to answer questions to receive a prize.

Running contests is not free. However, it’s often not as expensive as you might expect and I have personally had fantastic results with giving away $50 items.

If you’re already giving away items, that’s great! You’re ahead of the curve. Why not take it one step further and incentivize your users to answer questions to increase their odds of winning a prize? Popular contest software, such as Gleam.io, makes this a lot easier to do!

9. Perform A/B testing on your website, ads, or emails.

Subtle differences in the way you present your company can make a big difference. For example, a good email title has a much greater chance of being opened than a bad email title. Similarly, well-crafted advertisements often get 10 or 20 times the return of badly-crafted ones, at least in my experience.

Knowing the difference between good and bad choices, though? That’s tricky, particularly as the “good” and “bad” are entirely based on what your customers want in the first place!

In a future article, we will be sure to talk about how to perform A/B testing. In the meantime, here is a great article to help you get started!

10. Send out surveys by email.

A client of mine came to me one day saying, “how can we improve our service?” My immediate instinct was to tell them to ask their customers when they next see them and then write down their suggestions.

Then I realized we were sitting on a mailing list with hundreds of active clients!

I then spent the next 45 minutes crafting a simple survey on Google forms. Then I spent another 45 minutes putting together a very simple email on MailChimp. We sent it out and a surprising 15% of people took time out of their day to respond to the survey!

We were then able to use the survey results, implement many of the things customers wanted, and they’ve been thrilled with the improvements!

11. Save all feedback from customers.

On that same note, you don’t always have the luxury of sending a survey out to all your customers. However, you can always save your emails, case notes, phone call transcripts, and more. You can then review them later and see what suggestions you can run with from there.

12. Interview individual customers.

If you want really nuanced, human information, asking your customers is a great start! Many customers are happy to spend a few moments of their day answering questions, particularly if they believe it will help improve a product or service they use a lot.

Whether by phone or face-to-face, you can actively respond to what they say. You’re not forced to rely on responses from surveys. You can ask follow-up questions and seek clarifications when it’s useful.

13. Review the data in your CRM system.

CRM is short for customer relationship management. This includes software such as Salesforce or HubSpot. CRMs are great to have and commonly found in businesses because it makes it a lot easier to track your customers and their interests.

What many people fail to consider is that CRMs are wonderful for market research. Best of all, if you already have one implemented, it doesn’t cost you anything to query the data that is already there.

By asking smart questions and spending some time creating relevant reports, you can figure out what your customer base likes and dislikes about your products or services. You can then focus on giving them the improvements that they seek!

14. Talk to suppliers, distributors, and retailers.

Last but not least, often the people who have the greatest insight into your industry are not customers or even your peers. No, many times, the gatekeepers – distributors and retailers – are the ones who can tell you what really matters. Other times, it’s the people who provide the raw materials – suppliers – who can catch trends in their infancy.

In addition to the obvious benefits of good business relationships with suppliers, distributors, and retailers; there is a marketing rationale to listen to them. By merit of their jobs, they are exposed to a lot of information. Not to mention, they have a vested interest in seeing your business succeed. Suppliers want to sell more suppliers and distributors want to move more products!

Final Thoughts

Market research is not just for marketing agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Even if you run a business all by yourself, you have the tools at your disposal to figure out what customers want so you can give it to them. Many of the best techniques are cheap, or even free!

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34 Comments

Dustin Rathke · January 13, 2020 at 9:27 am

Gotta have a strong social media presence!

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:14 am

    Absolutely, Dustin! A good social media presence is almost a necessity these days.

Bill Budka · January 13, 2020 at 10:10 am

Great info !!

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:15 am

    Thank you, Bill – glad you liked the article 🙂

Maria Teresa Fernandez Ferreira · January 13, 2020 at 10:45 am

Excellent article, it has helped me a lot, thanks

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:21 pm

    Always happy to help! Marketing research can seem super intimidating when you start, but as you can see from this article, a lot of it comes down to just asking people questions and caring about the answers!

Vadim Lingo · January 13, 2020 at 12:46 pm

That’s just right in time, thanks

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:15 am

    Glad you found the post useful, Vadim!

Margaret Gallagher · January 13, 2020 at 6:24 pm

Invaluable advice – so many great ideas – surveys /questionnaire will be our next focus

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:22 pm

    Glad you found the advice helpful, Margaret! Good luck with your questionnaire and let us know if you learn anything surprising from the results 🙂

Nancy · January 13, 2020 at 8:31 pm

Researching is what I always fall back on. Great information and thank you.

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:22 pm

    There are definitely limits to how far research can go, but like you, Nancy, I believe it’s a wonderful task to fall back on when you’re not sure how to proceed!

musa · January 14, 2020 at 12:19 am

great article, enjoyed reading it

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Glad you liked the article, Musa! Hope to see you back here again in the future 🙂

Calvin · January 14, 2020 at 12:30 am

Good to use all free or cheap resources available to maximize your knowledge first.

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Agreed, Calvin – I’m all about that scrappy, low-expense start-up life…at least at first. When you’re learning, there is SO MUCH incredible information available for cheap or free. Once you get the ball rolling on a business, it sometimes makes more sense to pay for info, but it certainly takes a while to get to that point!

Jessica Staley · January 14, 2020 at 1:26 am

I love the idea of talking to your current customers and making a survey. Thanks for the great ideas.

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Hi, Jessica, glad you like the idea of reaching out to customers with survey questions! Oftentimes, the simple techniques like that reveal profound opportunities for change.

frieza619 · January 14, 2020 at 9:10 pm

help me with my research

    Brandon Rollins · January 15, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Sure! How can I help?

Billiejo Wagner · January 15, 2020 at 12:55 am

Awesome advice! On your giveaways ask a business questions you be surprised to find out how many people will engage in the conversation.

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:16 am

    Glad you like the article, Billiejo! I’m a huge fan of asking questions in giveaways. It gives us a *massive* list of ideas we can write about or talk about on video 😀

Darlene · January 16, 2020 at 4:40 pm

7 and 11 I think are the best ones. All of them are important but 7 and 11 are key.

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:16 am

    For long-term client retention, Darlene, I totally agree that saving and actually acting on customer feedback is critical!

Nancy · January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

I can be pretty lucky & like to enter giveaways, so I regift things for giveaways, such as books I won & did reviews on.

    Brandon Rollins · January 17, 2020 at 8:17 am

    Giveaways are a lot of fun, Nancy! And you know the winners always say the same thing to me, “oh my goodness, I’ve never won anything before!”

Joe Metzler · January 18, 2020 at 1:55 pm

What is the best way to determine the questions to ask when doing market research?

Devon Pickford · January 21, 2020 at 4:41 pm

I really agree with saving all feedback from customers, I think businesses often overlook how important this is

Sandy Klocinski · January 22, 2020 at 5:12 am

Social media is definitely a boon to marketers. Awesome information!

DBM · January 23, 2020 at 3:36 am

Very useful, thanks!

Wendy Browne · January 24, 2020 at 9:06 am

These are very helpful low cost steps for market research.

Gun Coaty · January 24, 2020 at 11:35 am

Honestly, I enjoy reading what you blog. You are hitting topics that I wonder about, but which are also foreign to me. They impede me from jumping into a small business.

jason jennings · January 24, 2020 at 6:27 pm

sounds good

Lily Kwan · January 28, 2020 at 7:42 pm

These small business market research tips are very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

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