Market Research for Cheapskates

Date: August 19, 2013

How to gather business intelligence without spending a dime.

If you aren’t gathering data on your customers and your competitive field, you’re missing out on a wealth of business intelligence that can help you do everything from improve operations to better meet customer needs.

“Good market research allows you to do so many things,” says Mark Willard, managing director of Market Strategies International. “First and foremost, it allows you to introduce into your business’ decision-making process the voice of the customer. It’s literally about getting insights about your market,” Willard says, and that can include information about your customers, your competitors, and everyone—and everything—in between.

And simply talking to customers isn’t enough. “The problem with just listening to your customers is that the customers who will talk with you about your products and services, generally speaking, like you,” explains Willard.

Your biggest fans may not represent the greater market. “A harsh example: The last buggy-whip manufacturer in America, before Henry Ford put them all out of business, probably would have received tremendous customer satisfaction scores had it asked those questions.”

What distinguishes market research from polling your happiest customers, Willard says, “is it applies some sort of organizing principle or discipline to the conversation, so you can properly evaluate the information you get.”

The good news is all of that can be accomplished “in a very informal, low-key way,” assures Willard. “It doesn’t have to be an extraordinarily expensive effort that requires the kind of marketing and research departments that most small businesses lack.”

Here are a few ideas:

1. Google it.

You’d be surprised what information you can glean online. “You can make effective use of the web to research products or concepts or competitors without having to go out and commission a large study,” says Willard. Be prepared to spend some time, though.

“If you check out the Wikipedia pages for ‘business plan’ or ‘market potential,’ you’ll find some great how-to information,” adds Willard.

RELATED: The Pros and Cons of an All-Digital Business Plan

2. Head back to school.

Another of Willard’s recommendations involves introducing yourself to the folks who head the marketing departments at nearby universities or community colleges. “They’re often looking for opportunities to give students real-world exposure to market research and strategic problems,” he says, so such relationships often are beneficial to both parties.

3. Check out free online tools.

Arik Levy, owner of San Francisco-based Laundry Locker Inc., has been using SizeUp, a free-of-charge offering that allows small businesses to benchmark against competitors, map customers and suppliers, and locate the best places to advertise. “With this, though, I can type in ‘dry cleaner’ and it’ll show me on a map where all of my competitors are. I can also do things like [search for] customer expenditures, so I can see how much people spend on dry cleaning in each zip code.”

Just remember that “it’s only a starting point,” Levy continues. “At the end of the day, you’ve still got to put on your sneakers and walk around, talk to people, check out different locations, see the traffic flows.”

Another free, and potentially beneficial, tool for small business owners is Google’s recently launched Databoard, which the company claims “allows people to explore and interact with some of Google’s recent research in a unique and immersive way.”

RELATED: 6 Online Tools That Small Business Owners Should Be Using


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