Many small-business owners have performed what is called secondary market research to gather information about their market. Secondary market research involves finding information that is already compiled. Someone else has conducted the research and you must sift through it to find what may be useful to you as you grow your small business.
But small-business owners also can benefit greatly from what is referred to as primary market research. This involves conducting the research yourself by actually going out and seeking the answers you need directly from the market.
A lot of small-business owners think that primary market research is a very expensive process that requires complicated statistical methods and scientifically developed surveys or focus groups conducted by professional marketing firms. While these approaches may yield good results, they are not the only ways to get answers that can benefit your small business.
You can use more informal methods of primary market research. The results may not be scientific, but they still can provide useful information about the market. As Yogi Berra reportedly said, “You can see a lot by looking.”
In the book, “Customer Pillars,” author Curt Clinkinbeard offers excellent suggestions concerning how to conduct informal primary market research. I have used some of these methods while working with my clients and they have found it very helpful in gaining insight about their markets. Here are some of the suggestions.
Talk to customers
One of these methods is to simply talk to your existing customers. Get their feedback about what they want, how well you are meeting their needs, and their ideas on how to improve your business.
I think you will be surprised by how much you can learn and by what your customers have to say. But remember, you must conduct the conversation as a learning opportunity, truly listening to the customer and not trying to make a sale.
Another method is to bring together several customers and have a facilitated discussion about the market. The goal of these roundtable discussions is to get people talking with each other so that you can learn from them by listening carefully. So you shouldn’t do a lot of talking. It is helpful to have someone you trust outside of your business be the facilitator instead of doing it yourself.
Another excellent suggestion is that you actually watch your customers’ behavior. Some primary market research has shown that customers may say they want one thing, but their behavior indicates they really want something else.
This is why it is important to not only ask customers what they want, but to carefully observe their behavior. Watch your customers to see what they really do, what they buy, how they make choices, what gets a positive reaction from them, what drives them away, etc.
Talk to vendors
You can also learn a lot by questioning noncustomers who are somehow related to your business or your customers. This includes vendors and distribution partners.
Vendors who sell to you also interact with other businesses in the same market and usually have good insight into what is going on out there. If you sell through distributors or independent sales reps, you can find out more about your market from them because they typically have more contact with the end user than you do.
Attend trade shows
Another method is to attend or exhibit at trade shows related to your industry. As an exhibitor, you can learn a lot from talking to potential customers who come to your booth. If you are not exhibiting, you can walk around and have conversations with exhibitors and other attendees.
Consider attending any workshops, roundtables, discussion groups, receptions, etc. which are offered at the trade show. And even if you cannot attend the trade show, you may still gain information by visiting the trade show’s Web site.
You can find more about the above informal primary market research methods and other ways to learn from your market in Curt’s book “Customer Pillars.” You can also get guidance and assistance with conducting primary market research from your local Small Business Development Center.
Connie Edwards is a business consultant with the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center. Contact her at 912-651-3200.