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How to do your own market research

Practical advice from market research consultant Julia Whitehead

Market research is an invaluable tool that covers various techniques that can help businesses to test new ideas and gain vital feedback from existing and potential customers. It can enable businesses to make better decisions, says Julia Whitehead, managing director of market research consultancy Ask Joe Public.

“There’s a lot of scope to do simple market research yourself. A good place to start is desk research,” Whitehead says. “Libraries and online desk research can tell you about trends in your sector, gaps in the market, customer demographics and competitors.”

If you live close enough to London or can visit, the BIPC department at the British Library provides access to journals, sector reports, market information and databases. You can access some of this information online, but it is worth visiting in person and becoming a member, suggests Whitehead.

“It’s free to join and the staff can help you find the information you need. They also run courses aimed at SMEs that are often available free of charge or for a small fee.” Alternatively, visit your local public library to find out what services are available to small businesses.

Quantitative and qualitative research

When doing your own market research, the method you use depends on the type of information you want to gather. Essentially, if you want numbers, you need to do quantitative research, which includes surveys. If you need to understand why people do things or how they do them, you need to do qualitative research, which can involve face-to-face interviews.

Whichever method you use, you should have clear and simple objectives from the start. “There are lots of things that are nice to know,” says Whitehead, “but you must focus on what you need to know, and respond to the results. Stay focused and keep it simple - don’t try and ask every question in one piece of research. And make sure you’re talking to the right people.”

As well as customers, talking to suppliers and staff can be beneficial. You can use interviews to gauge opinions on aspects of your service, such as your opening hours, or whether introducing a new product is a good idea.

Seeking honest feedback

“Define your objectives and make sure you listen and remain open to what is said,” Whitehead stresses. “It can be easy to focus only on positive responses. But the best approach is to tell people that you’re looking for honest feedback, otherwise they may just tell you what they think you want to hear.”

Surveys allow you to ask more people a handful of simple questions. There are some excellent online tools, says Whitehead, such as Survey Monkey and Survey Mechanics, that allow you to conduct surveys for little or no cost.

“Survey Mechanics has a free version, which includes standard surveys that can help small firms to research things such as brand awareness and customer satisfaction. They’re easy to use and can be emailed out to your own database.”

Businesses must make sure their databases are up to date and relevant, she adds. “Data protection is critical and any personal data you hold about customers must be managed appropriately and comply with legal requirements.”

The Independent Consultants Group is a professional association of independent market research consultants. Whitehead says it offers useful resources for SMEs, including a DIY guide for non-expert researchers.

  • Written by freelance business writer Rachel Miller.

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