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A practical guide to market research to help you make better decisions

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As an entrepreneur, conducting market research helps you make better business decisions and avoid costly mistakes.

In fact, market research is crucial for your success whether you’re entering a new market, looking for customers or launching a new product. It can also help you to identify opportunities to generate more business with existing customers.

Businesses can gather data on such topics as product design, branding, advertising concepts, sales channels and customer service. In short, the insights gathered through market research can shape your business plan or help you to measure the success of your current activities and adjust.

Therefore, it’s critical to have a well‑designed market research plan that will lead you to ask the right questions, in the right way, of the right audience. Poorly designed or shoddily executed research can produce results that steer your business in the wrong direction.

Common market research mistakes

Here are three common missteps that we see:

1. Relying on free data from the Internet

The web is a great starting point, but often this information may be incomplete, outdated or too superficial to be relevant to your business decisions.

2. Surveying your personal network

Again, it can be a great starting point to talk to friends and colleagues. But for truly meaningful insights, you need to hear from sales prospects, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders in your business.

3. Relying only on anecdotal feedback

Businesses often receive feedback from customers and other stakeholders. But a few data points are not enough. Business insights need to be collected in a systematic way.

So how can small businesses conduct market research in a timely, cost‑effective manner?

How to gather insights about your business

Small businesses can use the following framework and resources to gather insights in a systematic, rigorous way.

1. Mine your internal information sources

Within your organization, there may be several untapped resources that can provide valuable information. Sales, customer service and other frontline employees, for example, can provide insights into the competition, customer reaction to products, new product ideas and potential new markets. Although this information will be anecdotal and subjective, employee feedback gathered in a regular, systematic manner can provide valuable information that you can then use as a basis for further investigation.

It’s also important to analyze your sales data. For instance, a review of your customer records may highlight that you’re doing more business in certain geographic regions or during certain seasons.

2. Look at the big picture with secondary market research

Although it may seem counter‑intuitive, your market research plan should start with a scan of published information. Data from secondary research will give you a high‑level overview of market opportunities. It typically consists of previously collected information on consumer demographics, industry trends, market share, etc.

This type of information provides the context you need to develop a profile of your market and industry. For instance, if you wanted to launch a locally produced wine to the Ontario and Quebec markets, you would need to gather information on the number of wine drinkers in these provinces, broken down by gender, age, geography, household income and level of education. You would also need to gather broad industry data on the wine market, such as size, forecasted growth, profitability, key players, market share and market trends.

Statistics Canada and Industry Canada are reliable sources of economic, industry, social and census data. Other sources of information include articles from business magazines and periodicals, trade associations and their publications, and analyst reports or company annual reports. As well, there are several companies that offer industry research and analysis for a fee.

3. Dive deeper with primary research

Primary research (or field research) refers to the gathering of original information, through interviews and other first‑hand methods, specifically about your product or business. Primary research gives you control over the type of questions you ask and information you gather. While the results can be extremely valuable, the research can be time‑consuming and costly. As well, conducting primary research is a highly-specialized skill. Given the investment and technical requirements for designing and conducting primary research, we recommend you employ a market research professional or company if you decide to undertake primary research.

Before you begin your primary research, be sure to map out exactly what you want to learn. Ask yourself the following questions: What business decisions do I want to make from this research? Who should we talk to? If I could get an answer to only one question, what would it be?

Here are the main types of primary research that may be useful for your business:

Online surveys

These surveys are increasingly popular and relatively inexpensive. Online surveys can generate thousands of responses to a broad range of questions. The main benefit of online surveys is quick results, usually within days. A drawback is that they can be prone to superficial or incomplete answers. We recommend using online surveys where you need to get market feedback from a wide range of respondents.

Telephone surveys

These are used to conduct more indepth interviews that can last from 10 to 30 minutes. However, potential customers are often wary of callers and may be reluctant to participate or give anything other than short answers. In a B2B environment, telephone interviews can be an efficient method to get feedback from prospective or current customers.

Direct mail surveys

This is a relatively cheap method to cover a wide geographical area and avoids the potential for interviewer bias. However, response rates (the proportion of people sending back a completed survey) are often very low and it can take a long time before enough surveys are returned to get a useful sample.

Focus groups

This methodology brings potential or current customers together to discuss their feelings about a product or market. Focus groups are a good way of getting detailed information about customer tastes and preferences.

Observation

Observing customers or prospective customers allows you to see how they behave in a store or with a product. Observation works well in retail markets. However, without direct feedback from the consumer being observed, you may not get the “whys” behind their actions.

Summary

A rigorous, well‑designed market research plan can help you make better business decisions. Not only can it help you determine whether or not there's a viable market for your products, it will also help you hone and tweak your products to fit customer needs and desires.

Although your research may not fill all the gaps in your knowledge—especially under the constraints of a tight budget—it has the potential to dramatically improve your decision-making. And that can mean the difference between success and failure.



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