A market research agency can design, carry out and analyse market research for you. Using a professional market research company can ensure that you get the information you need and avoid the risk of relying on inaccurate research.
Market research agencies will also help make sure you're complying with current data-protection legislation. They will give you objective feedback - vital when it's your idea, product or business.
Market research companies will generally need budgets starting at £1,000. However, agencies used to serving businesses of your size are worth checking with even if you have a small budget. For instance, you can join omnibus surveys and ask a few questions of your own along with others. Online surveys can also be done relatively cheaply.
If you have less to spend but need professional help, you may want to consider using a freelance market researcher to ensure objectivity. A freelance consultant can conduct surveys and questionnaires and also do qualitative research using face-to-face focus groups.
Your trade association and business contacts may be able to suggest market research groups with knowledge of your industry and experience working with small firms. Organisations such as the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Marketing can provide information on members, and you can also search local and online directories. Two other useful organisations are the Business Intelligence Group (BIG) and the Independent Consultants Group (ICG).
If you are using other marketing consultants, it's worth checking whether they have the market research capabilities you need. Specialist marketing consultants will often be able to carry out related research: for example, your advertising agency should be able to research advertising effectiveness. Integrated marketing consultancies can offer a wide range of marketing services, including market research.
Some market research agencies are heavily focused on a particular type of research (such as online surveys, qualitative research or quantitative research) or a particular industry. Others specialise in areas such as brand research or offer marketing research as part of a broader marketing consultancy service.
As long as you understand your own research needs, a quick check of what each agency offers will allow you to eliminate unsuitable ones. Smaller businesses tend to find that smaller agencies know how to get useful results within tighter budgets. Unless you know what type of research you need, you may prefer to work with a company that offers a wide range of market research services rather than a specialist who is certain to recommend their particular type of research.
You should draw up a brief to circulate to the market researchers on your shortlist, explaining your background, target market and what you want to achieve. Ask each market research company to provide a brief proposal setting out what kind of research they would suggest, their timelines, costs and enclosing examples of past assignments. You will probably want to meet the agencies with the most promising proposals to get a feel for who they are and how well you get on together. It may not pay to cast your net too widely. Some market research agencies may ask for payment for writing a proposal if you invite more than three companies to pitch.
And be wary of comparing different market research agencies on the basis of cost alone. Cutting corners - for example, by using small sample sizes or cheaper forms of research - can undermine the accuracy and usefulness of the results. Instead, you should choose an agency that understands what you need to know and has shown that they know how to get the right information.