Introduction to desk-based market research

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Market research is an essential for every business. Knowing that there is a sustainable market for your product and understanding what your audience expects from you is vital to a successful business launch

Market research can generally be split into two categories; primary and secondary. Desk-based market research, or secondary research, means finding relevant data which already exists, as opposed to collecting your own bespoke research. While it may not be able to answer specific questions, desk research can provide you with useful information, much of it free

Finding the right information may take some effort, but it can help you to make informed business decisions. Here are the major sources of existing data that you could try.

Secondary market research

Secondary research makes use of existing data from whatever sources are available. There are government reports, surveys and research from many market research agencies that allow access to their data; some of it for free. This means it is far cheaper and generally quicker than creating your own research from scratch.

Eric Brandenberg of Marketest says, "Secondary research more often than not, proves to be a solid base on which to develop your own primary research."

Carrying out your own online market research

You can find out a lot about your market and your competitors online. On their own websites you can see how competitors are marketing themselves and what their unique selling points are. You'll get an insight into their strategy by reading their content, including blogs.

A great (and often overlooked) resource is public companies' annual reports. They provide insight on an industry's size and growth rate, as well as predictions on where the industry is heading in the near future.

You can also directly compare prices for different products and services.

By Googling your rivals, you can also find out where else their names are mentioned - from press coverage to directory entries or mentions at events.

Finally, see what they are up to on social media, and also notice how customers are responding; this could highlight where rivals are failing and reveal new opportunities for your business.

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Other sources of secondary market research

  • Local directories. If you operate locally, it's a good idea to look through local directories to see who your competitors are, where they're located and how they market themselves. If you're a business-to-business firm, get hold of specialist directories for your sector. They will list your competitors, and may provide information about their products and services. They could even help you to see where there are gaps in the market.
  • Business libraries and databases. All large libraries have business sections and access to online services. The biggest, the British Library in London, has its own Business and IP Centre for entrepreneurs. It offers access to resources such as the Complete Business Reference Adviser database (COBRA) and GRANTfinder, a UK database of grants and loans. There is also free access to market research reports from Mintel, Key Note, Datamonitor and Frost & Sullivan.
  • Market research reports. Sector surveys and reports can tell you a lot about market conditions and trends. They often show the threats and opportunities in a sector and can highlight where there are gaps in the market. If you want to get a specific report and it is not available at the British Library, you can always buy a copy but it can be expensive. It might be possible to buy a small part, covering the specific area you are interested in, for much less.
  • Trade associations. Industry and business associations are a great source of information. Many trade bodies give their members access to industry statistics and reports. Other special interest and lobbying groups often do their own research. It is also worth approaching your local business support organisation or Chamber of Commerce to see what resources they have.

The pros of secondary market research

  • The research is already available - saving you time
  • It is often available free or at little cost
  • The data is validated as it is often from government agencies or specialist market research agencies.

The cons of secondary market research

  • Data may be out of date. Some government statistics are only collected annually.
  • You have no control over the questions asked as part of the research or who participates.
  • It can be difficult to find data that corresponds to the exactly questions you want to answer.

Primary market research

Primary research is, essentially, your own research. It could be as simple as a question that you ask friends, family or selected customers or a survey you put together with a specialist agency and administered to a wide panel. You can carry out the research using an online survey via your company website or social media profiles or asking questions face-to-face. You can also use free online surveys such as SurveyMonkey to create your own surveys.  

You might also include a questionnaire when you send goods to clients. Another option would be to call customers to ask your questions - but you need to be aware of rules protecting the public from unsolicited calls, emails and post. 

Become a customer of your competitors. Look at their advertisements - it can tell you who their target market is, and which demographics they are trying to expand into. If your competition has stores in your area, pay them a visit. This sounds obvious, but you can gather lots on information by getting in your car and driving around town.

The pros of primary market research

  • You in control of the research. You choose the questions and select your panel giving you tailored responses.
  • The research is up to date - you decide when and where your research is carried out.
  • You can get the answers to the specific questions you want answered.

The cons of primary market research

  • It is more expensive.
  • It can be more time consuming refining your questions and putting together a panel.
  • You need experience to produce quality questionnaires. You can get around this by using an agency but it will be considerably more expensive than performing your research alone.


Neither type of research will answer all your market research needs on their own. However, a combination of primary and secondary research should give you the answers you need.

Eric Brandenberg says, "Using primary research alone, without seeing what works for other companies or missing out on important research you can’t afford to perform yourself, is likely to lead to missed opportunities. Equally, relying solely on secondary research is likely to leave you with answers that are vague or inappropriate to your specific audience. The two complement each other well, and when used in conjunction will give you a well-rounded and accurate portrayal of the needs and opinions of your market sector."

Thanks to expert contributor, Eric Brandenberg of Marketest.

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