In order to identify and understand your market, segments, competition, distribution channels and customers, you’re going to have to do some research. Even a seasoned industry pro will start by doing some research. Where will you get the information that you need? There are many sources of information and in the age of the Internet, maybe in some cases, too much information. Be careful where your research produced information comes from. There are as many ‘experts’ as there are websites with content. Just because someone wrote a blog entry about your industry, does not mean the information is factual or that the blogger is an expert. Anyone can create a web site and pretend to be an expert. Some do this as a means of promoting a political position or a personal economic incentive. Keep in mind where your ‘data’ comes from and make sure it’s a source that you trust.
Here is a listing of a few common sources of information.
Census Bureau – The Census Bureau has some excellent demographic information available from their website http://factfinder.census.gov/. This information is free to the public and is available from any computer with an internet connection. You can sort the information by state, county, city or even zip code level.
Public Library – The local public library has many sources of market data. Many larger libraries have extensive periodicals from multi-family apartment construction to zoo management. Look through the magazines and journals to see if they carry ones that might be interesting to your particular industry. They might have many years of old periodicals and newspapers on file. In addition, they will likely have technical and financial books relating to companies and industries that you can view in the reference section.
Many large libraries have a reference librarian whose job it is to help you find information that you need. If you are pleasant and courteous, they will normally bend over backwards to assist you in your search for information. If you explain that you are starting a company and trying to find some information about an industry, segment, or competitor, they will give you some possible sources and might even do some searching for you.
Library cards are available for free to members of the community. If you live out of town, you might have to pay a small fee for a library card, which gives you the privilege to check-out materials. However, for research purposes, you probably will not have to take anything home. You can do your research in the library and probably will not need an actual library card.
Virtual library cards are available for using the many sources of non-public information. These sources could be public policy institutes, research or databases maintained by universities, public or private companies, and other research related sites. The information is generally only available to educational or research organizations and requires a special subscription. Many public libraries have these subscriptions and make them available to their patrons. This virtual library card can usually be used from your home computer by logging into the library’s information portal. Just ask the library employees if your local library offers a virtual library card.
University Library – Just like the public libraries, most university libraries are open for use by the local community. If you aren’t sure, give them a call. For serious research about new or growing businesses, university librarians are generally happy to assist. They’re used to working with students and will gladly help a small business person who approaches them with a friendly attitude and gracious spirit.
Trade Associations – Most industries have a trade association that serves as the advocate for the industry. In many large industries, there may be several different groups serving similar needs for different segments of the industry. You may have to join the association to get access to their data, but they typically are an excellent source of specific and relevant information about your industry. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on their web site, call the office and speak with a representative. Again, these individuals are generally more than willing to assist a potential new member find the information they are seeking.
Market Testing – If you need specific information about consumer buying habits, you probably need to do some market testing. The types of information you need might relate to how the shape and color of your product affects consumer behavior, or how your employee uniforms affects customer views on your professionalism. If your potential product roll-out is very large and costly, you will need some reliable consumer preference information. You can do this with focus groups, product testing, surveys and interviews among others. This type of research can be done by the owner, but unless you understand how this process works or have the time to research and study how to do it, it’s better left to professionals. While this may be the most expensive type of market research you conduct, it may also be the most helpful.
You should conduct some market behavior research as a part of your everyday business information gathering. Test the response of your customers to different product colors, shapes and sizes. How does the way your employees are dressed affect customer behavior? What about how you greet your customers on the phone or in person? To be effective, you must measure what you’re doing and the results you get. The only way to get valuable information is to make changes to your system and measure the results compared to the results you got before the change. Maybe you try several iterations before you hit on the best method or style. Data gathering in every part of your business is the only way to truly measure the variables in place and the results that were produced.
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