ask the expert | what are some free and cheap ways to do market research?

Martina Iring 150.jpg

Today we have a post from our expert partner in online marketing: Martina Iring from Small Business Bliss. She is giving us some help on a topic I get asked about often: market research.

Take your business to the next level  - free and cheap ways to do market research

Perhaps you’ve been doing your thing for a while and you’re ready to ramp up your little biz. Or maybe you’re just getting a small business started, and formulating your plan and your offering.

An important part of starting or growing a business revolves around doing research and understanding your target market. As a small business, you don’t have thousands upon thousands of dollars to spend on Nielsen data or reports from large reputable market research firms.

The good news is that there are plenty of options, many of them free and online, that can give you highly valuable insights into what your target market wants and needs. And many of these options go along with the activities that you already do, so you can easily keep on gathering the data that’s relevant to your little biz as you continue evolving!

Free online surveys

Survey Monkey makes creating an online questionnaire and compiling the data easy – and the basic plan (allowing 10 questions and 100 participants) is free! It also allows for easy sharing with Facebook and embedding on your website.

Go to  to sign up and check out their help area for lots of great resources for using their system and creating surveys:

Power tip: Weed out individuals that are not relevant to your survey with an initial qualifying question. If you’re launching a new product that’s specifically for moms, for example, you might only want feedback from moms. Or you could formulate a different set of questions for someone who is not a mom, using the initial question to determine which version of the survey someone will get. Really powerful stuff!

Best practices for surveys:

  • Let people know how long the survey will take. Make it as succinct as possible. A survey that only takes a couple of minutes to complete will get much more response than a longer one.
  • Explain very clearly why you are doing the survey (and let people know how appreciated their participation is).
  • Get someone else (preferably in your target market) to read your questions. Making sure that your questions are easily understood is the most important factor in a relevant survey. You might think you’re being crystal clear, but someone else might get confused.
  • Most surveys involve asking for some personal information (such as age, gender, education, income…). Let participants know that answers given will be kept confidential and are strictly for market research use.

Now it’s time to spread the word about your survey and get the right people to fill it out. If you already have an established small business, you can reach out to your customers - via your email newsletter, via social media, via your website. Make sure that you take advantage of all communications channels at your disposal.

If you’re just getting started (or if you want to go beyond your existing customers), you will have to get a little more creative about how to go about reaching people.

Is there small business in your area that also serves the same target market that you could partner with? Is there some kind of online group or association where your target market hangs out? 

You can also think about offering some kind of prize or incentive to make completing the survey even more enticing. How about entering all completed surveys into a draw for a prize? It’s amazing how even a small prize that your target market would value is enough to get participation. 

Social media channels

Your existing social media profiles are a great way to gather information from your target market. Use the questions feature in Facebook. Start a discussion in a relevant LinkedIn group. Use Twitter to get feedback.

Put your ear to the ground - online

You can also go beyond your own connections and customer base, and use the incredible power of the internet to fuel your research efforts. Go to Facebook pages, blogs, forums etc…where your target market hangs out. These can often be a gold mine of valuable data. What questions are people asking? What frustrations are they expressing? Look out for topics or discussions that are relevant to the information you want to find out.

You can also take advantage of the conversations going on on Twitter. Use searches to find out what people are saying around a certain topic. You can use the Twitter interface or give this free Twitter search tool a try:

Face time

If your small business has a store, or a presence at a physical location, get out there and talk to people! A quick question and conversation with someone from your target market can be really valuable.

You can also take a physical presence to the next level by creating a small paper questionnaire with a few pertinent questions. I have used this very successfully in the past. Entering everyone in a draw for a prize is great to attract participants. Think about something that your target market would appreciate, and watch the entries role in. This is great at a special event or show, or even just at a physical store location.

Power tip: Do you have an email newsletter? Ask people to opt in at the bottom of the questionnaire (you can add them manually to your list as they have given you explicit consent). A great way to build that database!

Launch it and learn

If you are thinking about offering a new product or service, why not try doing a quick (and imperfect) release to gauge reactions, before you go for the full on implementation? 

I recently read a new book by Eric Ries -  The Lean Startup (you can read my review here  if you’re interested). Eric talks about how generally companies and businesses (from large to small) tend to go the perfectionist route. Meticulous market research. Full on planning. Complete testing.  And finally a product launch when everything is “perfect”.

But what if you asked the wrong questions in your research? What if people don’t actually want your product or service in exactly the way that you’ve put it together? You’ve then spent a ton of time and/or money, and you have to start all over again. Eric recommends getting your thing out there early, being ready to make adjustments and making mistakes early in the process.

If you have a product, you can just try making a few of them (yes, it is more expensive to buy just a bit of something, but if your product flops, you’re not left with rolls upon rolls of that pink fabric). If it sells like hotcakes, you know that the investment is worth it.

If you’re launching a service, get it out there before you finalize all the details, or even the pricing, so they you can get some quick initial feedback. You could offer it at a discount, making it clear that you will be asking for opinions from anyone that gets this low price.

These are some of my favourite ways for a small business to gather data and do market research on the cheap. If you have any other tricks up your sleeve, please share with us in the comments!

Martina Iring works with entrepreneurs overwhelmed with all that web stuff. She’s on a mission to help the little guys make sense of internet marketing, teaching small biz owners how being online is not only profitable, but enjoyable! Her blog, Small Business Bliss, offers up gobs of marketing info and doses of inspiration just for little biz owners.