Today, consumers have a lot of power — they can research your product or service and make purchase decisions entirely on their own. And rather than talking to one of your sales reps, they're more likely to ask for referrals from members of their networks or read online reviews.
With this in mind, have you adapted your marketing strategy to complement the way today's consumers research, shop, and buy?
In order to do just that — and to meet your potential buyers were they are — you must have a deep understanding of who your buyers are, your specific market, and what influences the purchase decisions and behavior of your target audience members. Enter: Market Research.
Whether you're new to market research, this guide will provide you with a blueprint for conducting a thorough study of your market, target audience, competition, and more.
What is market research?
Market research is the process of gathering information about your business's buyers personas, target audience, and customers to determine how viable and successful your product or service would be, and/or is, among these people.
What does market research tell you?
Market research provides insight into a wide variety of things that impact your bottom line including (but not limited to):
- Where your target audience and current customers conduct their product/ service research
- Which of your competitors your target audience looks to for information, more options, or to make a purchase
- What's trending in your industry
- Who makes up your market and what their challenges are
- What influences purchases and conversions among your target audience
As you begin honing in on your market research, you'll likely hear about primary and secondary market research. The easiest way to think about primary and secondary research is to envision to umbrellas sitting beneath market research: one for primary market research and one for secondary market research.
Beneath these two umbrellas sits a number of different types of market research, which we'll highlight below. Defining which of the two umbrellas your market research fits beneath isn't necessarily crucial, although some marketers prefer to make the distinction.
So, in case you encounter a marketer who wants to define your types of market research as primary or secondary — or if you're one of them — let's cover the definitions of the two categories next. Then, we'll look at the different types of market research in the following section.
Primary vs. Secondary Research
There are two main types of market research that your business can conduct to collect actionable information on your products including primary research and secondary research.
Primary research is the pursuit of first-hand information about your market and the customers within your market. It's useful when segmenting your market and establishing your buyer personas. Primary market research tends to fall into one of two buckets: exploratory and specific research.
Exploratory Primary Research
This kind of primary market research is less concerned with measurable customer trends and more about potential problems that would be worth tackling as a team. It normally takes place as a first step — before any specific research has been performed — and may involve open-ended interviews or surveys with small numbers of people.
Specific Primary Research
Specific primary market research often follows exploratory research and is used to dive into issues or opportunities the business has already identified as important. In specific research, the business can take a smaller or more precise segment of their audience and ask questions aimed at solving a suspected problem.
Secondary research is all the data and public records you have at your disposal to draw conclusions from(e.g. trend reports, market statistics, industry content, and sales data you already have on your business). Secondary research is particularly useful for analyzing your competitors. The main buckets your secondary market research will fall into include:
These sources are your first and most-accessible layer of material when conducting secondary market research. They're often free to find and review — lots of bang for your buck here.
Government statistics are one of the most common types of public sources according to Entrepreneur. Two U.S. examples of public market data are the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor & Statistics, both of which offer helpful information on the state of various industries nationwide.
These sources often come in the form of market reports, consisting of industry insight compiled by a research agency like Pew, Gartner, or Forrester. Because this info is so portable and distributable, it typically costs money to download and obtain.
Internal sources deserve more credit for supporting market research than they generally get. Why? This is the market data your organization already has!
Average revenue per sale, customer retention rates, and other historical data on the health of old and new accounts can all help you draw conclusions on what your buyers might want right now.
Now that we've covered these overarching market research categories, let's get more specific and look at the various types of market research you might choose to conduct.
Interviews allow for face-to-face discussions (in-person and virtual) so you can allow for a natural flow or conversation and watch your interviewee's body language while doing so.
2. Focus Groups
Focus groups provide you with a handful of carefully-selected people that you can have test out your product, watch a demo, provide feedback, and/or answer specific questions.
3. Product/ Service Use Research
Product or service use research offers insight into how and why your audience uses your product or service, and specific features of that item. This type of market research also gives you an idea of the product or service's usability for your target audience.
4. Observation-Based Research
Observation-based research allows you to sit back and watch the ways in which your target audience members go about using your product or service, what works well in terms of UX, what roadblocks they hit, and which aspects of it could be easier for them to use and apply.
5. Buyer Persona Research
Buyer persona research gives you a realistic look at who makes up your target audience, what their challenges are, why they want your product or service, what they need from your business and brand, and more.
6. Market Segmentation Research
Market segmentation research allows you to categorize your target audience into different groups (or segments) based on specific and defining characteristics — this way, you can determine effective ways to meet their needs, understand their pain points and expectations, learn about their goals, and more.
7. Pricing Research
Pricing research gives you an idea of what similar products or services in your market sell for, what your target audience expects to pay — and is willing to pay — for whatever it is you sell, and what's a fair price for you to list your product or service at. All of this information will help you define your pricing strategy.
8. Competitive Analysis
Competitive analyses are valuable because they give you a deep understanding of the competition in your market and industry. You can learn about what's doing well in your industry, what your target audience is already going for in terms of products like yours, which of your competitors should you work to keep up with and surpass, and how you can clearly separate yourself from the competition.
9. Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty Research
Customer satisfaction and loyalty research give you a look into how you can get current customers to return for more business and what will motivate them to do so (e.g. loyalty programs, rewards, remarkable customer service). This research will help you discover the most-effective ways to promote delight among your customers.
10. Brand Awareness Research
Brand awareness research tells you about what your target audience knows about and recognizes from your brand. It tells you about the associations your audience members make when they think about your business and what they believe you're all about.
11. Campaign Research
Campaign research entails looking into your past campaigns and analyzing their success among your target audience and current customers. It requires experimentation and then a deep dive into what reached and resonated with your audience so you can keep those elements in mind for your future campaigns and hone in on the aspects of what you do that matters most to those people.
Now that you know about the categories and types of market research, let's review how you can conduct your market research.
Here's how to do market research step-by-step.
1. Define your buyer persona.
Before you dive into how customers in your industry make buying decisions, you must first understand who they are.
This is where your buyer personas come in handy. Buyer personas — sometimes referred to as marketing personas — are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers.
They help you visualize your audience, streamline your communications, and inform your strategy. Some key characteristics you should be keen on including in your buyer persona are:
- Job title(s)
- Job titles
- Family size
- Major challenges
The idea is to use your persona as a guideline for how to effectively reach and learn about the real audience members in your industry. Also, you may find that your business lends itself to more than one persona — that's fine! You just need to be thoughtful about each specific persona when you're optimizing and planning your content and campaigns.
2. Identify a persona group to engage.
Now that you know who your buyer personas are, use that information to help you identify a group to engage to conduct your market research with — this should be a representative sample of your target customers so you can better understand their actual characteristics, challenges, and buying habits.
The group you identify to engage should also be made of people who recently made a purchase or purposefully decided not to make one. Here are some more guidelines and tips to help you get the right participants for your research.
How to Identify the Right People to Engage for Market Research
When choosing who to engage for your market research, start by focusing on people who have the characteristics that apply to your buyer persona. You should also...
- Shoot for 10 participants per buyer persona: We recommend focusing on one persona, but if you feel it's necessary to research multiple personas, be sure to recruit a separate sample group for each one.
- Select people who have recently interacted with you: You may want to focus on people that have completed an evaluation within the past six months — or up to a year if you have a longer sales cycle or niche market. You'll be asking very detailed questions so it's important that their experience is fresh.
- Aim for a mix of participants: You want to recruit people who have purchased your product, purchased a competitor's product, and decided not to purchase anything at all. While your customers will be the easiest to find and recruit, sourcing information from those who aren't customers (yet!) will help you develop a balanced view of your market. Here are some more details on how to select this mix of participants:
Pull a list of customers who made a recent purchase. As we mentioned before, this is usually the easiest set of buyers to recruit. If you're using a CRM system, you can run a report of deals that closed within the past six months and filter it for the characteristics you're looking for. Otherwise, you can work with your sales team to get a list of appropriate accounts from them.
- Pull a list of customers who were in an active evaluation, but didn't make a purchase. You should get a mix of buyers who either purchased from a competitor or decided not to make a purchase. Again, you can get this list from your CRM or from whatever system your Sales team uses to track deals.
- Call for participants on social media. Try reaching out to the folks that follow you on social media, but decided not to buy from you. There's a chance that some of them will be willing to talk to you and tell you why they ultimately decided not to buy your product.
- Leverage your own network. Get the word out to your coworkers, former colleagues, and LinkedIn connections that you're conducting a study. Even if your direct connections don't qualify, some of them will likely have a coworker, friend, or family member who does.
- Choose an incentive. Time is precious, so you'll need to think about how you will motivate someone to spend 30-45 minutes on you and your study. On a tight budget? You can reward participants for free by giving them exclusive access to content. Another option? Send a simple handwritten 'thank you' note once the study is complete.
3. Prepare research questions for your market research participants.
The best way to make sure you get the most out of your conversations is to be prepared. You should always create a discussion guide — whether it's for a focus group, online survey, or a phone interview — to make sure you cover all of the top-of-mind questions and use your time wisely.
(Note: This is not intended to be a script. The discussions should be natural and conversational, so we encourage you to go out of order or probe into certain areas as you see fit.)
Your discussion guide should be in an outline format, with a time allotment and open-ended questions for each section.
Wait, all open-ended questions?
Yes — this is a golden rule of market research. You never want to "lead the witness" by asking yes and no questions, as that puts you at risk of unintentionally swaying their thoughts by leading with your own hypothesis. Asking open-ended questions also helps you avoid one-word answers (which aren't very helpful for you).
Example Outline of a 30-Minute Survey
Here's a general outline for a 30-minute survey for one B2B buyer. You can use these as talking points for an in-person interview, or as questions posed on a digital form to administer as a survey to your target customers.
Background Information (5 Minutes)
Ask the buyer to give you a little background information (their title, how long they've been with the company, and so on). Then, ask a fun/easy question to warm things up (first concert attended, favorite restaurant in town, last vacation, etc.).
Remember, you want to get to know your buyers in pretty specific ways. You might be able to capture basic information such as age, location, and job title from your contact list, there are some personal and professional challenges you can really only learn by asking.
Here are some other key background questions to ask your target audience:
- Describe how your team is structured.
- Tell me about your personal job responsibilities.
- What are the team's goals and how do you measure them?
- What has been your biggest challenge in the past year?
Now, make a transition to acknowledge the specific purchase or interaction they made that led to you including them in the study. The next three stages of the buyer's journey will focus specifically on that purchase.
Awareness (5 Minutes)
Here, you want to understand how they first realized they had a problem that needed to be solved without getting into whether or not they knew about your brand yet.
- Think back to when you first realized you needed a [name the product/service category, but not yours specifically]. What challenges were you facing at the time?
- How did you know that something in this category could help you?
- How familiar were you with different options on the market?
Consideration (10 Minutes)
Now you want to get very specific about how and where the buyer researched potential solutions. Plan to interject to ask for more details.
- What was the first thing you did to research potential solutions? How helpful was this source?
- Where did you go to find more information?
If they don't come up organically, ask about search engines, websites visited, people consulted, and so on. Probe, as appropriate, with some of the following questions:
- How did you find that source?
- How did you use vendor websites?
- What words specifically did you search on Google?
- How helpful was it? How could it be better?
- Who provided the most (and least) helpful information? What did that look like?
- Tell me about your experiences with the sales people from each vendor.
Decision (10 Minutes)
- Which of the sources you described above was the most influential in driving your decision?
- What, if any, criteria did you establish to compare the alternatives?
- What vendors made it to the short list and what were the pros/cons of each?
- Who else was involved in the final decision? What role did each of these people play?
- What factors ultimately influenced your final purchasing decision?
Here, you want to wrap up and understand what could have been better for the buyer.
- Ask them what their ideal buying process would look like. How would it differ from what they experienced?
- Allow time for further questions on their end.
- Don't forget to thank them for their time and confirm their address to send a thank-you note or incentive.
4. List your primary competitors.
List your primary competitors — keep in mind listing the competition isn't always as simple as Company X versus Company Y.
Sometimes, a division of a company might compete with your main product or service, even though that company's brand might put more effort in another area.
For example. Apple is known for its laptops and mobile devices but Apple Music competes with Spotify over its music streaming service.
From a content standpoint, you might compete with a blog, YouTube channel, or similar publication for inbound website visitors — even though their products don't overlap with yours at all.
And a toothpaste company might compete with magazines like Health.com or Prevention on certain blog topics related to health and hygiene even though the magazines don't actually sell oral care products.
Identifying Industry Competitors
To identify competitors whose products or services overlap with yours, determine which industry or industries you're pursuing. Start high-level, using terms like education, construction, media & entertainment, food service, healthcare, retail, financial services, telecommunications, and agriculture.
The list goes on, but find an industry term that you identify with, and use it to create a list of companies that also belong to this industry. You can build your list the following ways:
- Review your industry quadrant on G2 Crowd: In certain industries, this is your best first step in secondary market research. G2 Crowd aggregates user ratings and social data to create "quadrants," where you can see companies plotted as contenders, leaders, niche, and high performers in their respective industries. G2 Crowd specializes in digital content, IT services, HR, ecommerce, and related business services.
- Download a market report: Companies like Forrester and Gartner offer both free and gated market forecasts every year on the vendors who are leading their industry. On Forrester's website, for example, you can select "Latest Research" from the navigation bar and browse Forrester's latest material using a variety of criteria to narrow your search. These reports are good assets to save on your computer.
- Search using social media: Believe it or not, social networks make great company directories if you use the search bar correctly. On LinkedIn, for example, select the search bar and enter the name of the industry you're pursuing. Then, under "More," select "Companies" to narrow your results to just the businesses that include this or a similar industry term on their LinkedIn profile.
Identifying Content Competitors
Search engines are your best friends in this area of secondary market research. To find the online publications with which you compete, take the overarching industry term you identified in the section above, and come up with a handful of more specific industry terms your company identifies with.
A catering business, for example, might generally be a "food service" company, but also consider itself a vendor in "event catering," "cake catering," "baked goods," and more.
Once you have this list, do the following:
- Google it: Don't underestimate the value in seeing which websites come up when you run a search on Google for the industry terms that describe your company. You might find a mix of product developers, blogs, magazines, and more.
- Compare your search results against your buyer persona: Remember the buyer persona you created during the primary research stage, earlier in this article? Use it to examine how likely a publication you found through Google could steal website traffic from you. If the content the website publishes seems like the stuff your buyer persona would want to see, it's a potential competitor, and should be added to your list of competitors.
After a series of similar Google searches for the industry terms you identify with, look for repetition in the website domains that have come up.
Examine the first two or three results pages for each search you conducted. These websites are clearly respected for the content they create in your industry, and should be watched carefully as you build your own library of videos, reports, web pages, and blog posts.
5. Summarize your findings.
Feeling overwhelmed by the notes you took? We suggest looking for common themes that will help you tell a story and create a list of action items.
To make the process easier, try using your favorite presentation software to make a report, as it will make it easy to add in quotes, diagrams, or call clips.
Feel free to add your own flair, but the following outline should help you craft a clear summary:
- Background: Your goals and why you conducted this study.
- Participants: Who you talked to. A table works well so you can break groups down by persona and customer/prospect.
- Executive Summary: What were the most interesting things you learned? What do you plan to do about it?
- Awareness: Describe the common triggers that lead someone to enter into an evaluation. (Quotes can be very powerful.)
- Consideration: Provide the main themes you uncovered, as well as the detailed sources buyers use when conducting their evaluation.
- Decision: Paint the picture of how a decision is really made by including the people at the center of influence and any product features or information that can make or break a deal.
- Action Plan: Your analysis probably uncovered a few campaigns you can run to get your brand in front of buyers earlier and/or more effectively. Provide your list of priorities, a timeline, and the impact it will have on your business.
Market Research Report Template
Within a market research kit, there are a number of critical pieces of information for your business's success. Let's take a look at what those different kit elements are next.
Pro Tip: Upon downloading HubSpot's free Market Research Kit, you'll receive editable templates for each of the give parts of the kit as well as instructions on how to use the templates and kit, and a mock presentation that you can edit and customize.
1. Five Forces Analysis Template
Use Porter's Five Forces Model to understand an industry by analyzing five different criteria and how high the power, threat, or rivalry in each area is — here are the five criteria:
- Competitive rivalry
- Threat of new entrants
- Threat of substitution
- Buyer power
- Supplier power
2. SWOT Analysis Template
3. Market Survey Template
Both market surveys and focus groups (which we'll cover in the next section) help you uncover important information about your buyer personas, target audience, current customers, market, competition, and more (e.g. demand for your product or service, potential pricing, impressions of your branding, etc.).
Surveys should contain a variety of question types, like multiple choice, rankings, and open-ended responses. Ask quantitative and short-answer questions to save you time and to more easily draw conclusions. (Save longer questions that will warrant more detailed responses for your focus groups.)
Here are some categories of questions you should ask via survey:
- Demographic questions
- Business questions
- Competitor questions
- Industry questions
- Brand questions
- Product questions
4. Focus Group Template
Focus groups are an opportunity to collect in-depth, qualitative data from your real customers or members of your target audience. You should ask your focus group participants open-ended questions. While doing so, keep these tips top of mind:
- Set a limit for the number of questions you're asking (after all, they're open-ended).
- Provide participants with a prototype or demonstration.
- Ask participants how they feel about your price.
- Ask participants about your competition.
- Offer participants time at the end of the session for final comments, questions, or concerns.
Conduct Market Research to Grow Better
Conducting market research can be a very eye-opening experience. Even if you think you know your buyers pretty well, completing the study will likely uncover new channels and messaging tips to help improve your interactions.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in January, 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.