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How can I find an affordable market research service?

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Offices & Operations mentor Mie Yun-Lee responds to the following question from an inc.com user:
I know my business will benefit from extensive market research, but I just don't have the budget for it. How do I look for an affordable market research service, and what kind of reports and analysis can I expect?

Mie-Yun Lee's response: There are a number of ways you can try to benefit from market research without spending a fortune.

First of all, there's secondary research, the kind you don't have to pay for. Secondary research refers to what's already out there - information about the industry. This is information you can find yourself rather easily and for free by accessing Web-based directories and resources or visiting your local library.

Primary research, the point where you would normally hire a market research firm, is what helps you find information specific to your business customers. Primary research includes both quantitative methodology, which either confirms or changes your assumptions through numbers (a survey is an example of quantitative research), and qualitative methodology, through which you conduct longer, detailed interviews with fewer customers to find out the reasons behind their behavior (a focus group is an example of this).

There are a number of ways you could go about acquiring both quantitative and qualitative primary research for less. If your customer base is online, and you have an e-mail list available, the Web is a good, inexpensive vehicle for conducting surveys. You can send an e-mail survey and pull together your own report, or even better, use sites such as Zoomerang.com and NetReflector.com, which help you design your own online surveys, contact your customers, and tabulate your results in real time.

If your customers aren't online and you're not sure how to go about doing your research, a cost-effective alternative to hiring a full-service market research firm is an independent market research consultant who works out of his or her home. Such consultants cost $75 to $150 an hour, and their assistance in conducting competitive analysis, designing a phone or mail survey, organizing a focus group or analyzing results can be less expensive than your paying a full-service firm to do everything.

Another alternative is to hire a data collection firm, which will recruit people for focus groups or conduct interviews. A data collection firm is more affordable than a full-service firm, but it won't tabulate results or product reports for you.

Whether you choose a full-service firm, a data collection firm, or an independent consultant, visit www.mra-net.org, the Web site of the Marketing Research Association, which has an online database of member listings. Or visit www.ama.org, the site of American Marketing Association, and take advantage of the member directory. A local chapter might be able to help you in your research efforts.

There's a big distinction between the full-service and data collection firms listed in these directories. Before settling on one, find out if they know anything about your industry - ideally you want someone who is familiar with your line of business and can address your specific needs. And as always, check references.

If you're tight on time to conduct research yourself or don't have the money to hire anyone, approach business schools in your area. Many market research classes assign projects involving real data in real markets. Volunteer your business as a subject - you could get some very smart market research results at no cost if you are willing to open up your books and give them the data they need.

If you're planning on doing everything yourself, keep in mind that without a disinterested party involved, there is a chance that you may word your questions or hear customers' answers in a self-serving way. Having a third party look over your questions or go over your research with you will help ensure your conclusions are not biased.

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Related resources at inc.com:

Assess Your Competition
Research Your Industry Through Trade Associations
Simple Market Research: More Impact from Your Marketing Dollars




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