As a child in the late eighties and nineties, I have a distinct recollection of market research companies calling the house to try and convince either my Mother or my Grandmother to take part in a survey. If the former answered the phone, they had no chance. If, on the other hand, my Grandmother answered, she would generally indulge them.

They'd want to ask a series of questions on behalf of a big business. They'd ask about family situation, other brands the household bought, what she liked and didn't like about certain products or services. Even my polite Grandmother would be bored fifteen minutes in and would then say pretty much anything to speed it up.

I can see why the insight was so valuable to a company. If we're selling products and services to a demographic, getting under the skin of what that audience likes and doesn't like about such products and which other brands they're currently loyal to is invaluable information.

But audience research of this nature had its challenges. It was resource intensive, requiring people to call house to house to persuade people to give up fifteen minutes of their time and take part. Response rates may be low, meaning you'd need a significant time and resource push to get even several hundred responses.

Then, as the survey drags on, does the quality of the answers drop as the householder rushes through keen to go about their life again?

Fast Forward Less Than 30 Years

Less than three decades on and we can access all that information in a click or two.

Our customers are now online. And they're not just shopping there. They're sharing online and searching online. That leaves a digital footprint that savvy marketers can now make the basis of their own market research far less resources intensively than those businesses of the 80s and 90s.

The Information We Share

As I check in on Facebook at a restaurant or a holiday park or I hit the 'like' button on another brand, I am aware of the footprint I leave. As a consumer, the amount of data and insight we share about ourselves actually terrifies me.

As a marketer, I find it incredibly exciting. For the brands I've worked with, I've been able to build complete personas in relatively limited time with a handful of tools. We can find out:

·      What our target audience likes and doesn't like

·      Which brands they're already engaging with

·      What objections or concerns they have about our brand or our products and services

·      What they read

It's all there readily available online.

Here are three ways I've been accessing and using that information:

1.    Assess the Keywords People Search

We ask and tell Google a remarkable amount. We expect Google to have the answer to all our questions and some of us seemingly just rant in Google too. And, as you'd expect, all of this information is kept by Google.

More often associated with SEO or PPC, keyword research can offer insight into your audience's problems and questions too.

You can lookup searches specifically relating to products or services and get search volumes by country with tools like KwFinder or SEMRush. This can help you better understand what searches to target with SEO and PPC. But that's just the tip of the iceberg and it's almost criminal for a marketer to stop there.

More insightful than products and search volume lists are these questions and statements about products, services and brands. When Google finishes your query for you based on your opening characters, this is based on searches people have made before you. This "suggest," data is available for you to access.

KWfinder has a questions section and tools like Answerthepublic.com were created specifically to uncover questions people ask Google.

This is seriously useful. Launching a new smartphone? Well, Google can tell you people's genuine reasons for disliking the iPhone - the phone is deemed "boring," and "overpriced." So those are two areas you can position against.

Sell tumble dryers? Well, here are some of the questions that people have about them based on Google data:

  • Are tumble dryers safe to use?
  • Are tumble dryers bad for the environment?
  • Are tumble dryers expensive to run?

These are questions you can answer and objections you can overcome on your page copy and core product messaging.

That's incredibly valuable insight and takes no more than minutes to uncover.

2.    Use Social Media Data

I confess to being a Facebook over-sharer. And I'm friends with loads of people who do the same thing!

As a result of people's desire to share elements of their lives with friends this way, Facebook holds an immense amount of data about 1 billion plus people registered with the service. From the places they go, to the websites they visit and the brands they connect with - each person's Facebook profile is also an in depth marketing tool.

While some data is off limits to marketers, the Facebook Audience Insights tool gives you plenty of information about your target audience. Useful examples include:

·      Interests by age range or demographic

·      The demographics and other interests of people who have certain interests or who like other big 'pages'

So, you could find out the sort of content that your target demographic is engaging with, the kinds of pages they like on Facebook and even information about the interests your biggest competitors' fans and followers have.

This can be used to build marketing personas for your brand and even to build audiences to market to on the social platform.

Similarly, though to a lesser extent, you can pull information from Twitter Audience Insights.

3.    Surveys

I may have opened this piece talking about the inefficiency of telephone surveys. Yet despite the massive amount of information in search and social tools, there's definitely a value to surveying your target customers. There's definitely still a value in that insight.

But it needn't be a large scale cold calling job like it was a couple of decades ago. We've got access now to millions of people online and digital survey providers make it quicker than ever to ask them questions.

You can survey your existing customer base using something like SurveyMonkey, of course. But you can go a step further and survey people who've never bought from you before by using third party panels or an offering like Google Surveys. With the latter, you can ask questions of your target demographic and potentially receive thousands of results in just days.

I've found that shorter surveys get better quality answers. So I tend to keep them at a handful of questions.

Make it a Habit

I'm not a market researcher by background. But I've managed to use the insight above to create better converting landing pages, drive more relevant traffic through search and tailor social content to the tastes of my target audience. It all delivers tangible and measurable results.

And it's just the tip of the iceberg. I'm constantly coming across new ways to use data or new tools that offer another layer of insight about my target customers.

If I could offer just one bit of advice about audience research online? Just put aside 15 minutes once or twice a week so work out a problem your customers have that you can solve, or a brand they're engaging with or an objection they have to you, a competitor or your products. It really takes as little time as that to begin building a picture of your target customer.