How Micro-businesses can use research to find out more about customers and competitors
Research is vital for small and micro-businesses, but you need to know how to do it. This article provides an introduction to the subject and shows you how do it quickly, easily and at low cost.
Research can help you see how your micro-business is viewed by people other than yourself and also analyse what competitors are doing. Research principles and techniques can be used for many other areas that can help your micro-business, including:
- Identifying what truly makes people buy from it
- Creating a clear picture of who your customers really are
- Developing a Unique Selling Proposition or USP
- Analysing what your competitors are doing.
This article focuses on researching customers and details of how to analyse competitors is given in How to Research Your Competitors.
Surveys are used to assess the views of a large number of individuals. Online surveys are a simple way of doing this as visitors to your web site can be presented with a pop-up box inviting them to take part, with the results providing a picture of what visitors think about something. You could also email your existing customers with a link inviting them to complete it, which is also a useful way of keeping in touch with them.
Alternatively, you could email, telephone or write to customers.
How to Make Surveys a success
The secret lies in the questions and each respondent needs to be asked exactly the same ones. Try to avoid leading or ambiguous questions. Any questions that say ‘and’, for example, can be broken down into two questions. Asking respondents to rank or score different statements can give you a comparison and indicate how strongly they feel about something.
Repeating the survey and questions after a period of time, e.g. monthly, quarterly or annually, can help you track how feelings and perceptions change over time. This is a great way to assess whether customers think you are getting better or worse and is a useful technique to help track the success of your micro-business marketing activities.
A major disadvantage of surveys is that they only give you a statement of how someone feels at a particular moment in time. They can tell you how people feel, but not why. Individual interviews and focus groups allow for more in-depth research and can help you answer the ‘why?’ questions, plus tell you things you didn’t even know you needed to ask about.
The number of people needed for in-depth research is much lower than surveys. In-depth interviews with only a handful of people or a couple of focus groups with 5-10 people in each will give you useful insights. The most effective way to conduct them is to have a framework which covers the areas you want to investigate, and then allow the participants to talk freely as they are likely to tell you things that you never even considered. If they say something interesting, you can investigate it further by asking them additional questions.
The starting point for who to approach for this type of exercise is your own customer database. Most customers, if they’re happy with you, will be willing to give you an hour or so of their time to help you out. You might want to give them some kind of incentive though, either by paying them for their time or making a donation to charity.
If you’re inexperienced in conducting focus groups, don’t have enough existing customers, or you are likely to introduce bias, consider using a market research agency. They can also investigate a much larger group for you or conduct the exercise if you don’t have the time. They may also get more out of the exercise than you would achieve yourself as they are trained in the necessary techniques, but this needs to be countered against the additional costs incurred.
In-depth research is also invaluable in identifying USPs or insights, which are covered in more detail in Unique Selling Points.
Market research agencies and other organisations such as Chambers of Commerce and government bodies produce regular reports on particular market sectors. Although expensive, they can give you invaluable insights into developments in your market and indications on how it may be changing, such as new products, new entrants and predictions of future developments. You can read more about using secondary research in Publicly-Available Research.