5 simple, cheap ways to conduct your own market research

You know that genius idea you have? The one on which you spend all your free time, ignoring your friends and antagonizing your spouse/sig other? The one where you sell your soul and take out a second mortgage to finance? Yeah, that one. (BTW, I don’t recommend any of these. Been there, done that, and having a life is just as important to running a business as are startup capital and sweat equity).Market Research for Small Business

Well, it will be a lost cause if there isn’t a market for it. Or if you create something that’s off the mark.

This is why market research is so important. Research on your marketplace, prospective customers and competitors tells you whether you should take the risk in the first place and, if you do, gives you a blueprint for what to build, who wants it and what they will pay for it.

But I can’t afford research, you say? I hate to sound callous, but let me put it this way … would you rather lose a couple hundred bucks and a couple dozen hours after a few weeks, or lose thousands of dollars and couple thousand of hours after a year or so? Market research helps you avoid these massive losses when it comes to real dollars as well as sunk opportunity costs.

And, what’s even better, you don’t have to hire an expensive market research firm or spend tens of thousands of dollars to get good information. (And, for god’s sake, don’t ever let anyone talk you into doing a focus group. I’ve been in marketing for 20 years, and, speaking from lots of professional experience, focus groups are a huge waste of time and money. People don’t shop in a contrived group setting, and they certainly don’t consider ideas, designs, products or services in such a setting, so why the hell would you ask them to. Makes no sense, and I’ve gotten precious little productive feedback from focus groups. There are very, very few reasonable scenarios for a focus group, so if someone tries to talk you into doing a focus group, they’re either clueless or trying to sell you something you don’t need. Okay, rant over.)

So here are five easy, inexpensive ways to conduct simple but effective market research on your own.

1. Sit in on a MeetUp group
There’s probably a MeetUp group in your town that contains members of your potential target audience (and if there isn’t, find a nearby town or city where there is one and schedule a short trip there to attend a meeting). Find one or more of those groups, join it (if possible) and contact the moderator to see if you can attend and ask the group some questions about your product/service. They might not give you the floor, but at least you can attend and then talk to people one-on-one after the main session.

Oh, and it’s smart to prepare 10 or so questions ahead of time and print out multiple questionnaire sheets that you can fill out while the person is talking.

2. Visit an association meeting
If you have a specialized product or service, there may be a professional association whose members could provide you with some constructive feedback and even point you in some helpful directions. Go to the search engines to track down any relevant local association chapters and talk to the president or director ahead of time to see if attending one of their events would be worth your while. You may have to pay a small fee to attend as a non-member, but it will be money very well spent.

3. Ask a question in a LinkedIn group or on a Q&A site
Online communities are built-in feedback networks, and LinkedIn has groups devoted to thousands of different industries and topics. Join a relevant group and ask its members very targeted questions about your idea. Make sure not to be to salesy or pushy. You’re not trying to sell the idea to people, and you certainly don’t want to come off as spammy; you’re trying to get some honest feedback. Also, there may be forums or communities in your industry, so check those out as well.

In addition, there are lots of Q&A sites on the Web – right now Quora.com is one of the best and busiest – where you can pose questions and get pretty instant feedback from other people.

4. Attend a professional conference or industry trade show
This might set you back more than a couple hundred bucks, but most professional conferences/trade shows are epicenters of industry expertise and offer a concentrated population of potential customers. Research those events where your potential competitors and target customers might congregate and look into the costs and logistics for being an attendee. If it’s somewhat reasonable (say under $2,000, which includes registration, hotel, transportation and meals), it may be worth it to attend.

If you decide to go, prepare for the show by getting up to speed with some of the attendees and presenting companies. Pre-schedule meetings with attendees whose opinions you want. Attend sessions with the objective to talk to as many people as possible (and collect their business cards to follow up, as many people are in a hurry at trade shows and don’t have lots of spare time to talk and answer questions).

5. Run a Google Adwords ad campaign in conjunction with an online survey
Your target audience is probably on the Web, so what better way to get their opinion than when they are searching for a product or service that’s similar to what you are envisioning. This does require a few steps…

First, you need to get a Survey Monkey or Kwik Surveys account (both have a free basic account) and create a survey that asks some basic questions about your proposed product/service. Keep the survey to less than 10 questions so people complete the full survey. And provide some enticement (like a free $5 gift card to Target or Home Depot, or something even more relevant for your industry) for those who complete the full survey.

Then, set up a simple Google AdWords campaign, target keywords that you think people use to search for your proposed product/service and link the ad to your survey.

Yes, it takes a little time to set up and get accustomed to the interfaces of those services, but as a small business owner you should know how to use AdWords and Survey Monkey (or similar survey building tool) anyways, and this will give you some great data. Oh, and next week I will write an article on 10 survey questions to ask your target audience.
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