I am clearly dating myself here, but back in the Stone Age when I was in college and the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, research was done in a very different manner.  You couldn’t just ask Google or Siri or Alexa to find an answer to your question, you had to take a much more active role in the process.  First, head to your local library.  Next, plop yourself in front of a card catalog sorted by topic to see if there were any books on the topic, assuming you knew the Dewey Decimal System for classification.  And then flip through the giant green hard bound “Readers Guide to Periodical Literature” to see if someone had written something about your research topic in a trade or research journal and someone else had indexed it to show up there.

Oh, my Millennial and Gen Z friends, you have no idea how easy you have it these days!  Finding answers to research questions took forever! 

Even beyond that, for a business owner to keep up with trends in the industry, she would have to have a substantial budget devoted to subscribing to trade journals.  Typically, an office would get one journal and then circulate it around the office for all to see.  Then when your turn came around, you’d have to invest the time to read through the journal in the hopes that a nugget or two of information would seem relevant enough to impact your business strategy. 

We have access to so many answers these days

Yes, back in the day, it was finding the ANSWERS to the questions that was all the work.  In contrast, these days we have easy access to any answer we might want right at our fingertips! No need to drive to a library or page through thick, musty old books.  Trade journals are all online, so you don’t have to wait your turn in line to access the one company copy of the latest issue.  How did we ever survive without the Internet and search engines?

But while we may have solved one problem, we’ve created another – too much information.  An article I read recently put it well:  “ (online) search makes useless answers nearly free and useful questions even more precious than before, and knowing how to reliably produce useful questions even more precious still.”

It’s all about asking the right questions

As a market researcher, I love that statement.  Sure, you can find information on your own, but how do you know what to look for in the first place? And what will you do with this information once you find it?  This brings us back to the title of this post – it’s all about Secondary Research – what’s already out there that you can use to help you make decisions and grow your business?

Now we all know there are fancy expensive packaged market research reports for sale out there for thousands of dollars, but you should also know that you can get some of that key information without paying, if you know what you’re looking for (the right question) and how to ask the question properly online.

I hope you will join me on a multi-part journey over the coming weeks, where we will focus on the right types of questions to ask in order to guide the strategic development and growth of your business.  Let’s get started with questions about industry.

What Industry-related questions can help you grow your business?

#1:  What is the state of my industry?

  • Why is this important?

While it is certainly important to have a good understanding of your customers and their industries, it is equally important to keep in touch with what’s going on in your own industry so that you can continue to push yourself and your company to be innovative and forward-thinking.  Can you find out information about the size of your industry and expected growth in the next 2-4 years?  What percentage of the market is dominated by the largest players?  How much business is in the US vs Europe or Asia or South America?  What are some trends in the industry?  What’s the impact of technology?  What’s changing in the regulatory environment that could impact my business?

  • How does it drive strategy?

Big businesses have a staff devoted to long-range planning.  Not so easy for smaller businesses, where the CEO and most employees wear many hats.  But the more you can keep in touch with your industry resources, the more they will be integrated into your future planning.  Understanding what’s going on and how things are changing can help you pivot your business as needed.  You could even offer new services or technology options that the big players are working on, but that you can roll out faster or offer in a more personal way to your customers.  The more informed you are on your industry leaders, economic indicators for your industry, and emerging technology options, the more competitive your business can be.

#2:  How do I compare to others in my industry?

  • Why is this important?

Most businesses like to keep an eye on their competitors, to make sure that they are not falling behind.  But it’s also important to understand some industry standards, or benchmarks.  For example, what percentage of revenue is the average small business in your industry spending on marketing?  What’s the expected profit margin in your industry?  Where can your team gain access to additional training or vendor partnerships that can help you stay competitive?

  • How does it drive strategy?

If your secondary research is telling you that others in your industry are increasing their marketing budget, it’s good to know that so you can react.  Even better, follow the trends in your industry so that you can be the leader in accessing new technology or support services that improve your customer sales and relationships.  For example, if most of the businesses in your industry are offering online quotes for service and you are not, that could be hampering your sales.  Best to know what’s being introduced as it’s happening, rather than after the fact.

#3: What external factors are impacting my industry?

  • Why is this important?

While much of this question can potentially be addressed through the first two questions, it is also important to do a thorough external analysis.  What trends, laws, demographic shifts and other external factors will influence your business and your customers in the coming years?  And how can you address them now?  See my post on PESTLE Analysis for more.

  • How does it drive strategy?

Again, the more you know about what’s going on around you, the better you can be prepared.  Don’t just look at your direct customers, but at their customers as well.  Consider how dependent so many industries were on a supply chain that didn’t deliver in a pandemic.  How can you plan for things beyond your control so that you are ready when the worst happens, whether a pandemic, a hurricane, a recession or a huge shift in demographics?

#4:  How can I become an authority in my industry?

  • Why is this important?

When it comes to making a purchase decision, both consumers and businesses start out doing some online research to understand what their options are, and which companies have the best reputation.  Beyond that, B2B purchase decisions have changed from working personally with a sales force to researching online.  According to a recent study, “over 80% of B2B buyers visit a website before making a purchase decision”, and “88% of B2B marketers use content marketing as a lead generation tactic”.  So, the more your company and your name is out there on the Internet, the more you will show up when your customers start searching for information.  Finding ways to get cited in industry blog posts and articles or sharing your own webinars and white papers helps you and your business appear more attractive to potential customers.

  • How does it drive strategy?

While it might seem like you are “giving away the store” by offering free content, it typically has the reverse effect – making it seem quite clear that you know what you’re doing and that you understand your customer’s needs.  And being quoted in a variety of sources as an expert in your industry will also drive more business your way.  So think about ways to get yourself out there and make sure you focus your messaging on the topics you want to use to drive people to your products or services.

Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you of the value of keeping up to speed on what’s going on in your industry.  So get on out there and start doing some online searching.  The answers are there, if you know the right way to look for them, in other words, the right questions to ask. 

And if you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for, let me know and I’ll share some pointers on online research in a future post.  For now, happy secondary (re)searching!

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