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Market research: How to carry out desk research

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You are managing or creating a company, and you are asking yourself questions about the strategy to adopt to approach the market as effectively as possible. Market research is the ideal way to answer your questions. But where do you start?

Perhaps you are asking yourself one of the following questions: “Which offer should I put on the market to satisfy my customers? What is the best distribution channel through which to reach them? How to communicate with them?”. Concerning your (future) competitors, you may ask yourself: “Who are they? How do they work? What positioning should I adopt to find my place among them effectively?”.

Read also: Read our white paper on market research

You are therefore looking for information about your market, and the logical starting point seems to you to be desk research. This technique will allow you to get the first idea of your market “from your desk”, although it is mostly a metaphor.

But how to carry out this research? Where to start, and what to look for?

In this article, we guide you through this process in 4 steps:

  1. Define the objective of your research
  2. Define your research plan
  3. Conduct the research
  4. Conclude and verify the information

Step 1: define the objective of your research

To search well, you have to know what you are looking for. This may seem elementary, but it is essential to define precisely all the questions you are trying to answer.

For example, if a Belgian baker wants to offer bread made with an alternative flour, his main question will probably be “Which flour should I ideally turn to? However, several factors come into play to determine the ideal flour for this artisan, starting with the accessibility of the flour, its price, its ease of use and above all how much it pleases consumers through, for example, the taste and texture it gives to the bread.

Read also: SIAL Paris 2018: What are the trends in the food market?

To be effective, the baker will, therefore, have to break down his research into several specific questions, such as:

  • What alternative flours are available in Belgium?
  • Which of these flours are affordable?
  • Among the remaining choices, which flours are easy to use?
  • Among the remaining choices, which flours probably taste good?
  • What alternative flours are currently used by bakers in Belgium?
    and so, on and so forth.

The order in which the research is done is significant in a case like this, and must in all cases follow a certain logic. The main rule is to go from the most general to the most precise. In the case of our baker, for example, it would be quite foolish to look for affordable alternative flours before eliminating those that are not available in Belgium. To illustrate by another example, a project leader wishing to understand the context and constraints of his market better should start by “taking stock” before investigating specific elements of this context.

When defining your research questions, keep in mind that the information collected should ultimately be useful to you and that it is better to avoid searching too broadly even if it means further research later.

If you carry out the research in whole or in part via the web (which is almost impossible to avoid) and if it involves using a search engine, the questions identified must be translated into keywords. When drawing up your list of keywords, remember to take into account their main synonyms, which may, for some people, open many more doors for you than the words you had initially planned.

If your research aims to collect extremely detailed information such as a list of potential partners, define the data to be obtained on each of them. For example, address, sector of activity, specialisation, contact details of the contact person, and so on.

Finally, have a relatively accurate idea of the amount of information you are looking for. You will be more efficient and will have a better view of your progress throughout the process.

Step 2: Define your research plan

Specifying your objective was a first (big) step towards the success of your desk research. To complete the preparation phase, you now need to focus on the research method you will use, especially in terms of tools or supports.

As mentioned above (see step 1), the leading search channel of desk research is the web, but it is, of course, not the only one. Thus, it may sometimes be useful to refer to literature or theses, dissertations and research reports written by students (accessible in particular via Google Scholar) to obtain detailed information, for example in the case of a scientific project.

In your sources, also do not neglect official and sectoral bodies, which can provide you with free and up-to-date information at a regional, national and sometimes even international level. In Belgium, there are company federations for almost all sectors of activity, as well as movements, events and exhibitions that can bring together a large number of companies “under the same roof”.

A few tips to help you with your research

The ultimate primary source of information is market research firms such as IntoTheMinds, which carry out sector analyses and trend guides on their own or on request. These agencies have appropriate technical and human resources. These include web mining software that allows them to explore the web more deeply than through Google, and staff trained in these software and market research techniques.

Be ingenious and take advantage of all the means at your disposal to obtain the information you are looking for by the shortest possible route. In some cases, however, it will be necessary to go through tedious research based mainly on Google searches. In which case, you may well end up finding a “choice” source, that is to say, a website full of useful information.

If Google does not lead you down this path, or if you want to improve your efficiency, don’t be afraid to ask for help around you, from your network, or from public services or state agencies. Think of the Belgian business network as a large community, some of whose members can help you and others can refer you to them. Of course, there are also members who can do nothing for you.

Have a relatively clear idea of the order in which you will do things. If it is long-term research, why not establish a procedure, in other words, an orderly list of the research tasks you will be undertaking?

Step 3: Conduct the research

There you go, you know what you have to do: there’s only one thing left to do. Yes, but how do we collect data and information on a practical level?

Here are 6 tips:

    1. Use this flow chart: search for information, analyse it, select it
    2. Organise the data collected according to the same structure as in your research plan
    3. Always check their reliability
    4. Except in cases where it is not relevant, always note your sources
    5. Keep a history of what you have already searched for
    6. Evolve your search plan as you discover (for example, if you identify a synonym along the way, add it to your list of keywords)

As long as your research is consistent with your plan, and you find yourself in the information collected, you are on the right track.

Depending on the nature and duration of the search, it may sometimes be useful to set up “automated monitoring” on Google or other search engines to be notified of the availability of new information on the subject you are studying.

Step 4: Conclude and verify the information

Once you are convinced that you have obtained enough information to simplify your strategic choices, you still have some further checks to make:

  • Make sure you understand the information collected. It is only of interest if you fully understand it.
  • If, despite your efforts, some points are still unclear to you and are blocking you, call an expert to have them explained. Prepare your request so that it is as brief and concrete as possible, as experts do not necessarily have much time, especially for free advice, and will feel rewarded for being able to express themselves on specific points.

At the end of these 4 steps and whatever the subject of the research carried out, you will undoubtedly have made a major step forward in understanding your market and will be better able to make the right decisions for your company. In conclusion, if there was only one rule to keep in mind when conducting this kind of research, it would be to use common sense.

Photos: Shutterstock

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