Data Collection: Low-Cost Secondary Research Tutorial

In the Marketing Research Tutorial, we discussed how marketers follow two main paths for gathering information. The first path, called primary research, involves data collection projects developed by the market researcher, such as using surveys, focus groups, experiments, and observation. While primary research is widely used to address many marketing questions, it is not the leading type of research used by marketers. That distinction belongs to the other research path – secondary research.

With secondary research the marketer taps into previously collected information in order to address their research requirements. Marketers are attracted to secondary research due to the time savings and potential cost savings in acquiring information. Yet while secondary information holds numerous benefits and may help address many marketing questions, finding the right information often proves difficult. This is especially the case when marketing professionals, academics and students seek product or market metrics such as finding market share figures, product sales growth rates, industry sales margins, etc.

In the next two parts of our highly detailed Principles of Marketing Tutorials we present several alternatives for locating good secondary research information. While secondary research can include finding information that the company itself had previously collected (i.e., internal secondary research), our focus here is on information collected by outside sources (i.e., external secondary research).

We classify the hunt for secondary data into two categories:

  • Low-Cost Secondary Research (discussed in this tutorial)
  • High-Cost Secondary Research (discussed in the the next tutorial)

Before discussing sources for locating secondary research, we look more closely at the basics of secondary research including the advantages and disadvantages this data offers to the marketer.

By far the most widely used method for collecting data is through secondary data collection, commonly called secondary research. This process involves collecting data from either the originator or a distributor of primary research (see Primary Research discussion below). In other words, accessing information already gathered.

In most cases this means finding information from third-party sources such as marketing research reports, company websites, magazine articles, and other sources. But in actuality any information previously gathered, whether from sources external to the marketer or from internal sources, such as accessing material from previous market research carried out by the marketer’s organization, old sales reports, accounting records and many others, falls under the heading of secondary research.

While secondary research is often valuable, it also has drawbacks that include:

Quality of Researcher

As we will discuss, research conducted using primary methods are largely controlled by the marketer. However, this is not the case when it comes to data collected by others. Consequently, the quality of secondary research should be scrutinized closely since the origins of the information may be questionable. Organizations relying on secondary data as an important component in their decision-making (e.g., market research studies) must take extra steps to evaluate the validity and reliability of the information by critically evaluating how the information was gathered, analyzed and presented.

Not Specific to Researcher’s Needs

Secondary data is often not presented in a form that exactly meets the marketer’s needs. For example, a marketer obtains an expensive research report that looks at how different age groups feel about certain products within the marketer’s industry. Unfortunately, the marketer may be disappointed to discover that the way the research divides age groups (e.g., under 13, 14-18, 19-25, etc.) does not match how the marketer’s company designates its age groups (e.g., under 16, 17-21, 22-30, etc). Because of this difference the results may not be useful.

Inefficient Spending for Information

Since the research received may not be specific to the marketer’s needs, an argument can be made that research spending is inefficient. That is, the marketer may not receive a satisfactory amount of information for what is spent.

Incomplete Information

Many times a researcher finds that research that appears promising is in fact a “teaser” released by the research supplier. This often occurs when a small portion of a study is disclosed, often for free, but the full report, which is often expensive, is needed to gain the full value of the study.

Not Timely

Caution must be exercised in relying on secondary data that may have been collected well in the past. Out-of-date information may offer little value especially for companies competing in fast changing markets.

Not Proprietary Information

In most cases secondary research is not undertaken specifically for one company. Instead it is made available to many either for free or for a fee. Consequently, there is rarely an “information advantage” gained by those who obtain the research.

Secondary research offers several advantages for research gathering including:

Ease of Access

In years past accessing good secondary data required marketers to visit libraries or wait until a report was shipped by mail. When online access initially became an option marketers needed training to learn different rules and procedures for each data source. However, the Internet has changed how secondary research is accessed by offering convenience (e.g., online access from many locations) and generally standardized usage methods for all data sources.

Low Cost to Acquire

Researchers are often attracted to secondary data because getting this information is much less expensive than if the researchers had to carry out the research themselves.

May Help Clarify Research Question

Secondary research is often used prior to larger scale primary research to help clarify what is to be learned (Step 2). For instance, a researcher doing competitor analysis, but who is not familiar with competitors in a market, could access secondary sources to locate a list of potential competitors.

May Answer Research Question

As noted, secondary data collection is often used to help set the stage for primary research. In the course of doing so researchers may find that the exact information they were looking for is available via secondary sources thus eliminating the need and expense to carrying out their own primary research.

May Show Difficulties in Conducting Primary Research

The originators of secondary research often provide details on how the information was collected. This may include discussion of difficulties encountered. For instance, the secondary research may be a research report written by a large market research company. These types of reports often include a section discussing the procedures used to collect the data and within this may disclose problems in obtaining the data, such as a high percentage of people declining to take part in the research. After reading this the marketer may decide the potential information that may be obtained is not worth the potential difficulties in conducting the research.

Many marketers mistakenly believe marketing research, while important in helping make marketing decisions, is something that is far too expensive to do on their own. While this is true for some marketing decisions, marketers should also know that not all marketing research must be expensive to be useful.

For the rest of this tutorial we discuss secondary research sources that are easily obtainable and relatively low cost (often free). Many of these inexpensive sources hold great potential to aid marketers in several ways. First, for marketers seeking information to help with marketing decisions, the material found through these sources can be extensive and, on many occasions, will meet the marketer’s needs. Second, even in situations where the available information is not sufficient quantity or quality to be used for marketing decision-making, the information could still be used to fill smaller needs, such as the need to enter a metric in a slide presentation. Third, the information located through these sources may suggest to the research seeker that conducting their own primary research is necessary in which case the secondary research could serve as a guide for how this can be done.

Despite these advantages, inexpensive research carries many disadvantages making it unsuitable for some situations. As we noted in the Planning for Market Research Tutorial , these problems include:

  • The information lacks sufficient detail to address the marketer’s needs.
  • The method in which the research is presented does not provide sufficient supporting material to allow the research seeker to judge the quality of the research.
  • The amount of information presented represents only a “teaser” that requires the purchase of a full report to obtain full details.

Our coverage of low-cost market research looks at the following sources:

  • Trade Associations
  • Government Sources
  • Company-Provided Information
  • News and Media Sources
  • Other Sources