Low-Cost Secondary Research Tutorial

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 marketing researcher, such as using surveys, focus groups, experiments, and observation (for more see the Primary Research Tutorial). 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 an organization 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 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.

What is Secondary Research?

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 Tutorial). In other words, accessing information already gathered.

In most cases this means finding information from third-party sources, such as industry 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.

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Advantages of Secondary Research

Secondary research offers several advantages for research gathering including:

Ease of Access

Before the internet era, 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., easy, nearly anywhere access) 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. 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.

Disadvantages 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 organization. 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.

Low-Cost Market Research Sources

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:

1. Trade Associations

Trade associations are generally membership-supported organizations whose mission is to offer assistance and represent the interests of those operating in a specific industry. One of the many tasks performed by trade associations is to provide research information and industry metrics through methods such as conducting member surveys. Accessing this information may be as simple as visiting a trade association’s website, although some associations limit access to the best research to members only, in which case joining the association (if they permit) may include paying dues.

Finding trade associations for a particular industry or product can be a challenging task. In many cases the title of the association provides guidance on the industry they represent but this is not always the case. Another problem is that certain industries are represented by multiple trade associations. Thus, finding the right association can be a trial-and-error exercise.

If finding a trade association proves difficult, the research seeker may look to websites that are in the business of operating trade shows. Trade shows, which are organized events that bring both industry buyers and sellers together, are often sponsored by one or more trade associations. The trade show sites often identify the sponsors of these events.

2. Government Sources

Many national, regional, and local governments offer a full range of helpful materials including information on consumer, domestic business, and international markets. For those operating in the United States, information available through the U.S. Government is staggering. The U.S. Government is a behemoth with agencies and offices found in more nooks and crannies than one could ever imagine and the uninitiated can spend hours on end trying to find relevant information. But once found and digested the reports are often very good.

Because individual government sites can be overwhelming to sift through, research seekers may find their time is better spent using one of several government portal sites that tend to organize and present material in a more search friendly manner. For instance, for searching for information in the U.S.Government the USA.gov site may be the best place to start.

3. Company-Provided Information

If the need is for information on a specific company, and if research seekers are willing to believe what a company provides in its own literature, then it may be worth the effort to spend time evaluating company-provided information. While many materials published by organizations are promotional pieces (i.e., trumpets their successes), there may be a few gold nuggets of information found among the hype. Options for finding information include:

Company Websites

The first step to uncovering company-provided information is to visit the company’s website. For company websites that are densely packed with information, it may be more practical to search the site using an internet search engine. Search engines generally offer more robust search features than search options found on a company’s site. However, be aware that not all information available on a company website is indexed in a search engine especially information only accessible through a user login. Also, Since not all company websites have the same name as the company name, locating a corporate website can be time consuming. Certainly if the company name is known, using a search engine will almost always locate the website address. However, if the company name is not known then consider finding it by searching a business directory.

Annual Reports

For publicly traded companies annual reports to shareholders may allude to quantitative information regarding the markets in which a company operates. For instance, these reports may mention the company’s market position within a particular product category. The reports may also suggest spending levels for marketing efforts as well as problems the company experienced while selling within a market. Most publicly traded companies place their annual reports on their website but there are also one-stop clearing houses that collect these reports.

Press Releases

A press release is a document intended to gain news media attention or to provide information to other company stakeholders, such as customers and investors (for more see Types of Public Relations Tools Tutorial). In general, press releases are part promotion and part useful information. For those seeking metrics for an overall market or industry the most useful releases are those provided by market research firms (see Market Research Companies in Data Collection: High-Cost Secondary Research Tutorial), who are using the release to sell their research reports (which are often quite expensive). To entice purchasers, the release may reveal some of the market statistics that can be found if the entire report is purchased. Most companies that issue press releases post them on their website often within a Media section where publicly issued documents are located. Alternatively, research seekers can locate releases through third-party wire services. Searching these sites may yield good data, however, most wire services only retain releases in their database for a month or two while a company site may retain the release for many years.

White Papers

White papers are detailed, sometimes highly researched, documents intended to offer a much fuller picture of the capabilities of a product or company. Unlike an advertisement or press release, white papers are normally not promotional (though certainly some are) but rather, through strong writing and hopefully good research, these documents attempt to establish a level of credibility for a company and its products or services. Since many white papers are grounded in research these often contain good information, especially in terms of results of customer surveys, sales trends, and industry forecasts.

Unfortunately, many companies place all but the title and a brief abstract of their white papers behind a login (often free but requiring registration) and use these registrations to capture sales leads. Besides the obvious downside of having to give out personal information in order to access white papers located behind a login, search engines often cannot find much detail beyond the title and abstract. Consequently, doing an internet search containing metrics-related keywords (e.g., market share, return on investment, industry sales growth) may yield few results when in fact several white papers with this information do exist.

The best solution is to use search queries describing general industry or product terms (e.g., white paper on worldwide construction equipment) rather than using keywords referring to market statistics or specific market sectors or products (e.g., white paper on market share for tower cranes). The chances are much greater that a general keyword search for white papers will be successful since this information is more likely to appear in a white paper’s title and abstract which are accessible to search engines.


In addition to white papers, more companies are including presentations on their website. Most of these are in the form of slide presentations (e.g., PowerPoint), which may also include audio voice-over or YouTube videos.

4. News and Media Outlets

Possibly the most widely used method for acquiring secondary research is through articles and other reports found through commercial news sources. Options include magazines, newspapers, online news sites, television news sites, and other video sites. Nearly all of these sources are available online.

Magazines, Newspapers and Online News Sites

Journalists who write about industries and markets often have access to expensive market research reports parts of which may be mentioned in an article. Aside from major business publications, research seekers may find the most value in examining trade magazines which focus on specific industries. These magazines are rarely available on news stands, so unless a research seeker is in the industry or knows someone who is, it is unlikely she/he would have been exposed to many of these publications. Certainly an online search with industry name and the words “trade publication” could yield more results.

Television News Sites

Many of the leading television news networks have built elaborate websites and populated these with original materials produced by their own reporters. Just as journalists for magazines and newspapers include research information in their print pieces, reporters for television news do the same. In many cases television news sites not only present news reports in video format and also in text transcript.

Video Sites

Online video sites, such as YouTube, may also contain information to aid those gathering research. For instance, these site contain news reports, university lectures, presentations on corporate websites, and much more.

Social Media

Finally, social media postings may offer links to the location of research conducted by an organization or industry group.

5. Other Low-Cost Research Sources

While the options listed above are the most widely used methods for obtaining low-cost market research, there are a few additional options to consider.

Academic Research

College professors often cite industry research as part of their own scholarly efforts when they conduct their own research studies. Many of these academic works can be found in academic journals and within research centers established by many universities. The websites of these centers frequently post articles and working papers containing market data, most of which are freely accessible. A search using the keywords “research center” along with industry or product keywords may yield a list.

Cause-Related Groups

Many not-for-profit groups have an organizational mission directed at supporting causes they feel are not well-supported in society. Examples include groups focusing on the environment, education, and health care. As would be expected a considerable portion of their focus looks at how businesses impact these issues. Research seekers will find the best funded of these groups carry out an active market research agenda with many of their studies freely available on their websites.

Expert Sites

Several websites allow information seekers to post questions to supposed experts in a field. On an effectiveness scale these sites probably do not rate very high for providing hard numbers and whether someone responding is truly an expert is open for debate. But those responding to a user’s question may still provide value in offering direction to someone seeking information.

Old Reports

In some cases, where a market is not prone to rapid change, older market reports could hold enough information to answer a research question. As we will see in our discussion of Data Collection: High-Cost Secondary Research, in many cases a new market report is an update of a previously released report. While new reports are often very expensive, the research company may sell previous reports for a heavy discount.


Data Collection: Low-Cost Secondary Research Tutorial   (2023).   From Principles of Marketing Tutorials. KnowThis.com.   Retrieved   March 26, 2023  from   https://www.knowthis.com/marketing-tutorials/low-cost-secondary-research/