Secondary research

Secondary research (or desk research) is research you can do on your own. It is where data that has already been collected can be used to answer the question in the research brief. It can be found by searching internal or external sources. Read our guide to find out how to carry out secondary research.

Secondary research

How this guide raises your game

  1. Understand benefits and challenges of secondary research.
  2. Understand potential sources of secondary research.
  3. Examples to see how secondary research can be applied to marketing.

Secondary research is research based on existing data. Your research brief and research question may have already been answered in a survey by external data sources. Or the answer can be found in internal data sources.

The benefit of secondary research …

… is that it reduces the cost and time needed to answer the research question.

When you carry out qualitative or quantitative research, the costs of the research company can soon add up. Respondent recruitment, venue hire and software set-up can be expensive.

Secondary research on the other hand can often be pulled from FREE sources. We will cover some of these sources in this guide. Even where you may need to purchase a published study, it is still likely the overall cost will be less than when you carry out qualitative or quantitative research.

Research on your own using tools from Google

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The challenge with secondary research …

… is you have no flexibility to ask further questions. You also will not know the context in which the answers or data were captured.

The quality and accuracy of the secondary data may also not be as strong as when you carry out research directly with your target audience.

Which research method to follow often comes down to your individual business context. What is the importance of the business decision which depends on this research? How much budget can the company afford to pay? And, how urgent is the need for the answer?

You should also note that secondary research and qualitative and quantitative research do not have to operate separately.

In fact, it is common to use a combination of all three processes. In these cases, secondary research is usually the first step since it can be used to generate hypotheses to test directly with consumers.

Sources of secondary data

Secondary data is sourced from external or internal sources. 

The best place to start looking for external secondary research is through Google.

Most secondary data you find will be online. Or if it is not online, it will be indexed somewhere online so you can find it. The process to find secondary research for your industry will take time and patience. This time is taken to find the right search terms and follow links to find high quality research sources. 

While not a full list of all sources, we have listed a number of secondary data sources that we use on a regular basis below.

We’ve also identified some examples of what type of data they provide and where they can be used. 

Government sources of secondary data

Most national governments will have a department or function related to statistical research and data capture and presentation.

The ABS in Australia, the ONS in the UK  and the Census Bureau in the US for example can be rich sources of information about their country.

They are particularly useful when it comes to demographic and economic trends.

If you have a product that targets a certain age group for example, you can use government sources to quantify the size of that age group. And identify any growth trends. This can be a helpful statistic to judge the attractiveness of a particular target audience. 

Australian Bureau of Statistics homepage

Similarly, government data sources will also cover such areas as gender, family household situation, income levels, geographic dispersion. They will also cover behavioural trends on specific purchase behaviours such as travel, food and health insurance.

Government sources will also frequently research attitudes into broader social and cultural topics. If these impact your industry, they can often give you a feel for the state of the nation towards a particular topic.

Reports into the national sentiment towards environmental issues, immigration or equality issues for example can be helpful if your industry is impacted by those sorts of areas.

Government statistics comply to high quality standards in terms of the research data and methodology. There is a high trust factor in the results.

However, they do tend to operate at a high macro level. This may not help if your research needs are more localised or specialised. 

Marketing and e-Commerce reports

As market research falls within marketing, it is no surprise to find a lot of research online about marketing and e-Commerce trends.

In particular, digital marketing and e-Commerce generate a lot of published data. 

Two really helpful resources are as follows :-

We are social digital report screenshot

(1) The annual report published by Mary Meeker of Bond Capital  which produces a global state of the internet and technology view.

The ability to look at data regarding device and technology penetration by market for example can be very helpful when you work on your digital marketing or marketing technology plan.

(2) Digital and social media are also well covered in the annual We Are Social / Hootsuite report with all sorts of useful data about the state of the online world by country. 

For e-Commerce, Australia Post have produced this report which is packed full of helpful insights into the state of the Australian e-Commerce market. NAB Bank also produce regular reports on trends in the online sales business. 

Industry specific reports

If your industry has a trade association or industry body that represents a group of members, these types of associations will often produce market research summary reports as part of what they do.  Check out this example from Wine Australia for example.  

A number of the bigger market research companies will also produce trend reports on a regular basis. It may be that your industry gets covered in reports from Roy Morgan or AC Nielsen for example.

There are also companies who produce secondary research reports to sell on to people in the market. A quick Google search should be able to identify which, if any businesses offer these service in your industry.

Internal sources of data

It may be that you already have the answer somewhere in your business. You just don’t realise it. Your Google Analytics data on your website for example can be a rich source of information about your consumers.Check out our guide to digital data to find out more about this type of data. 

If you have run customer feedback surveys as part of your Customer Experience plan, this can also potentially provide answers. Even feedback captured anecdotally from customer interactions can help.

You should also consider when you do carry out any research, how you will store the findings. You want to make sure your current research can be searched to answer future research questions you might have.

Many companies set up a research library of qualitative, quantitative and secondary research. This is indexed around key themes so that the data can be reviewed to answer future market research questions.  

How to apply secondary research into marketing plans

How you apply secondary research varies by industry.

The most common use is to quantify sizes of target audiences, which we’ve broadly covered above. But it is also often used to investigate trends and find sub-trends that link from a bigger macro trend.

And it it is often used to generate ideas and hypotheses which can be taken into qualitative or quantitative research.

The best way to understand trend analysis is to use a case study type approach.

Case study example – vegan ice cream

Let’s imagine we own an ice cream store in the middle of Sydney. Yum.

Now let’s imagine we also read a newspaper report that showed an increasing interest in vegan diets. And that it was now possible to make many products vegan that were traditionally considered non-vegan. That includes ice cream.

We would obviously consider there might be an opportunity to create a new vegan product for our store.  And a sales opportunity from consumers who would not previously have even looked at our products. 

Let’s start with Google to try and see if there is an actual opportunity. 

Google Autocomplete

It would seem obvious to put ‘vegan ice cream’ into the google search box. So do that. But before you click on the search button, you should look at what appears before you click.

Look at what Google does when you put your term into the box. Before you get a chance to click, Google will suggest other search terms that are similar. 

This is called ‘autocomplete’ and is based on Google’s huge store of data of previous searches. This data predicts what will be the best result of your search. Based on the popularity of all previous searches.

Why is this important if you are a marketer?

Well, Google Autocomplete essentially gives you FREE access to what what most people search for related to your term.

In this case, this generates similar outputs to if we asked consumers in qualitative research what they most associate with vegan ice cream.

Except this data does not cost anything. You have free ideas for further exploration.

Example insights

In this example, we can see that five of the suggestions relate to locations (Near me, Sydney, Newtown, Bondi, Byron Bay). This suggests that for anyone interested in “vegan ice cream” they find it difficult to know where to buy. Add to this that two of the other suggestions are retailers (Coles and Woolworths) and what we have is our first ‘need’ to explore. Getting our vegan ice cream available for them to find and buy.

And as our fictitious company is too small to supply supermarkets, Google has given us three locations where we could target local cafes or smaller independent stockists. All three of these areas are known for being popular with younger, hipper audiences who would have a higher chance of being vegan.

The final two search predictions are ‘recipe’ and ‘cake’ which gives us some content areas to explore. We could use these to create content on our website, or when we did paid search.

Google Trends

So, with some free qualitative insights from Google Autocomplete, we move over to Google Trends. This is another free tool. So, in this example, we see an interesting spike in interest for vegan ice cream from around Nov/Dec 2018 to March 2019.

Why? Well, this is the Australian summer period, and interest in ice cream always goes up when the weather is hot. But it’s a good insight to target our vegan ice cream activity to summer.

If we go down the page, we can pull up “Related topics”. This throws out some interesting things for us to explore further.

Here, Magnum tops the “rising” list because they launched a vegan ice cream bar in the period we are looking at. So our free research has now identified a potential competitor. We also see “Blueberry” as a rising trend, which gives us an idea on developing a flavour for the ice cream.

So all good, and when we want to do further research, we now have some specific research areas we want to explore with consumers, most likely through qualitative research

  • Availability : How do they find out where to buy vegan ice cream?
  • Seasonality : Can they tell us about buying ice cream in the hot summer weather?
  • Flavours : What types of recipes might be interesting using vegan ice cream?
  • Competitors : What were their thoughts on Magnum ice cream?
Google Trend screenshot - Vegan, ice cream, vegan ice cream

More Google Trends

What we can also do to get an initial sense of scale of the opportunity would be to compare “vegan ice cream” with broader search terms. In this case “vegan” and “ice cream”.

We can see that “vegan” is actually more often searched than “ice cream’. And that ‘vegan ice cream’ barely registers when compared to these other two terms. This suggests that if we wanted to scale our business, we need to go into broader areas of vegan food than just ice cream. Or expand our range of ice creams to be broader than just vegan.

Of course, there’s more we could do to investigate the opportunity further. But we just wanted to give you an idea of how the research process could start by using Google Autocomplete and Trends. These tools can be a good starting point for generating thoughts on your idea to take into qualitative and quantitative market research without investing a lot of time and money. 

Google offer other free tools for research purposes, notably the Keyword planner in Google Ads, which we discuss in our article on digital media. 

Secondary research for marketing summary

In this guide, we’ve covered the benefit of secondary research in that it is often cheaper and faster than other research methods. But we also covered the challenge that you have no flexibility or direct understanding of the context of the questions. 

We covered a number of online external sources including government, marketing, e-Commerce and industry sources. 

And we walked through a very simple example of how you might use Google Autocomplete and Google Trends to start your secondary research.

Secondary research should be an on-going part of your marketing skills and is most useful when your business needs are one of these three areas. 

  1. Quantifying the potential size or attractiveness of a market
  2. Identifying sub trends from macro trends
  3. Generating ideas to test with further research

Three-brains and market research

We coach and consult on market research and often include market research skill development and market research project delivery as part of our services. We help businesses commission, manage and apply market research.

If you’d like to talk about raising your game in market research as part of our coaching and consulting services, click on the button to fill out the contact form.

Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.

3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our secondary research skill guide.

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

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