Marketing Research Methods: Part I- Secondary Research

Marketing research is a complex group of responsibilities under the marketing umbrella. Indeed, marketing research supports all four “Ps” (product, price, promotion, place) and all four “Cs” (customer, cost, communication, convenience) of marketing. I began my marketing career more than three decades ago in a marketing research position. It was a great foundation for my career, which led me into sales, product development, product management, and marketing management. Marketing and sales professionals have many applications for research skills, such as:
  • Salespeople conduct needs analyses to learn more about the specific pain points of prospective clients.
  • Product development managers research customer needs and desires, competitive products, target markets, pricing sensitivity, and channels of distribution.
  • Product managers rely on research to gain insights into how one or more elements of the marketing mix can be tweaked to better serve customers and create customer evangelists.
  • Marketing managers leverage traditional research and digital analytics to build brands that better serve customers.
Over the next few months I will bring you a series of articles diving deeper into several marketing research methods. Before launching into secondary research, which is the topic of this article, the following chart provides an overview of the information to be shared with you in this three-part marketing research methods series.

Secondary Research

We often take secondary research for granted. In our personal lives we routinely investigate options for lunch, vacation, even medical care. When we explore alternatives for necessary decisions we often conduct secondary research. Secondary research uncovers data that was previously collected, analyzed, and organized for use in making decisions. When you go to your favorite Internet browser and enter a search request, you are conducting secondary research as you explore available data on the subject. Of course, you could conduct primary research to analyze options for lunch, vacation, or medical care options. This might entail you going around the office and asking for suggestions. Canvassing your colleagues would most likely take a bit more time than letting Google do the work. The following table summarizes differences between primary and secondary research.

Differences – Primary and Secondary Research

Primary Research Secondary Research
 Original data collected  By you or a company you hire By someone else
Examples Surveys, focus groups, interviews, observation, experiments Searching public data sets, industry data, literature reviews
Qualitative or Quantitative? Can be either Can be either
Key Benefits Specific to your needs; you control design, sample, quality May be cheaper and quicker; not always
Key Disadvantages Usually costs more and takes longer Data may be old, not specific, not reliable (must analyze methodology, sample source and size, relevance to your objective)
(Adapted from Market Research Guy) If sufficient secondary data exists for your decision-making needs, you can gather and summarize it, rather than first designing a primary research study along with a sampling plan, collecting data, then editing, coding, analyzing and reporting the findings. Depending on the data, it may be less expensive to access secondary data since there is so much of it available on the Internet for free. Caution: you might get what you pay for! You must evaluate the source by determining factors such as the research methodology, sample source and size, and quality control. Primary research may result in a better investment of both money and time if it provides specific information customized to your needs. Researchers always seek to understand what is already known about a topic before initiating a new research study. Secondary research is a powerful tool, but only if it is undertaken with a clear research objective, an understanding of secondary research data source limitations, and a specific research scope. To illustrate, consider the following example. 

Secondary Research for Mobile Banking Product

Research Objective: What is known about the market for small business mobile banking in Southeast U.S.?
Limitations: May need to extrapolate from existing data sets of consumer or business mobile banking; age of data sets, bias in information
Research Scope: Identify 10 or more sources, summarize, and recommend further action.
Let’s look at three common sources of secondary research that could help us with the example secondary research project: public data sets, industry data, and literature reviews.

Public Data Sets

Common public data sets include the U.S. Census, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and U.S. Census County Business Patterns. There are hundreds of public data sets available, some free and some available for a fee. I always start with the free ones and then determine if I need to pay for more specific information. In our example, we can start with the U.S. Census and search for “small business banking.” Search results include a Small Business Lending Survey conducted in 2016, which covers banking issues of small businesses that are worth scanning for relevance. Other search results include economic and miscellaneous statistics about U.S. businesses. A general Internet search with Google using the search term “small business banking in US southeast” uncovers many well-known business banking brands in addition to a small business survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. When I scrolled down that search results page I found a small business survey conducted with firms in the Southeast. As I find possible sources, I must scan the short description to decide which ones appear most pertinent, then I open the interesting ones to determine relevance and uncover leads within the source to other data sets or valuable information. This continues in an iterative process until I have identified a few relevant sources to provide insight on the research objective.

Industry Data

Too often people overlook industry associations as a source of industry-specific information. What better source is there to obtain industry information than from an association that specializes in that industry? We certainly don’t want to restrict our research to only industry association data because there may be some self-promoting bias in it. Nonetheless, we need to review what the “insider” industry experts have to say,  and look for research studies the association may have sponsored with outside research firms. Syndicated data falls into this category including services such as Hoovers and Dun and Bradstreet. By searching for “banking industry associations” on Google, we find information on several industry associations focused on banking issues. Clicking on the first search result for the American Bankers Association, I explored “Tools and Resources” and found “Mobile Banking” under a “Millennials” tab. Also on that search results page we find a paid listing for NFIB—National Federation of Independent Businesses. NFIB has a tab for “Financial Products and Services” with information on credit lines, credit cards, payroll taxes, and many others. Just as I did with public data sets, I review possible sources, scanning them for relevance, methodology, quality, and new leads to potentially helpful information. I continue searching until I have identified a sufficient number of sources to provide insight on my research objective.

Literature Review

A literature review casts a bigger net to see what has already been written about your topic and perhaps who has already done research pertinent to what you are seeking to learn. I go back to Google, and type in “research on small business banking in southeast U.S.” In addition to several paid ads, I find a small business banking survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta survey found previously, and a summary of a small business banking conference. Literature reviews require a substantial investment of time to scan each possible source, determine if it is worthy of more in-depth review, and follow new references found within the material. When done in a structured and quality manner, literature reviews are well worth the effort. If the information you need has already been researched and reported to the world, you don’t want to pay for new research on the same topic. You may decide primary research is an appropriate next step, and in that case the literature review provides a foundation upon which your primary research can expand upon, confirm (or not) findings from a national survey, and add to the conversation in your industry. Secondary research is often conducted prior to a primary research study as part of the design phase. It provides the tools to answer the first question of any research project:  “What is already known on this subject?” Stay tuned for Part II of this series where we will explore primary research methods. What helpful hints have you found for doing secondary research? Please share below and follow us on social media.


GitHub, Inc. Awesome Public Data Sets. Retrieved from: Market Research Guy. Primary vs. Secondary Market Research: What’s the Difference. Retrieved from:

Leave a Reply