There are two different types of market research when it comes to information origin: there is primary research, and secondary research. In this post we'll see what they are, their benefits, their drawbacks, as well as when to use primary market research vs. secondary market research and why.

Let’s start with the primary research definition.

What is primary research?

What is primary research?

Primary research (sometimes also referred to as field research) consists of generating new information directly from sources. When it comes to market research for marketing or product development purposes, these sources could include for example potential target customers, or other people relevant for the purchase decision. 

Primary research data is generated intentionally for the purpose at hand; the data wasn't available before you collected it, and that's primary research’s defining characteristic.

Examples of primary data collection methods could be interviews, surveys, focus groups, advisory boards, mock negotiations, etc., although if you're conducting primary market research by yourself,  probably the most realistic tools to use are interviews and surveys, given their simplicity to put together (and lower cost, of course).

Primary research methods
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What is secondary research?

Evidently, if you’re going to do market research, you can use information that already exists. When our research is based on information that already exists, we call it secondary research (usually also referred to as “desk research”). 

What we would do in the case of secondary market research, is look around (usually on the internet) for information that’s already available, and which we can use to gain a better understanding of our market. 

Usually we wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, so it really can be done from the comfort of our desk. All the information already exists out there; we’re just gathering and analyzing it. We’re not generating new data. 

What is secondary research? Secondary research (sometimes also referred to as desk research) consists of gathering and analyzing already existing information, that wasn't generated with the research's purposes in mind.

Note that secondary research data sources can usually be found both internally and externally (relative to your business).

Secondary research data origin
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Typical sources of secondary data include:

  • Websites, such as:
  • General information sites
  • Competitors’ sites, where you can see :
  • what products and services they offer,
  • the marketing messages they are using to communicate their value, 
  • if they have customer feedback you can find hints of what people value most regarding those products and services, etc.
  • Another great source of information is review sites or online stores that publish customer reviews (just think of the amount of feedback that you can get about a product by reading its amazon reviews…) 
  • In line with these, competitors’ social media pages can also be valuable, since people may be leaving feedback there.
  • As can be forums and social media platforms where potential customers may be discussing products or services that are similar to your own existing or envisioned ones, and are saying what they like and don’t like about them.
  • Industry reports
  • Company reports
  • Statistics and data published by public entities... 

There are a lot of great secondary data sources out there that we can use to get a better understanding of our market before we even think about generating our own data through primary research. 

And then, let's not forget internal secondary data sources, such as:

  • Your own analytics
  • Information that can be collected from interactions with clients such as frequently asked questions, suggestions, complaints, feedback on existing products, or even feedback regarding products that they think are missing from your range, etc. 

This is all valuable secondary data too; there are more secondary data collection methods besides looking for data online; don't forget to take advantage of what you already have available internally! 

Secondary research sources examples
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But what makes this internal data secondary and not primary, since we're generating it ourselves? Well, as mentioned before, the defining characteristic to distinguish between the two types of research, is whether the data already existed, or had to be generated to fulfil our research purposes.

And what are primary and secondary research advantages and disadvantages?

Primary research advantages and disadvantages

Primary research advantages and disadvantages
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Most of primary research methods' advantages and disadvantages are probably easy to spot, right?

Primary research advantages:

  • We are working with data that was specifically collected to fit our purpose. So, it answers our specific questions. We are the ones deciding what to ask, to whom, and how (within the constraints that available time and budget impose, of course).
  • The data is recent. While secondary data may not have been updated in a long time, primary data is up to date at the time at which we conduct our research.

But primary research disadvantages are unfortunately a bit of a pain:

  • It's expensive; even if you're doing it yourself and not paying participants for their time, you're still investing your own time into it, and it may not be that little.
  • Preparation can be complex. You need to put together questions, stimulus materials, identify potential participants, and then convince them to participate. Because unless your family and friends are target customers, interviewing them is useless. You need to find the right people to talk to. And, once you get your data, you need to analyze the answers you got (sometimes this is very easy. Sometimes it's anything but).
  • The data will be incomplete. When we do primary research we work with samples. We can't possibly interview/survey every potential person involved with our product's purchasing decision. We ty to make our samples representative, but we’re always exposed to some error, and we have to balance a cost vs. uncertainty decision, as costs can ramp up very quickly as we increase sample robustness. (For more on this, check out the post about qualitative vs. quantitative research; that’s another decision we have to make when it comes to primary research).

But let's now take a look at secondary research advantages and disadvantages.

Secondary research advantages and disadvantages

Secondary research advantages and disadvantages
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On the secondary market research advantages side:

  • It's a lot easier to conduct than primary research, and a lot cheaper.
  • It’s  good to create a general knowledge base and generate hypotheses that we can afterwards test in primary research.

However, secondary research disadvantages can’t be overlooked. 

  • Data is often outdated.
  • Data is often incomplete. Keep in mind that people are publishing what they want to publish to serve their own purposes, or someone else’s. They’re not publishing anything for the sake of your market research exercise.
  • And finally, the most serious disadvantage: sometimes the results are inconclusive, and even misleading.

After we see all the data we were able to gather about our market, other products and services in it, and what customers are saying about those products, we may believe that we have so much information that we have figured out what people would want our product or service to be like. After all, we now know so much! 

However, unless we confirm our understanding by getting proper feedback, what we have are hypotheses. That’s it. Hypotheses. They may be right, they may be wrong, but until we test them, they are nothing but hypotheses that we should confirm before acting on them (especially if acting entails a big investment).

That said, when should we use each type of research?

When to use primary research, and when to use secondary research?

Personally, I see them as sequential steps in market research.

Secondary market research is a first step, that we use to build the bases of our knowledge about the market, identify knowledge gaps, and generate hypotheses to later test in primary research.

And then, primary research can be used to fill in the knowledge gaps we identified, confirm our understanding regarding what we have learned though secondary research, and confirm or disprove the hypotheses we generated based our preliminary understanding developed using the secondary data.

Primary research vs secondary research - when to use
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So, when I talk about market research broadly, I’m usually referring to primary research. That is, talking to potential customers or other purchasing process stakeholders to get their insights about the market and their opinion regarding an envisioned product. 

I consider secondary market research so fundamental, that I usually just consider it a part of the preparation for primary research. I just assume it is done in any case. Even if you don’t do primary research (which I wouldn’t really recommend). 

Without a good preparation in terms of desk research, the information we can get from surveys or direct conversations with people, even if helpful, probably won’t even be anywhere near as good as it can be if we prepare.

And that’s it for today! Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into primary research, and take a look at qualitative vs. quantitative market research. See you in the next one!  

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