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Secondary research

Why read this? : We share an overview of secondary research. Learn how to use existing reports and data to find answers to your research questions. Learn when to use it, and where it adds the most value. Read this to learn about the benefits of secondary research. 

This guide also covers how to use common and free sources of secondary research. We also share a case study showing how secondary research can answer typical research questions. And finally, we show to integrate this type of research into your marketing planning and activation. 

Secondary research

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Take the Three-Brains secondary research quiz. 

Answer 5 quick questions in 2 minutes, and show us what you know.

What is secondary research?

Secondary research is a market research approach where you look for answers among existing sources of research.

You don’t talk directly to customers. Instead, you try to find insights from answers they’ve already given to some other research questions. That means you access someone else’s qualitative or quantitative research, usually online. You review their research to see if it can answer your questions. Common sources include statistics and reports from :-

  • government departments.
  • industry associations.
  • not-for-profit organisations
  • commercially produced research reports on specific categories and customer segments.

Where and when to use secondary research?

Secondary research is most helpful when you want to explore a business problem, but you’re starting with little to no knowledge. You don’t even know what questions to ask customers. Secondary research help you identify those questions, by learning from questions that’ve already been asked. And of course, answers already given. Secondary research helps you work out what you don’t know, and need to find out.  

From that, you can craft ideas, hypotheses and research questions you then explore and validate with qualitative and quantitative research. 

New markets and trend exploration

For example, say there’s a part of the market similar to yours, but you don’t currently play there.

It’s in a different geography. A different age group. Or a more specialised service. Whatever it is, it’s something you don’t currently know a lot about, but you sense there’s a business opportunity there.

In this type of situation, secondary research is a great way to start. You can start to explore the opportunity, before committing a lot of time and money to it. 

Before you talk to customers, secondary research can help you identify if customers have unmet needs. Or, if they’re unhappy with the currently available products and services. 

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

This applies to any “new” market you look at. Secondary research builds a picture of what that market looks like, who the competitors are, and what the state of play is.

Secondary research is also a great approach when you’ve read or heard about a new trend in the market. It’s a great way to explore trends. You can dive into the background of a topic, and build a base level of knowledge. And from this base level, you can then make more informed decisions about what to do next.

This approach is useful for broad, open-ended and speculative research questions. It helps you narrow your focus by understanding what research has already been done on the topic. Secondary research can save you time and money, by not having to repeat research to answer basic or already answered questions. 

The pros and cons of secondary research

By far, the biggest advantages of secondary research are speed and cost. However, these are only an advantage if the answer you need is already out there.

With Google, you can start secondary research pretty much as soon as you can go online. Type your questions in the search bar and see what comes up.

Google is particularly helpful for finding out factual answers to broad questions.

So, how many people in Australia are on Facebook for example? (15 million) If you’re wondering whether to put your business on Facebook.

laptop google search

Or, how many people live in Sydney? (5.1 million) If you’re planning to launch a new product of service there.

You can find out many, many things quickly and for free. In fact, there’s only two limits to this approach.

Firstly, how well you can craft the questions and analyse the results. That just takes practice though. 

But the second limit, well, that’s a much tougher one to overcome. Because, while you can find out many things, you can’t find out everything. And the more specific your questions, the less likely you’ll find the answers through secondary research. 

Secondary research hits its limit with existing knowledge that may not be specific enough to your customers to answer your research questions. Your research questions may need new research to find answers. 

And this is where secondary research reaches its limit.  Because, you can’t find out new knowledge through secondary research.

And taking that a step further, if it’s existing knowledge, that also means, you aren’t the only one with that knowledge. Other people, including your competitors can access that knowledge and use it.

That doesn’t mean you should use it. Hey, we all like fast and free.

The limits of secondary research

But, be aware when you do use secondary research that it has limits. Talking directly to customers is usually where you’ll find more unique insights and more specific opportunities. There’s also the risk of bias. If the source has an self-serving interests in results for example. Or if you’re just trying to confirm an existing belief. 

And per our guide to the market research process, the three types of research approach don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can combine secondary research with both qualitative and quantitative research to build a more rounded picture of your customers.

But let’s assume, you’re only doing secondary research for now, how would you actually start, beyond putting questions into Google?

Sources of secondary research

There are 2 key places to look for secondary data :-

  • internal sources, sitting within your business.
  • external sources, where you look outside your business.

Internal sources of data

Your internal knowledge of customers is a business asset, though it might not appear on your balance sheet. Business assets are something of value your business owns, creates or benefits from. And clearly, customer understanding is something you own, and benefit from. 

Customer understanding helps you make better marketing decisions. And better marketing decisions help you deliver better results. 

This customer understanding normally exists in 2 different ways :-

  • tacit knowledge – the knowledge in people’s heads which comes from their previous experiences. 
  • explicit knowledge – recorded in reports, presentations and other documents. 

Tacit knowledge

So, tacit knowledge is the knowledge that exists in people’s heads.

It’s the knowledge which says Customer A likes it when you bring her coffee, and Customer B prefers it when you bring her doughnuts. 

It’s when you know price discounting less than 20% never works in Retailer A, and that end of aisle promotions always drive big spikes in sales with Retailer B. 

This type of knowledge makes your business run more smoothly, and have more impact.

But it’s rarely written down. And even if it is written down, it may not be easy to find. It’s based on experience, memory and exposure to customers and events in the market.

The only way you can really access this type of knowledge is to ask the right people directly. And these right people could be employees, your marketing agency or other people in your wider network.

While this tacit knowledge can give you quick answers, it has some issues when you consider it as a business asset.

If something happens to that person, then that knowledge goes with them.

You can’t really organise or search on that knowledge.

And you really need to know who the “right” person is in the first place. That’s not always obvious. In fact, in general, tacit knowledge is quite an inefficient way to manage knowledge as a business asset. 

Explicit knowledge

It’s for that reason that many businesses try to generate explicit knowledge. (though they’d rarely call it that) This is when you document marketing data and knowledge so that it exists in a tangible, shareable format.

Write it in a book. Put it in a report. Or a case study. Create an an audio or video file. 

When you do this, you open up many more opportunities for people to access, use and share that knowledge. That type of knowledge, you can organise and search on.

You could for example take all your past market research reports, and store them in a research library.

Young woman sitting cross legged on a couch reading a book in front of some bookshelves

Anyone looking for an answer in the future can look through these past answers for ideas and inspiration.

But it’s not just market research that gives you explicit knowledge for your secondary research. 

You can use sales reports and notes from customer meetings to generate valuable insights. You can look at previous marketing plans or customer plans for insights.

The important point is you document and store this marketing data and knowledge for future use. That might take a little more effort initially. But it pays off huge dividends in the long-term.

That knowledge, you keep permanently within the business. It does not disappear if something happens to the originator.

Digital data

Another internal source you should check is your digital data. You can use data sources like website traffic and behaviours, social media coverage and CRM response rates to build a better understanding of customers.

For example, Google Analytics data can give you insights on how customers react to particular content pages on your website. Which ones do they visit the most, and which ones do they spend the most time reading?

You can use your website to test out new content pages, designs and ideas. Your website reporting will soon tell you if your customers what your customers are engaging with, and what they’re ignoring.

Social media channels are another valuable sources of digital data. You can ask questions, and look for answers in comments and responses to your posts. Or, look at competitor’s social media posts and see how customers respond. Check out influencers in the category and see what’s really topical with customers.

If you run customer engagement or feedback surveys as part of your customer experience plan, this data can help you with customer understanding. Even comments and feedback you capture anecdotally from customer interactions helps you build a stronger customer profile. 

External sources of data

But if you can’t find the answers you need inside your business, there are plenty of places to look outside your business. The easiest place to start is hopping on to Google. Because, your biggest external sources of secondary research will almost certainly be online. 

If you get lucky, you might find the answers you need right away. Less lucky, and you might have to hunt around more online sites. And, at some point, you will run out of luck and find the limit of what’s available online. 

In general, the bigger the value of the category, and the broader the topic, the more likely you’ll find secondary research on it. The smaller the value and more specific the topic, the less likely you’ll find good secondary research. 

There are many places to look online for secondary research. It really depends on your interests. While not a full list of all sources, we thought it’d be helpful to share some examples from 3 sources of secondary research use on a regular basis. 

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 what’s going on in those countries. 

These sources are useful for demographic and economic information and trends. If your product targets a certain age group for example, you can use government sources to quantify the size and growth trends of that group.

You can use this sort of information to work out how attractive a target market is

Australian Bureau of Statistics Home page - headline statistics - Population 25.7m, Consumer Price Index 1.1%, GDP 1.8%, Average weekly earrings $1,711.60, Unemployment rate 4.9%

Similarly, government data sources will also cover such areas as gender, family household situation, income levels and 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 topics impact your industry, they can often give you an understanding of 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 business operates in related industries. 

The advantage of government statistics is that they are produced under high quality standards.They should be free of any bias

The disadvantage though, is they tend to only show results at a high macro level. They’re often not specific enough to meet research questions at a more specific customer level. 

Marketing and e-Commerce reports

As market research falls within marketing, it’s 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. Some example helpful secondary research resources we use a lot are :-

(1) The annual report published by Mary Meeker of Bond Capital which reports on the global state of the internet and technology. This report lets you look at data regarding device and technology penetration by market.

We are Social Digital Australia 2020 screenshot

That’s pretty helpful to guide your digital marketing plan. Or, to help research your marketing technology needs.

(2) Digital and social media are also well covered in the annual We Are Social / Hootsuite report. In this, you’ll find all sorts of useful data about the state of the online world. 

(3) For e-Commerce, relevant business like Australia Post, often issue reports 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

Industry associations can be another great source for secondary research. These associations, which represent groups of members, will often carry out and publish market research on their industry. 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 and circulate these as free white papers. It’s worth checking out companies like Roy Morgan and AC Nielsen for example, to see if they’ve produced reports relevant to your industry. 

There are also companies who produce industry reports to sell on to people in the market, like Mintel and Euromonitor. It’s pretty easy to track these down on Google and at least get an abstract of the report. It’s also worth checking out if there’s been any academic studies into your research questions as these often include qualified and quantified data. 

How you can use secondary research

 How you use the secondary research really depends on your business problem. As we shared earlier, one of the most common ways is to use if for market attractiveness. You can quantify the size of potential customer groups, for example.

But, it’s also often used to investigate trends and to generate ideas and hypotheses. You then validate these with qualitative or quantitative research.

The best way to learn how to use secondary research is really to just start using it. See what works and see what doesn’t.

Build up your overall knowledge about customers and the wider market, with simple research questions Use the answers to then find new research questions. 

Let’s work though a simple example, where we’ll take a fictitious small business who’s suddenly become aware of a new opportunity. We’ll see how they could use secondary research to learn more about whether to go after that opportunity. 

Case study example – vegan ice cream

So, let’s imagine we own a small ice cream store. Yum. And let’s base our store out at Bondi Beach. Plenty of warm beachgoers needing to cool down.

Now let’s imagine we’re having our morning coffee, and reading the news on our phone. We read a report showing that interest in vegan diets is booming. And that many products, which wouldn’t normally have been vegan-friendly, are now finding ways to make vegan-friendly options.

That includes ice cream.

Is there an opportunity here for our ice-cream business? Would it be worth creating a new vegan-friendly ice cream for our store? And if it was, what would be the best way to do it? 

So, we don’t know a lot about the world of vegan food. And we especially don’t know a lot about vegan ice-cream. And remember we said, secondary research is great when you don’t know, what you don’t know. So, let’s see what secondary research and in particular, Google can tell us about this opportunity.

Google Autocomplete example insights

We all use Google on a regular basis obviously, but many people tend to overlook the Google Autocomplete function. This is when you start to type in a search term or question, and Google predicts what it thinks you might be looking for.

It makes these predictions based on the huge amount of data Google hold. Google know what people search for, and what they do with the results. The ten suggestions you see, are the most common search terms that generated the most interest in the past. That gives you an insight into what other people on your topic want to know. That’s a helpful insight.   

So, in this case, let’s see what Google Autocomplete thinks when we search for ‘vegan ice cream’.

This basically gives us quick and free market research into associations with vegan ice cream, based on what people search for.

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.

People don’t know where to buy vegan ice cream.

And as our ice-cream shop is too small to supply supermarkets, Google has given us three locations where we could target local cafes or smaller independent stockists.

Including Bondi, where our shop is. That’s a good start.

And it’s helpful we know all three of these areas are known for being popular with younger, hipper audiences. That also gives us an early indication of what our target audience might look like.

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 for paid search. So, we’ve already got some ideas and hypotheses, and we haven’t even really looked at any of the search results yet.

Google Trends example insights

So, another Google tool we’d recommend is Google Trends.

This gives you aggregated search trend data across all search terms, but importantly which you can track and adjust by timeframe and by location. 

So, in this example, we see an interesting spike in interest for vegan ice cream from around Nov/Dec 2018 to March 2019.


Well, this is the Australian summer period. And interest in ice cream always goes up when the weather’s hot.

But it’s a good start to know that even vegan ice cream is affected by seasonal trends. If we wanted to launch our vegan ice cream, summer would likely be the peak period for sales. 

If we go down the page, we can pull up “Related topics”. More interesting information and insights for us to review. 

Here, Magnum tops the “rising” list because they launched a vegan ice cream bar during this time period.

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 could explore with consumers.

So, our first draft of research questions that we’d take on to qualitative research could look like this.

  • Availability : How do customers 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?

Even more Google Trends example insights

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 a more popular search term than “ice cream’. And that ‘vegan ice cream’ barely registers when you compare it to these other two terms.

This suggests that if we want to scale our business, we would need to go into broader areas of vegan food than just ice cream.

Google Trend screenshot - Vegan, ice cream, vegan 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. This is just to give you an example of how you could start to do secondary research with Google Autocomplete and Trends. These tools are a good place to start. You can see we’ve got some insights and question areas just through using a few simple online tools.

To really validate whether there’s an opportunity though, we’d really want to carry out some qualitative and quantitative market research with actual vegan customers though.

You can check out another example of using secondary research in this article we wrote when news about Covid-19 first came out. 

Conclusion - Secondary research

In this guide, we’ve covered what secondary research is and where and when you’d use it. 

For your business, the clear benefits are speed and cost. You can find out many things quickly and for free online.

But on the flip side, you can’t find out everything you might need with secondary research. You can’t ask direct questions to customers. That limits some of its usefulness. 

It’s usually a good place to start when you know very little about a topic. When you want to do some informal research. And it’s a great way to provide ideas and inspiration for qualitative and quantitative research.

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

We covered a number of online external sources including government, marketing, e-Commerce and industry sources that you can use for your own secondary research.

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

Your next step should be to go back to the market research process and decide what your business problem is, and if secondary research is the best way to answer it.

Three-Brains and market research skills

We coach and consult to help businesses improve their market research skills. We can help you set up and optimise your secondary research, so that you ask the right questions and get the best answers to drive your marketing activity.  

Check out our other market research skill guides to learn more, or contact us directly, so we can help you raise your game in market research.

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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