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Secondary research

Why read this? : We explore the ins and outs of secondary research. Learn how existing information can help answer your research questions. We also share examples of useful secondary research sources and work through a case study using secondary research. Read this to sharpen up your secondary research skills. 

Secondary research

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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 have little to no starting knowledge about a business problem. You don’t even know what questions to ask. Secondary research gets you started by looking at the questions others have already asked about the market. The answers help you craft ideas, hypotheses and research questions that you then explore and validate with qualitative and quantitative research. 

New markets and trend exploration

For example, say you’re thinking about entering a new market or category. It might have a different location, target audience or service offer from what you currently do.

You don’t know much about this new area but you sense a business opportunity. Secondary research is a great way to explore whether it’s worth going after.

Before you talk to actual customers, secondary research can help you quickly and cheaply identify if it’s an opportunity worth investing your time and money in researching further. 

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. You can find out many things quickly and for free. However, this very much depends on the answers you need being already out there.

You’d usually start secondary research with Google. Type your questions in the search bar and see what comes up. Easy. This is particularly helpful for finding out factual answers to broad questions.

For example, it can tell you how many Australians are on Facebook (15 million) if you’re planning to advertise there. Or, how many people live in Sydney (5.1 million) if you’re planning to launch a new product or service there.

laptop google search

However, secondary research has its limits.

For example, it depends heavily on how well you can craft the questions and analyse the results. And while you can find out many things, you can’t find out everything. The more specific your questions, the less likely you’ll find the answers via secondary research.

Plus, if it’s existing knowledge, you’re not the only one with access to that knowledge. Your competitors can access it too. There’s also the risk of bias. If the source has a self-serving interest in the results, for example. Or if you’re just trying to confirm an existing belief.

You usually need to talk directly to customers to find more unique insights and specific opportunities. As per our market research process guide though, the three types of research approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can combine secondary research with qualitative and quantitative research to build a more rounded customer profile.

But let’s assume you’re only doing secondary research for now. We’ll start by looking at where you find it.

Sources of secondary research

There are 2 main sources of secondary data :-

  • internal sources.
  • external sources.

Internal data sources

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

Tacit knowledge 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 sales spikes with Retailer B. 

Tacit knowledge makes your business run more smoothly and improves its 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 access tacit knowledge is to ask the right people directly. Those could be employees, your marketing agency or other people in your network.

While this tacit knowledge can give you quick answers, it has some challenges. For example, if something happens to that person, you lose access to their knowledge. Plus, it’s hard to organise or search tacit knowledge. And you have to know who the “right” person is in the first place. That’s not always obvious. These all mean 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. This is when you document marketing data and knowledge so that it’s  tangible and shareable.

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

Doing these opens up more opportunities for people to access, use and share that knowledge. You can organise it and search it. For example, you could create a research library from all your past market research reports. Anyone looking for an answer in the future can look through these past answers for ideas and inspiration.

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

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. The key point is you document and store this marketing data and knowledge for future use. This takes more effort initially. But it pays off in the long term as you keep knowledge permanently within the business.

Digital data

Another key internal source is your digital data. You can use data sources like website traffic and behaviours, social media coverage and CRM response rates to build your customer understanding.

For example, Google Analytics data can give you insights into how they react to different pages on your website. Which ones do they visit the most? Which do they spend the most time reading? And which ones never get read?

You can use your website to test out new content, designs and ideas. Your website reporting soon tells you what your customers engage with and what they ignore.

Social media channels are another valuable data source. You can post questions and look for answers in the comments and responses. Or see how customers respond to competitor’s social media posts. Plus, check out influencers in the category to see what’s 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 help you build a stronger customer profile. 

External data sources

There are also plenty of places to look for answers outside your business. The easiest place to start is Google. as most external secondary research sources are 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. 

Let’s now look at some examples of the most regularly used sources of secondary research.

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. For example, if you target a certain age group, 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’re done to high-quality standards. They should be free of bias. The disadvantage though, is they tend to only show results at a high level. They’re often not detailed enough to answer 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. Examples of helpful secondary research resources in this area include :-

(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, Australia Post, often issues reports full of insights into the state of Australian e-Commerce. NAB Bank also produce regular reports on trends in the online sales business. 

Industry-specific reports

Industry associations are another great secondary research source. These associations, which represent groups of members, often publish relevant market research. For example, check out this report from Wine Australia.

Many of the bigger market research companies also produce regular trend reports and circulate them as free white papers. For example, check out companies like Roy Morgan and AC Nielsen to see if they’ve produced reports relevant to your industry. 

Other companies like Mintel and Euromonitor produce industry reports to sell to people in the market. You can usually track these down on Google and get an abstract of the report. It’s also worth checking 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 secondary research depends on your business problem. As we shared earlier, one of the most common ways is to use it for market attractiveness. You can quantify the size of potential customer groups, for example.

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

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

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

Let’s now work through a simple example, where we’ll take a (made-up) business that’s suddenly become aware of a new opportunity. We’ll see how they could use secondary research to learn more about whether it’s worth going after. 

Case study example – vegan ice cream

Let’s imagine we own a small ice cream store. Yum. We’re based at Bondi Beach. Plenty of warm beachgoers needing to cool down. We’re having our morning coffee, and we read a news report on our phone showing that interest in vegan diets is booming. And that many products, which wouldn’t previously have been vegan-friendly, are finding ways to make vegan-friendly options. Including ice cream.

Is there an opportunity here for us? 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? 

We don’t know much about the vegan food category. And we know nothing about vegan ice cream. Remember, 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 regularly, but many people often 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.

These predictions are based on Google’s huge amount of data. They know what people search for and what they do with the results. The suggestions you see are the most common search terms that generated the most interest in the past. This shows 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 gives us quick and free insights into associations with vegan ice cream based on people’s searches.

In this example, we can see that five of the suggestions relate to locations (Near me, Sydney, Newtown, Bondi, Byron Bay). This suggests that anyone interested in “vegan ice cream” finds it hard to know where to buy it.

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.

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.

It’s also helpful that we know all of these areas are known for being popular with younger, hipper audiences. That also gives us an early clue as to our potential target audience.

The final two search predictions are ‘recipe’ and ‘cake’. These give 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 looked at 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. 

In this example, we see an notable spike in interest in vegan ice cream from Nov/Dec 2018 to March 2019.


Well, this is the Australian summer. 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 period. So our free research has now identified a potential competitor.

We also see “Blueberry” as a rising trend, which gives us an idea of a potential popular flavour for our ice cream.

With these insights, when we want to do further research, we now have specific research areas we could explore. For example, our draft qualitative research questions 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 a sense of the opportunity scale is 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 compared to these other terms.

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

Google Trend screenshot - Vegan, ice cream, vegan ice cream

Of course, there’s more we could do to investigate the opportunity. This just gives you an example of how you can start doing secondary research with Google Autocomplete and Trends. You can see we’ve got insights and question areas just by using a few simple online tools.

To fully validate whether there’s an opportunity though, we’d need to do some qualitative and quantitative research with actual vegan customers. (See another example of using secondary research in this article we wrote around the start of Covid-19). 

Conclusion - Secondary research

This guide 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 its usefulness. 

It’s usually a good place to start when you know 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 several 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 if secondary research is the best way to answer your business problem.

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 get in touch if you need specific market research help.

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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