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Informal market research approaches you can start today

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Why read this? : We share quick, easy and free ways to do informal market research. Learn how to put your observation and listening skills to good use. How to get more out of online research. And how to get insights from analysing competitors. Read this to learn informal market research approaches you can start today.

Most market research guides focus on the formal side of research. For example, they look at the market research process. Or using qualitative research to dig into customer decisions. Or being statistically robust when you do quantitative research. Even newer areas of market research like behavioural science and nudge psychology have a whiff of formality about them. 

And while formal market research is valuable, it isn’t the only way to be thinking about market research. Market research isn’t just doing projects. It’s a whole way of thinking about customers, and thinking about them all the time. 

So, there are also more informal ways you can be gathering insights and learning more about customers. And the great thing about these is they’re quick, easy and free to do.

They’re like a passive radar sending out a ping to see if something’s happening with customers. And if you get a ping back, you roll out the active radar of formal market research to find out what’s really going on.

Start by building your observation and listening skills

Your brand will already be interacting with current and potential customers. Those interactions give you an opportunity to observe what they do, and listen to what they say. You don’t always need to set up a focus group or run a survey to learn from customers. 

How this works varies by category

For example, B2B businesses can observe and listen in sales calls. At networking events. And in the informal conversations they have with customers. 

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Service led business usually go to customers to provide their service, or the customer comes to the business for it. While the service is being given, you can observe and listen to get to know customers better. Look at what they do. See where they struggle. See where they smile. Ask them if they’re enjoying the experience, and if there’s any way you could make it better.

And if you’re a manufacturer, then go to where people buy and use your products. For example, watch what people do in the supermarket. In retail stores. In coffee shops and restaurant. If you see friends and family using your products, watch. Ask them what they’d do to make the product better. 

Observe and listen for ideas for research questions

What you’re really looking for with this informal market research are ideas for research questions you can then go test. Things you see customers do and hear customers say that make you go, hmmmm? I wonder what that’s about? If I only I knew what was driving that, maybe we could do something about it?

These ideas lead to research questions you can then put into the formal market research process. But you’ll never come up with them unless you have this habit of doing informal market research.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

Of course, you want to make sure you don’t over-do it. You don’t want to be accused of being a creepy stalker in the supermarket aisle. Or a nosy eavesdropper in the coffee shop. 

But generally, if you’re friendly and open about what you’re doing, most people are happy to give feedback. They like being asked their opinion of products and services, particularly if they think you can do something to make their experience better. So, try to get into the habit of observing and listening more at what’s going on around you with your customers.

Go online

Your next big informal market research opportunity is to go online. In the same way you went where customers bought or used your product, go where they go online. Online is a treasure trove of insights and ideas if you know where to look. 

For example, are there forums or review sites like Trust Pilot or Product Review where people post about topics relevant to your category? What about how they respond to your social media posts? These may not always be deep thoughts. But you get a good view into what’s top of mind with customers. 

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Maybe it’s a part of your customer experience they really don’t like? An offensive advert. A clunky website. Or just something in your brand personality  or tone of voice that doesn’t sit well with them. If you’re not regularly spending time online in the same places your customers do, you’ll never pick up on these issues. 

And it’s not always issues. You might also find opportunities and innovation ideas among these online conversations. For example, category early adopters often have lots of ideas about how to make products and services better. They’re really into the category, and want to help make it better. They can be important influencers for new brands. Working out how to follow, connect and engage with them is a key informal market research skill. 

How do people talk about your brand online?

Look at how people talk about your brand online. Do they shout about it using lots of positive words? Or is it more complaints and whinging about your poor service? It’s important to track this tone as once it’s online, it’s in the public domain. Other customers will see these positive and negative comments, and be influenced by them. 

Listen out for specific questions or problems customers have. Online monitoring is helpful because it’s unfiltered by any market research bias. (though it may have other types of bias). 

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

In their own words, customers express what they really think about your brand, your competitors and the category overall. Again, it’s a great source of ideas you can then use as research questions in the more formal market research process

Look for trends

You can also use tools like Google Trends to do informal market research. This is a free service which lets you compare search topics and terms. You can look at what’s trending right now or look at historic data going back to 2004. It lets you compare up to 5 terms at a time and filter by date and geography.

You get an index of how different search terms compare over time. This helps you understand the words customers actually search on. (great for writing advertising and sales copy).

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

But it also helps you compare how many people are searching on each topic. You can prioritise based on what most customers are searching for.

You can’t get the absolute number of searches from Google Trends (though you can from Google Ads). But it’s still a great informal market research tool. Easy and free to use, and based on actual data. Check out our secondary research guide or the article we wrote when Covid-19 first hit for more on this.

Competitor activity analysis

The last of our informal market research approaches is the habit of tracking and analysing competitors. Be curious about what they get up to, and why. They’re going after the same customers as you. What they do reflects what they think about customers.

Watch out for new advertising campaigns. Try to work out what insight they’re using, and what that might mean for your brand. Check out their website. Their social media posts. Their e-Commerce presence. Dig into their brand identity and analyse how their values, personality and tone of voice compares to yours. 

A close up of an own with a quizzical look on its face

Of course, your observation and listening skills, and what you see online also help you build up this picture of your competitors. But you can also ask customers directly. Why did they pick a competitor brand over yours? What do they do that your brand could and should learn from? This sort of informal market research gives you many ideas you can research to sharpen up your competitive positioning

Go through your competitor’s customer experience

Look at where customers interact with your competitors. At events. In stores. Online. Wherever they engage customers.

If they have premises open to the public (a retail store, for example), go for a visit. If they have a customer service team, call them up. Ask questions.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. What do they do well? What inspiration can you take? Is there anything that doesn’t work so well for them?

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

Try interacting with or buying their products or services to get the same experience customers do. It’s pretty certain they’ll be doing the same to you. There’s a good chance at least some of your customers are competitors checking you out. Especially if you’ve just launched an innovation or some sort of new service like setting up an online store.

Go online. Google competitors and see what comes up. Do they have high search rankings, or are they hard to find? Check out their product pages. What they post on social media. Try to work out their key messages. Their target audience. What people are saying about them online.

Remember that the formal market research process starts by identifying a business problem. And if something your competitors are doing is working better than what you’re doing, then you’ve got a business problem. You’ll need market research to work out how to fix it. 

Conclusion - Informal market research approaches

Informal market research is part of having a customer-focussed marketing mindset.

You’re on the lookout for what they think. How they feel. What they need, and how you can help them. 

Normally the formal market research process gets you to the bottom of this. And it’s clearly very important. But having good customer focussed habits helps you come up with the ideas and insights that go into that process. 

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

So get into the habit of observing and listening to customers. Go online to the same places they go. Read what they say in forums, and on social posts and how they engage with your brand online. And track your competitors. Check out what they do, how they influence customers, and what that means for your brand.

Check out our market research guides and our customer feedback article for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help with how to do informal market research. 

Photo Credits

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Owl : Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

Supermarket : Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

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