What is Primary vs. Secondary Research

A guide to understanding the different types of audience market research for your business.

Please note that this article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be deemed to be or used as legal, employment, or health & safety advice. For guidance or advice specific to your business, consult with a qualified professional.

Understanding who your target market and audience are can be one of the most challenging aspects of running a business. When building out your business’s marketing strategy, conducting market research can be one of the most helpful ways to understand your audience and set your marketing efforts up for success.

Market research will help you gather actionable insights and concrete data that will ensure you are making informed decisions to maximise your marketing strategy. There are two types of market research: primary and secondary. Here’s everything you need to know before you start conducting primary and secondary market research.

Before doing anything, plan and budget

With a name like primary research, it sounds like this should be your first step when gathering information about your target market, but it should actually come after you’ve done your secondary research. Primary research requires more resources and will likely require budget allocation. By conducting secondary research first, you’ll have a clearer understanding of the areas you need to spend resources on to gather insights that you couldn’t obtain from secondary research.

Before you get started, ask yourself these questions:

1. What are the business goals you are trying to achieve?

2. What decisions will the market research help you make?

3. What audience are you trying to reach? Do you already have a general idea of who your audience is?

4. What level of insight do you need? Do you need very specific information and actions, or are you looking for a broad understanding of your market?

5. How quickly do you need the information?

6. What do you already know that will be helpful as you start researching?

7. What is your budget?

Estimating the cost of market research is like budgeting for a holiday or a wedding — costs can vary greatly. Your budget will depend on the number of participants needed for your research, the type of research you’ll need for your goals, and data collection needs, so plan accordingly.

Don’t be discouraged by the idea of having to cost your market research. With the right planning, you’ll be able to find a market research package that fits your budget and delivers results that will benefit your business.

For the best results, it’s recommended that you work with a market research firm to help direct your efforts, manage your budget, and analyse results. If you decide to work with a market research service or not, you should understand what your options are and how to prepare for them.

Primary research

When you’re ready to start conducting primary research you have options. There are three main methods you can choose from, or you can select a combination of the three, depending on your budget:

  • Direct mail
  • Phone interviews
  • Personal interviews

All three have pros and cons, but make sure to select one that will benefit your business the most.

Direct mail

Direct mail research happens by mailing out surveys or questionnaires to a select group of individuals. This requires you to secure a mailing list, produce the physical mailshot or questionnaire, and then wait for responses from participants.

Direct mail can be a good channel for advertising your business once you’ve defined your audience, but for most businesses conducting market research, it’s a difficult channel with typically the lowest response rates. However, if you feel that your target market will respond the best to direct mail, and you plan to mainly communicate with your audience that way for your marketing efforts, you should give it a try.

When conducting market research through direct mail surveys and questionnaires, stick to the following guidance to maximise responses:

Keep it short: Questions should be short and direct to avoid any confusion and to provide the most helpful responses. The questionnaire itself should also be short — stick to two pages at the most.

Personally addressed: When mailing out a survey, address it to an individual instead of the whole household or “to whom it may concern”. By personalising, you will increase the likelihood of a response.

Include postage: Include a pre-paid envelope. By removing the cost barriers you’re more likely to get responses.

Send a reminder: Mail out a second reminder about two weeks after the first mail shot goes out. People are busy and can easily forget, so a little nudge can go a long way.

Phone surveys

Another option for conducting research is through phone interviews and surveys. By reaching out directly to customers over the phone and asking a small number of questions, you can quickly gather insights for understanding your customers. Of course, this can be challenging today with so many people having an aversion to answering their phones, especially to unknown numbers.

Younger generations — especially Millennials — dislike answering their phones, so take that into account when deciding if phone surveys are the right method for your business and who your target market is.

Follow these guidelines to get you started with phone surveys:

  • Be direct and upfront with your intentions for calling.
  • Avoid pauses or awkward silences which can lead to a drop in interest from responders.
  • If needed, ask permission to get in touch again for follow-ups or additional information.
  • If you don’t get an answer, don’t leave a message, call back later.

Another benefit to phone surveys is that they allow you to reach a larger geographic audience than in-person methods.

Personal interviews

Personal interviews are the best method if you have a flexible budget and a long list of questions. There are two main types of personal interviews for conducting market research:

  • Focus groups and group interviews: Typically the most common method for larger companies, focus groups are a good option for brainstorming product offerings, understanding buying preferences, and getting a deeper understanding of consumers’ purchasing behaviour in certain markets.

  • One-on-one interviews: If you have a long list of questions or a checklist to go through, one-on-one interviews can be the best option to gather the most meaningful insights. You’ll need to conduct a significant amount for statistical relevance, but they offer an opportunity to really connect with a potential market and understand your customers on a deeper level.

Secondary research

Secondary research is much more accessible and cost-effective than primary research. It’s a better option if you have a limited budget or already have a good idea of who your target market is. It can be particularly useful when you are drawing up a business plan and want to demonstrate that there is a market for your business.

Before starting primary research, try doing your own secondary research to understand what areas you need to focus on to maximise the impact of your research budget.

Secondary research is also easier to come by. It has often already been compiled, analysed, and published by someone else. Secondary research can include, but is not limited to:

  • Reports and studies from government agencies (such as Office for National Statistics reports, relevant charities, trade associations ), education institutions, or other businesses in your industry

  • Those on the UK Government’s approved research organisations list

  • Published content from news sites, publications, trade journals, industry publications, competitor content, and more.

  • Census data: A new England and Wales census has been carried out in 2021 and will soon be published to provide up-to-date insight into all aspects of all people and households in those countries. The census is carried out every ten years and 2011 results are still available. The Northern Ireland census is also being updated in 2021. A new Scottish Census will take place in 2022.

Understanding your target market won’t happen overnight, but it is a meaningful investment for your business. By collecting actionable insights directly from consumers or research studies, you can focus your marketing efforts better, helping you be more intentional with your budget and time, increasing your return on investment, and ultimately reaching more customers.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the difference between primary and secondary research?

    The main difference is that primary research involves gathering data yourself, while secondary research refers to analysing information that somebody else has already put together. Sending out surveys and conducting interviews are both examples of primary research, while reading an academic study or text written by somebody else would fall under secondary research.

    Primary research can be a lot more time-consuming and expensive than secondary research, but it can also produce much more tailored information that could ultimately end up being more useful.

  • Is qualitative research primary or secondary?

    Qualitative research can be either primary or secondary. While quantitative research refers to analysing numeric data, qualitative research involves going through non-numerical data to understand public perceptions, attitudes and opinions.

    Primary qualitative research involves conducting your own surveys, focus groups or other types of interviews to gather the initial information. Carrying out secondary qualitative research involves analysing existing texts, audio or video footage initially produced by somebody else.

  • What are primary and secondary research methods?

    Some of the main primary research methods are interviews, questionnaires, surveys, focus groups and observations.

    For interviews, questionnaires and surveys, you can contact respondents directly with your questions over the phone, by email, by post or even by a face-to-face meeting. A focus group is a moderated group interview covering the topic you want to find out more about. The observation method involves watching people, places and occurrences and making notes on what happens without having direct interactions with participants.

    Secondary research is information that has already been compiled by somebody else. There are all sorts of places you can source this from, depending on the kind of data you want to analyse. For example, the gov.uk website often has publicly available statistics and data sheets. Libraries and universities can also be great sources of academic information, while news and other media sites reliably publish up-to-date information.

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