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10 Low-Cost Market Research Tactics For A Small Business Owners On A Budget

10 low-cost market research tips for Small Business Owners

Some told him it was a rash idea—but 15 successful retail locations later, Sal was sure he’d proved them wrong.

When it comes time to expand their business, some entrepreneurs spend years sussing out the right location. They look at property values, highway access, available lots, taxes, and projected demographic shifts.

Sal the Tire King looked at one thing: Walmart.

And if you asked him why, he’d say: “I figured Walmart had already found the best place to put a new business—they have a whole team for that. So whenever they open a location, I put a tire store across the street.”

Now that approach might be unconventional—but it is a quick way to make a market-conscious decision. And it proves that market research isn’t just something brand studios spend months conducting and packaging. It’s something all business owners can do—without hiring specialized contractors, or breaking the bank.

Wait, hold on: what is market research exactly? And why does it matter so much?

Really, market research is gathering information about your customers, or target customers. There are a few different ways people classify it:

  • Primary research is research about your business, your prospects, or your customers.
  • Secondary research is about the market in general. It’s research that someone has already done about your industry.
  • Quantitative research gives you numerical insights. Think about results from a broad survey, like “12% of coffee drinkers take cream and sugar.”
  • Qualitative research teaches you a lot more about the “why.” It usually comes out of interviews, or other interactions with your customers—and leads to non-numerical results, like quotes or observations.

We’ve compiled ten cost-effective, low-effort market research tactics that’ll help you better start, grow, or position your small business:

Jump to…

Customer / Prospect Interviews

Multi-Question Surveys

Quick Polls

Social Listening

Competitive Analysis

Event Attendance

Field Marketing

Learning from Data

Third Party Research

Regional Analysis

What sort of market research should I do?

1. Customer / Prospect Interviews:

Chat bubbles for 10 low-cost market research blog Customer Prospect Interviews

Primary Research, Qualitative

Cost: Low ($0-incentives)

Best time to run: before your business launches, before you expand or launch a new product feature, whenever you want feedback or direction

Time investment: High

When you’re trying to figure out what your customers, or potential customers, want—the obvious thing to do is “ask them.” Interviews are the best way to get substantive feedback on what people are looking for from your business. It can expose what they already love, what you can do to improve, and what matters most to your customers as they make their purchasing decisions.

Conducting interviews may not be an exact science, but there are definite measures you can take to make sure you’re getting decision-driving responses. Here are a few tips.

Ask the right questions. Steal a trick from a social scientist’s playbook and prepare a few prompts using the “TEDW” approach. TEDW is a framework for writing questions that prompt unbiased, open-ended responses. It stands for…

  1. Tell me about…
  2. Explain…
  3. Describe…
  4. Walk me through…

When you frame what you ask with TEDW, you can generally avoid awkward silences, and unhelpful “yes or no” responses. Consider how you would answer the following questions:

  • “Do you like to dine out?”
  • “What do you like about going out to eat?”
  • “Tell me about the last dining experience that went above and beyond your expectations.”

If you’re planning to open a new restaurant in the area, and conducting market research before writing your business plan: which response do you think would give you the most insight?

Talk to the right people. Sometimes, quality is more important than quantity. Hearing from 50 people who will never become a customer, isn’t anywhere near as useful as hearing from 5 people who will. If you’re selling children’s clothing—don’t waste your time with anyone who isn’t a parent (or at least a generous aunt or uncle). If you’re going into HVAC installation—you probably don’t need to speak with anyone who rents, rather than owns, their home.

Not sure where to start? Your own customer pool, your email list, your Yelp reviewers (good AND bad)—are all good jumping off points. Haven’t launched your business yet? Try online communities, your competitor’s reviewers, community organizations, or anywhere you think your ideal customer would hang out.

Treat your participants well: Conducting interviews isn’t just a way to learn—it’s a way to make a good impression on your target market. Make your interviewees feel valued—whether that’s with a monetary reward, a gift card, a contest entry, or a thank you card. And remember, these people are doing you a favor—so make things as easy as possible on them. Don’t drag someone onsite for a chat if you can easily get them on a phone call.

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2. Multi-Question Surveys

Checklist for 10 low-cost market research blog Multi-Question Surveys

Primary Research, Quantitative or Qualitative

Cost: Low ($0-incentives)

Best time to run: before your business launches, before you expand or launch a new product feature, whenever you want feedback or direction.

Time investment: Low-Mid

You’ve seen them in your bill after you’ve paid the check, or in your inbox after you’ve made a purchase. You’ve been asked to “stay on the line to answer a few questions.”

You’re already familiar with surveys.

And that’s because they’re one of the easiest, cheapest ways to gather a lot of insight.

While interviews are great for understanding the “why”—surveys get to bottom of your “what?” and “who?” questions. They’re helpful for those quick “how was the service?” pulse checks. They help you suss out those basic “what’s your age and gender?” details.

Here are a few things you might find worthwhile to know:

Who are you? What are you like? What do you like about us? What do you like about them?
How old are you?

What gender do you identify with?

What is your highest degree of education?

Where do you live?

What do you do for work?

What’s your household size and income?

How do you spend your free time?

What are your goals for the future?

What are the biggest challenges you’re currently facing?

How do you make your purchasing decisions?

Where do you go for information?

Would you recommend us to a friend? Why?

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate our product or service?

How long have you used our product or service?

What’s something you would change about our product or service?

How do we compare to Competitor A?

Where else do you go for our product or service?

What makes you choose us over another option?

What do you like best about Competitor A?

What bothers you most about Competitor A?

Some of the same best practices apply with surveys as with interviews. Make your questions easy-to-answer, non-leading, and don’t encourage additional bias. Offer an incentive to encourage more survey completions.

Head to the places online, or in real life, where your customers and prospects hang out. If you’re planning to solicit responses virtually: you can quickly build forms with tools like SurveyMonkey, Typeform, or Google Forms.

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3. Quick Polls

Bar Graph 10 low-cost market research blog Quick Polls

Primary Research, Quantitative or Qualitative

Cost: Low ($0-specific apps or tool prices)

Best time to run: before your business launches, before you expand or launch a new product feature, whenever you want feedback or direction.

Time investment: Low-Mid

If you want to know something specific, fast—the “one question survey” is your friend. It can be done with very little money, very little time-investment, and very little effort.

Here, you’ll want to ask a direct, “less-than-10-seconds-to-read-and-answer” question.

A few ways you can get it in from of your audience easily:

  1. On your website—via an exit popup, a quick onsite form, or a chat robot.
  2. Over email. With a subject line reading: “Quick question…” or “If you have 5 seconds…”
  3. In store/on-site: On receipts, in check out lines, on tables, or anywhere else your customers will take notice.
  4. Over social media: Using Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram’s “poll” features—either to your own audience, or in specific groups and communities.

If you’re not in a rush to wrap your market research—breaking long surveys into quick polls can be a great option. They take very little investment from your survey participants. You’re left with less data to sort and organize. And you can get the answers that are most important, first and foremost.

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4. Social Listening

Person with hand to ear listening 10 low-cost market research blog Social Listening

Primary Research, Qualitative

Cost: Free

Best time to run: Continually

Time investment: Low

This should be a part of every small business owners routine.

Having access to social media is like being able to eavesdrop on your customers (but ethically!).

Do they mention your brand on Twitter? Are people in your area looking for recommendations for services like yours? Do they have a complaint about your competitor to voice on review sites? It’s (permanently) out in the open—and it’s 100% yours to learn from.

Here’s how to get access:

  • Join local groups in your network on Facebook. Some communities have active “neighborhood groups”—many of which get as specific as a subdivision. People frequently solicit recommendations, give advice, discuss issues, share opinions, and (all too often) complain. This is a great place to be a fly on the wall, and get an understanding of what excites them, and concerns them.
  • Set alerts on Hootsuite (or any other social listening tool): Hootsuite allows you to set up feeds that track specific keywords, across specific locations and social networks. You can have a consistently populating column that tells you every time someone hashtags “restaurant’ or “foodie” within 25 miles of your business. And if you’re a local restaurateur—why wouldn’t you? They have a whole host of tutorials to help you get started.
  • Delve into Facebook’s Audience Insights: If you’re just trying to learn more about your customers, Facebook’s business suite offers some great tools. One is Audience Insights. If you already have an active Facebook presence—Audience Insights will break down the demographics and interests of the folks who like your page. If you don’t have a Facebook presence—you can feed Audience Insights the name of any other business, or interest (think books, activities, artists, hobbies) you know your target market cares about. It’ll give you suggested other activities, interests, and demographic breakdowns, that are important to that audience.

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5. DIY Competitive Analysis

Magnifying lens looking at graph 10 low-cost market research blog DIY Competitive Analysis

Primary Research, Qualitative

Cost: Free – Expensive Event Fees

Best time to run: Continuously

Time investment: Low

“Competitive analysis” is another term that makes you think: “This is work done by a big, expensive agency.”

Not so. Now, you can do a bit of smart searching—and learn a lot about what your target customer feels about your competitor’s product or service.

The first place to look is at their reviews. If you’re planning to open a coffee shop—you can easily head to Yelp, search for “coffee” in your area—and get a quick pulse on how people think about competing businesses. If you sell a product—this same process works on Amazon. For just about any conceivable business—there’ll be statuses on Facebook, mentions on Twitter, and posts on Instagram.

Reading reviews will give you some solid insight into how people talk about your competitors—but it’s also important to know how your competitors talk about, and promote, themselves.

Luckily, Facebook allows you full transparency into the ads your competitors are running. Just head to their page, click on “Info and Ads”—and it’ll display their most recent campaigns. If they don’t run digital ads, sign up for their email list. If they don’t have an email list—keep an ear out for radio campaigns, and an eye on your local newspaper.

And if they’re not doing any sort of marketing—well, you might have found an opportunity already.

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6. Event Attendance

Group of event attendees 10 low-cost market research blog Event Attendance

Primary Research, Qualitative

Cost: Free – Expensive Event Fees

Best time to run: Seasonally—based on important events and benchmarks on in your industry

Time investment: Medium

A great way to learn more about what your audience wants, is to go to where your audience is. If you’re in B2B, this might mean attending a conference, talk, or networking event. If you work with a specific type of profession, this might mean heading to a tradeshow.

Sell sporting goods? Find a local running club. Bookstore? Join a book club. Restaurant? Seek out your tribe of foodies.

One hack here is to, again, ask in local Facebook Groups. Or you could scan through Facebook Events, or the local events listed on Eventbrite. is also a great place to look. There, you’ll find groups, clubs, and gatherings, for every niche hobby or interest.

Event attendance as a research method is obviously more a social art than a science. Once you’re there, spend a lot of time listening. Take notes when appropriate. Write yourself a debrief of everything new you’ve learned at an event’s close. And be transparent with other event attendees about why you’re attending, and what you do.

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7. Field Marketing

pushcart 10 low-cost market research blog field Marketing

Primary Research, Qualitative

Cost: Low to Mid-cost — based on an agreement with a partner, and staff capacity.

Best time to run: When launching, launching something new, or exploring a new potential audience

Time investment: Medium

Field marketing offers you similar advantages to event attendance. But here, you, and your product, are the star of the show.

If you’re attending a meetup, outwardly promoting your business may come off as disingenuous. But if you’re doing a product-demo at a local home goods store, giving away samples at a local supermarket, lecturing on your expertise and services at an industry talk, or sponsoring an event at a local college—people expect to try, talk about, and interact with your product. And you can expect to learn a lot from those engagements.

A quick note: obviously, as a research method, field marketing can look like a more expensive bet. But, it’s important to remember that it’s an outward marketing tactic, as well as an information-generating strategy. You’ll learn what your customers want. You can put your product or service in front of a new audience. And hopefully—those customers, and that audience, will love what you have to offer.

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8. Learning from Data

line graph on screen 10 low-cost market research blog Learning from Data

Primary Research, Quantitative

Cost: Low to Mid-cost — based on your audience size, and tools at your disposal

Best time to run: Ongoing—but after you’ve established a following and done some initial research

Time investment: Low to Medium

Some data-driven research tactics do take a bit more expertise. But really, they all come down to the same mentality: “We should test this.”

If your business is already off the ground—you have some regular customers, you have a few social media followers, you have an email list—you should be testing “what works” as often as possible.

Some of these kinds of tests are best for businesses with a digital focus. Free tools like Google Optimize allow you can change the text on your website, show different messages to different audiences, and see which performs better. If you’re running paid advertising online, be it on Google or social media, you can always try testing different messaging or offers to your customer pool. If you have an email list, your email provider should let you test different subject lines.

All of this should be a way of gathering insight. You might learn your audience responds better to free shipping, than to a 20% off discount. You may learn they’re willing to come in store for a sale on product A, but not on product B.

Even if your business doesn’t have much of a digital presence—think about how you can test what you offer or how you offer it. Change a weekly special, and take vigorous notes on how people react. Extend or shorten your hours—and see what that does for foot traffic. They key is to change, to note, to learn, to change again, and to improve.

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9. Third Party Research

Magnifying lens looking at data points 10 low-cost market research blog Third Party Research

Secondary Research, Quantitative or Qualitative

Cost: Free to Low

Best time to run: Before writing your business plan, or when new findings are released

Time investment: Low

This is the part where we finally talk about “shortcuts.”

Yes, there is research that’s already been done for you. It won’t tell you much on your specific customer, or your specific offerings. But it will tell you a lot about the state of your industry, the state of your local markets, and where that industry and market are going.

The tactic here is pretty straightforward: find, read, take notes.

A few places to look first:

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10. Regional Analysis

Map with pins 10 low-cost market research blog Regional Analysis

Secondary Research, Quantitative or Qualitative

Cost: Free to Low

Best time to run: Before writing your business plan, before expanding your business, or when new findings are released

Time investment: Low

Sure, you can take the Tire King’s advice: let other businesses do the research for you, and then hop on the location-bandwagon.

But you might be looking for a little more insight into where your business should live, and who it can reach when it’s placed there.

A few places to look:

  • At a map. We know it sounds obvious. But taking a really good look at the access points, public transit routes, and traffic patterns around your business’ proposed location, really makes a difference. You can also get a map of trading areas across counties and states from your local chamber of commerce. They’ll show you the major areas of commerce in the region, and help you judge the accessibility of various sites.
  • Local community organizations. Your chamber of commerce, or business development agency, is generally full of free resources. They can usually offer you, business directories, demographic reports, and insight on site selection.
  • D&B’s Business Directories. D&B offers resources to help you assess market potential. Their directories give you some solid information about a partner or competitor’s size and success in your given location.

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Summing it up: what type of market research should I do?

Market research is critical for your small business’ development, and overall success. Hopefully, you’ll try many tactics, through many stages of your business’ lifecycle. But if you’re looking for more on “where to get started”—here are a few jumping off points.

What sort of market research should I do? Customer / Prospect Interviews, Multi-Question Surveys, Quick Polls, Social Listening, Competitive Analysis,  Event Attendance, Field Marketing, Learning from Data, Third-Party Research, Regional Analysis

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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