Explain Market Research by mafleen on Flickr When you’re starting a new business one of the key things you need to do is market research. Who are your potential customers, and what are their wants and needs? What sort of demand is there for your products or services? Who are your main competitors, what are they offering, and how can you differentiate your business from theirs?

So many questions… when all you really want are answers. You obviously need to know all of these things and more to help you define a viable business plan and create an effective marketing strategy for your new business. But where do you start? Things like surveys and focus groups are often prohibitively expensive, and more often than not out of the financial reach of new businesses. You could make informed guesses, of course, but you’re really looking for something a bit more tangible.

Enter the Internet – that huge and ever growing ethereal melting pot of consumers and business. According to the latest figures there are some 1.3 billion people online, and they span the demographic gamut. There’s a pretty good chance that a healthy portion of your target market, and most of your competition is already online.

So what, you might think. Well, on today’s interactive web people are doing much more than simply looking for and absorbing information; they’re engaging in a two way discourse with their peers, a constantly evolving discussion about anything and everything that interests them – from how to grow runner beans to the relative merits of the Lisbon Treaty to what brand of hair-colouring they prefer. The web offers you a window into their world… a window of opportunity that could give your fledgling business that elusive competitive edge.

Web 2.0 maven Vanessa Fox, one of the guest speakers on social media at this year’s Search Marketing World conference in Dublin, believes that access to social media is levelling the playing field when it comes to market research. “Particularly for small businesses, who perhaps before didn’t have access to things like market research, focus groups and all those things that cost a lot of money, I think it’s very easy now for them to tap into the [online] conversation and see what’s going on,” she said.

Vanessa points out that there are all sorts of conversations going on online – not just about your business, but about key competitors, and about your industry in general – from which small businesses can glean real insight. “Even just the ability to hear what’s going on and take feedback from that I think is really valuable,” she said.

From conducting a simple keyword search to see who your main competitors are; to browsing through online groups, forums and blogs to identify the key influencers in your space; to setting up automated alerts and feeds that flag the conversations you want to track, and much more besides… there are a raft of tools out there to help you find out more about your customers, your competition, your industry and ultimately your business.

In the next article we’ll take a closer look at a few of them.

Image Credit: Explain market research by mafleen on Flickr under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license