There is no point reinventing a wheel and there are many metaphorical wheels available to the market researcher. The expert desk researcher can quickly and inexpensively dig out data from a wide variety of sources to answer many of the questions that have already been asked.
Why Reinvent The Wheel?
So, why do we spend so much on primary research? The reason, very often, is because we don’t know how to locate the information. Or it may be information that is not in quite the shape we require and it escapes our notice that with a little bit of reworking, it could be very useful. It could be dated and we need something more current. Sometimes, desk research seems too easy. A big decision surely needs a lot of money spending on it and merits an original piece of research? It is not so. Information that is in the public domain has at least been subjected to the test of public scrutiny. This is not to say that it will definitely be correct, but it could have been challenged and that may in itself help the researcher judge its accuracy.
I once ran a training course which in the first instance was called simply “desk research”. There were very few takers. It seems such a boring subject. When the course was renamed, “how to get information for next to nothing” it became over-subscribed and has been run many times. Desk research is information that costs next to nothing. It sits underneath our noses. It can easily be carried out by the do-it-yourself researcher. Moreover, for the 'do your own' researcher, desk research is a very practical tool - in most cases he or she is not at any disadvantage compared to the resources of a professional agency. A couple of days of desk research have a very big yield and the benefits of spending much more time searching quickly diminish.
Desk research is a term that is used loosely and it generally refers to the collection of secondary data or that which has already been collected. To most people it suggests published reports and statistics and these are certainly important sources. In the context of this chapter the term is widened to include all sources of information that do not involve a field survey and, in addition to the more traditional sources, this could include speaking to someone at a trade association or carrying out an interview with an expert.
Until the advent of the Internet and on-line databases, access to libraries was the only important resource needed to carry out desk research. Despite the marvels of the information highway, some data are easier to access from hard copy and off the library shelves. The desk researcher should acquaint him or herself with the nearest commercial library.
All major cities have at least one good municipal or university library and few researchers will be more than an hour's travel from such a resource. From time to time the reference books in the main body of the library will be useful but for the most part, it is the commercial section which is of greatest interest.
There are also some important national libraries open to a desk researcher including a range of services from the British Library() and two important government resources: the Central Statistical Office () and the DTI Export Marketing Information Centre (), a major source of international market research. There are also very many specialist libraries run by industry bodies and others; these can best be located through ASLIB ().
Sources Of Sources - The High Level View
Before exploring some of the popular sources of information to market researchers, it is worth pointing out that there are some useful “sources of sources”. These range from inexpensive books such as How to Find Information - Business : A Guide to Searching in Published Sources (How to Find Series) by Nigel Spencer (available from amazon.com) through to the much more expensive Croner's A-Z of Business Information Sources or Croner's European Business Information Sources (www.croner.cch.co.uk) (). Croner’s A-Z lists some of the best Web sources and the European guide provides a starting point for gathering information from European countries. Both are also available on CD-ROM.
There are also other general guides which can be used to track down sources of data including those covering published research, the press, directories and statistics; examples of all of these have been mentioned above. For international markets there are comparable 'sources of sources' including European Directory of Marketing Information Sources () and Directory of International Sources of Business Information (). Some or all of these 'sources of sources' will be found in a good library together with other indexes, eg Research Index which lists articles published in the press. The library's own cataloguing and indexing systems also provide a means of systematically searching out data. With experience, sources likely to be relevant to a particular field will become familiar and provide short cuts, although a full search technique is also recommended.
Encyclopedias are useful storehouses of information for the market researcher, either to check out a technical issue or to obtain a closer definition of the subject and its associated terminology. Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com) has become universally accessible (including recently launched mobile and tablet applications) for browsing alphabetically, by subject, or for a quick word search.
The United States has led the field in the collection and dissemination of business information for many years. The Central Intelligence Agency use their expertise on our behalf to bring together basic intelligence which began as the National Intelligence Survey and is now an online Factbook that can be very easily examined country by country (www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/). The whole database can be downloaded, though this requires either considerable patience or a broad bandwidth connection. Virtually every country in the world is covered. The Factfile gives geographical statistics of countries, the demographic breakdown of their population, economic overviews (in some detail), transportation, government, and maps galore.
Another means of locating data sources is through direct contact with organisations and individuals who have knowledge of a particular field. Trade associations and the publishers of information are examples. This sort of approach strays outside desk research in the strictest sense. However, a two-way traffic between sources (which identify potential contacts) and expert interviewing (to identify sources) is a means of getting the most value from desk research at little extra cost (possibly at a saving if sources are identified more efficiently).
You could also try FIND/SVP () which has a Quick Consulting and Research Service that aims to answer questions on markets through a fixed-fee retainer system and deliver the results by phone, fax and e-mail at a quite modest cost.
The Internet has revolutionised the way in which people search for information; its constant evolution means that real-time as well as archived data are now readily and publicly available.
For market researchers, the Internet has two important sources of information:
- 1. Websites which companies, organisations and individuals have created to promote or communicate their products, services or views;
- 2. Online communities such as blogs, forums and social media, consisting of people who have an interest in a particular subject.
Given the tens of billions of web pages that are publicly available on the Internet, the problem is not the volume of information as much as finding the tiny bit that you need in this enormous ocean. Fortunately for researchers, search engine intelligence has advanced exponentially over the last five years, saving time and (for the most part) leading users towards the necessary information source(s).
In this massive sea of information it may be difficult to find what we require because:
- We are using the wrong search strategy – a different word or arrangement of words may yield more precise hits
- We are using the wrong word – the use of the British spelling of tyres would miss out on web references to the American spelling of tires.
- The information we are looking for may not be available in precisely that form. A search for the volumes of tyres bought as original equipment by Ford may come to naught, but it would be easy to derive the figure by finding out the number of Ford cars produced per year and multiplying by five (one per wheel plus the spare).
A search strategy with a suitable arrangement of words may well hit the bull's eye and locate the information that is being sought. When typing in the search string, it may be helpful to use double quotations to enclose the phrase so that “world health organisation” will only deliver references to those three words in that combination. Though the vast majority of search engines are now intuitive enough to recognise well-known phrases, companies, organisations and other common search strings, use of the quotation marks references is particularly useful when looking for a report or product name. Restricting the search to certain file formats can help when looking for reports. For example, entering filetype:pdf before the search term will produce a search result limited to PDF files.
Thinking laterally is certainly the first principle of desk research using the Internet. Common terms will usually lead to thousands of hits but irrelevant results. Where possible, use a phrase (in quotation marks) or proper name to narrow the search and therefore retrieve a smaller number of more relevant results. If too many results are generated, it is easy to refine the word string.
More often the search will start a trail that follows the links between related sites. The searcher must learn to surf from one site to another, book-marking those that are useful for downloading or copying into a work file. Here it is worth emphasising that a crucial rule of desk research is always to note the reference of the data. Referenced data allows the credibility to be judged and it facilitates re-examination.
Online Databases And Market Data
In comparison to the freely available information on the Internet, searching online report databases is more costly and typically could cost between £5,000 to £10,000 per year to a serious user. This is because the databases house collections of valuable reports, which, even though available on a page-by-page basis, still have a hefty price tag.
The major benefit of any sort of online database is the speed of locating material using key word searching to match what is available to what is sought. This is particularly of benefit in searching press files (manually looking through the last few months' issues of even one paper is a daunting task).
There are an increasing number of web sites that offer archive material to researchers without having to sign up though there usually is a fee for the report or part of it. The table of contents is available free and there are many synopses of reports, which may be sufficient for those requiring just an overview. The charges made for bought-in reports and similar sources range from the nominal to levels comparable to commissioning ad hoc research. Most fall within the £500 to £5,000 bracket.
A good source of market research data, offering full or part reports is www.marketresearch.com which allows access to a collection of over 300,000 publications from over 700 research firms.
One of the best general databases of commercial and financial news is ft.com – the Financial Times’ web site.
Researchers need company data for competitor benchmarking, sourcing suppliers or building profiles of customers and potential customers. As recently as ten years ago, company literature was a mainstay of such searches. Such literature was prepared for the public domain and sent readily on request. Today company web sites are brimming with useful information. They contain product and service information, data sheets, company histories, press releases, and often financial background. The information is nearly always more extensive and current than printed brochures and it is available in an instant.
Financial data on companies is available in the UK from Companies House (www.companieshouse.gov.uk) (). Companies House's WebSales offers the searchable Company Names and Address Index free of charge which enables the searcher to look up information on more than 2.5 million companies. Smaller companies file only limited information and this can reduce the value of company accounts in niche markets. Searching for a company can be carried out using its name or its unique company registration number.
Details that can be obtained free from Companies House online include:
- The registered office address of the company
- Dates for the last accounts and annual returns
- Date of incorporation
- Country of origin (original country of registration)
- Status e.g. live, dissolved, etc.
- Insolvency details
- Previous names
- Company Type
- Nature of business
- Branch details
- Overseas company information
In addition to the free basic company details, certain company documents and reports can be purchased for very modest sums by credit card and delivered electronically. These include scanned image documents of the latest company accounts, annual returns, current appointments and outstanding mortgages.
Another source of company and financial data is Hoovers, a subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet (www.hoovers.com), which offers information on over 65 million corporations worldwide.
The US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) requires all US public companies (except foreign companies and companies with less than $10 million in assets and 500 shareholders) to file registration statements, periodic reports, and other forms electronically, and anyone can access and download this information for free from its web site (www.sec.gov).
In most projects, the desk researcher will seek ‘hard’ statistical data and sooner or later this will point towards a government source. These cover most areas of business and social life.
In the UK, The National Statistics website (www.statistics.gov.uk) contains a vast range of official UK statistics and information about statistics, which can be accessed and downloaded free. The site allows searching by themes such as agriculture/fishing/forestry, commerce, energy, industry, education, crime and justice, the labour market, the population, etc.
The Annual Abstract Of Statistics () is an easy way into the major series of statistics and is available in hard copy from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office – HMSO. There is also a free catalogue of the main publications from the same government bookshop, which is well worth picking up. However, the bible is the Guide to Official Statistics (), a substantial volume that is regularly revised.
One of the cornerstones of the government's statistical service and a massive source of data for market researchers (see Market Research Society, 1993) is the decennial Census of Population (the most recent one was carried out in 2011. Marketeers use census output for segmentation by demographics and survey planning (e.g. setting quota samples). The census is also the basis of geodemographic analysis systems.
The UK government is not, of course, unique in providing a statistical service. Governments of most developed countries provide as good or better data covering their own territories - the USA for example is very well documented. A visit to US Department Of Commerce site on www.doc.com offers a treasure trove of information from industry sector statistics to economic analysis to demographic data, and research publications. There is a good search engine to help navigate through this very large site.
There are also international bodies collecting and publishing statistics. For the EU the office responsible is Eurostat (). Two other major publishers are the UN () and the OECD ().
Trade And Industry Bodies
Every trade, no matter how obscure, nearly always has some collective body to represent its interests (and also usually spawns several trade publications - see below). To meet members' needs, and for PR purposes, most of these bodies publish or can make available (sometimes to members only) considerable information about their industry. The organisation and sophistication of these bodies and the volume of the information offered varies enormously. Some do no more than publish an annual report, whilst others are the recognised source of detailed industry statistics (e.g. the SMMT () for the motor vehicle industry). There are various directories of these organisations (e.g. Directory of British Associations ()) and a desk researcher should not only seek out publications of relevant bodies but also contact them directly; information, which is not published, may be obtained in this way.
Market Research Reports
A number of specialist market research companies speculatively carry out studies, which are then sold as publications – albeit relatively expensive, measured against the price we are used to paying for more conventional reference books. However, compared to privately commissioned studies these are incredibly good value. Often referred to as multi-client reports, these publications cover every subject imaginable from A to Z. There are over 30,000 multi-client reports available and they can be located through several sources. Marketsearch () lists 20,000 published reports from 700 firms. The database can be searched in hard copy or from the company’s web site (www.marketsearch-dir.com). Another directory of published market research is Findex () from Euromonitor. This directory, also known as The Worldwide Directory of Market Research, Reports, Studies and Surveys provides details on 9,000 market reports.
The general, business and trade press are key sources for the desk researcher. As well as 'news', these sources include much background material, including special supplements on industries and markets. The general press includes the quality dailies and Sundays - The Times, Independent, Guardian, Telegraph, etc - and periodicals such as The Economist. Of the business press, The Financial Times () is a major reference source in its own right.
There are several press indexes (e.g. Research Index ()), but searching the general press is now better done on-line. Research Index has indexes of over 300 UK newspapers, trade journals and "popular" business periodicals. The two sections are arranged by company and industry. It is published every 2 weeks, so it is easy to find current information. Each entry gives the title/headline of the article, newspaper or periodical title and date, and page number. The industry section is cumulated quarterly. There is also a Web version of Research Index which covers the most recent 14 months (www.researchindex.co.uk).
In industrial markets the trade press is a very important source of market research information. Every industry and trade has regular journals which can be identified in publications such as BRAD () and Pims ().
Directories are the staple diet of market researchers. They provide details of companies that either supply or consume goods and they are the usual source for preparing sample frames (list of companies or people to be interviewed). The directories may also provide a profile of a company, detailing its size by giving the number of employees, or whether it is an agent or producer.
One of the most comprehensive general directories is Yellow Pages (www.yell.co.uk) since every company in the UK with a telephone number is given a free entry. These directories form the most comprehensive listing of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Within the Yell Group, The Business Database supplies data on around 1.5 million UK businesses sourced from the free-line entries in the Yellow Pages printed directories. From its web site it is possible to run counts and download lists for sample frames.
Every country has its Yellow Pages on the Internet (www.gelbe-seiten.de, www.goudengids.nl, www.paginegialle.it, www.paginas-amarillas.es) from where it is possible to locate companies in the detailed product groupings used by the directory. For relatively modest sums, researchers can order lists of companies’ addresses and telephone numbers (in hard or soft copy) filtered by Standard Industrial Classification or NACE code, company size (number of employees) and geographical region.
Other general directories, which comprise larger companies than those in Yellow Pages, include Kompass () and Dun & Bradstreet's Key British Enterprises (). These sources can be found in almost any library, as well as being available online.
In addition to these general sources, most industries have their own specialised directories, which may have a better listing of suppliers and buyers. Specialised directories can be located through guides such as Current British Directories ().
The Range Of Information Available From Desk Research
Sources such as those outlined above can be used to obtain data on the large majority of subjects likely to be covered in a market research project. These include those mentioned below.
The marketing environment
Markets do not exist in isolation and are shaped by environmental factors such as the state of the general economy, demographic trends, the legislative framework and various social factors. An understanding of these external factors is likely to be part of any full analysis of a market. The marketing environment is generally well documented and desk research (rather than primary research) is the only practical source available. The economy, demographics and key social variables are all well covered by the government’s statistical service and the many publications it produces. Other sources in this area include special reports (government and private), and press commentary.
This is a subject in its own right with quite an extensive literature. Geodemographics is also a specialised commercial service with several UK companies (with opposite numbers in other countries) offering such data systems for marketing applications. Leventhal (1990) loosely defines geodemographics as “the classification of small areas according to the characteristics of their residents”. Leventhal also identifies two underlying principles:
- People living in the same neighbourhood are more likely to have similar characteristics than a similar number of people chosen at random.
- Neighbourhoods can be usefully classified on the characteristics of their residents; two geographically separate neighbourhoods of the same classification are likely to contain similar types of people.
UK geodemographics systems are all based on the output of the Census of Population (using the output data at the smallest geographical level - Census Enumeration Districts) and provide classifications based on a number of typologies as given in the table below.
Example of area classification (Pinpoint)
- Armed forces
- Upwardly mobile young families
- Affluent households
- Older people in small houses
- Suburban middle aged or older
- Working people with families
- Poor urban areas
- Low status areas with flats
- Inner city bedsits
- Poor multi-ethnic areas
- Crowded council neighbourhoods
- Unclassified or unmatched
Source: Given in Leventhal (1990)
Although the geographical basis of the input data is Census Enumeration Districts, suppliers of geodemographic systems can provide area classifications to map grid references or postcodes and also complete files of individually classified households.
Applications of geodemographics include customer profiling (through correlation with sales records or via market research surveys) and customer targeting; having profiled customers in geodemographic terms they can be reached very effectively through finely targeted direct marketing. Geographical information systems (GIS) also use this geodemographic data for retail planning and site location by bringing together different information sources to measure overlap and gaps in the data. A simple example would be the overlaying of three databases - a map of main roads, a population database, and a database of car dealer showrooms - in order to see where there is potential (subject to land availability) for new dealer sites.
Geodemographics is now used extensively as an input in research survey sample planning (many large continuous surveys are planned and produce output on a geodemographic basis). Where marketing planning is based on geodemographics, there is an obvious need to have the neighbourhood classifications as a variable in the research data.
Market structure and size
The structure of most business and industrial markets can be fully analysed through desk research. Sources include the general and trade press, directories, company financial data, published reports, trade association output and government statistics. The latter source includes UK Markets (formerly Business Monitor) (), which provides, for all industries, details of production, imports and exports with detailed product breakdowns on an annual basis. Government statistics such as UK Markets go back into long time series and provide a basis for historical and future trend analysis. This source or others may not provide market size estimates of the specific category of interest, but with ingenuity, reasonable approximations can usually be derived from top-down (making estimates from a wider classification which includes the one of interest) or bottom-up (aggregating sub classifications). The skill in this sort of work includes bringing together disparate pieces of data from separate sources, e.g. UK Markets plus press reports and company accounts analysis. A useful additional type of source to mention for market sizing and analysis is various compendiums such as Market Assessment of Top Markets () and Market Size Digest ().
Suppliers and brands
Data on suppliers and brands can be thought of as an extension of the sort of market structure analysis considered above and may include profiles of major suppliers and their brands, marketing methods and advertising tactics, and factors making for success. The press (including trade journals), directories, company accounts and published reports are all potentially useful sources. So is advertising and trade literature (especially in technical markets), and such material can usually be collected free. One important area of information, which is usually outside the scope of desk research, is consumers' attitudes to and satisfaction with suppliers. Generally this can only be obtained through primary research; although in some industries published reports may have relevant data.
Distribution and retailing
In most businesses, distributors are playing an increasing role as they provide a cost-effective means of supplying and servicing small (and sometimes not so small) accounts. Distribution structures can vary considerably with many tiers ranging from importers, through to main distributors, local dealers, etc. Sources that provide an analysis of these structures are much the same as those just discussed for primary suppliers. Consumer markets are generally retail markets and retailing generally is very well documented, including in the press and in published reports.
Desk research can provide detailed product information. As well as online data, trade publications in some markets compare products from alternative suppliers. Mail order catalogues are another source of product details. Product literature is often particularly relevant in technical markets and is a valuable source for analysing product features. Visits to exhibitions and trade fairs to collect this literature are an example of 'near' desk research, which can be used before moving into primary research. Pricing information may also be available from the sources just mentioned, although the difference between list prices and what is actually paid may reduce the value of such information.
Desk research is not usually thought to have a role in new product evaluation and certainly consumer reaction to a new product has to be established through primary research. However, the fate of other new launches can provide very useful information and can be accessed from the trade press and other sources.
The low cost of desk research is even more evident in international marketing. In the UK there are libraries and online databases that are readily accessible and stacked with information on overseas markets. The different types of sources available and the range of topics are much the same as those in the UK. However, the consistency and comparability of data is often a problem. For the EU markets there are a number of pan-Europe sources including the output from Eurostat, which has already been mentioned. Two important and inexpensive sources of European data from Eurostat are Eurostat Yearbook 2011 (the statistical guide to Europe) and the Panorama Of European Business. Electronic copies of both are available online free of charge, whilst hard copies can also be purchased for a modest fee.
Planning, Recording And Evaluating Desk Research
A plan is needed if the search for published data is to be efficient. A written plan is a help to desk research, whether it is utilising library or online sources. Before visiting a library or logging-on, the information sought should be specified in some detail, although flexibility and some ingenuity are also needed (e.g. looking for relevant data under wider or narrower classifications and creatively making connections). Likely sources including 'sources of sources' can also be planned in advance, particularly as experience is gained.
The desk research plan should also include a timetable. How long should be spent on the desk research part of a project? This will depend on the breadth of the information sought, the type of data and the resources to be used. It is difficult to generalise. However, what can be said is that diminishing returns apply and after quite a short time, the extra information gained falls in proportion to the time spent searching.
Once found, data needs recording. The source of any data should always be recorded, so that its accuracy can be both evaluated and, if necessary, retraced. The sources should also be recorded, as they may need to be attributed. In long projects and repeat work, this will provide useful short cuts to the most valuable sources and ensure that the same blind alleys are avoided.
Information needs not only collecting but also evaluating. In part this is a matter of making judgements about its validity. We are often fooled into trusting data that is published. Once in black and white, we assume that it must be correct. The experienced desk researcher learns that market size figures that are published need to be cross-checked by two or three sources and frequently there are some serious anomalies.
All secondary data accessed through desk research was originally generated through primary research. Thorough validation requires going back to the source and understanding the methodology used: was it based on some sort of census, on a sample survey, on some crude formula using a ratio or merely on anecdotal evidence? Where possible two or more sources for the same data can be compared (although make sure that they are different). However, some sense of proportion has to be kept. It is simply not possible to thoroughly validate in such ways all the data and nor is it necessary to do so - as previously mentioned market researchers can work within quite wide bands of accuracy for practical purposes.
As well as validating the data, evaluation also includes its integration into a meaningful whole. Looking for linkages and patterns can and should be part of the desk research process with initial material often pointing to other sources and subjects. That is why we stated earlier that although planning is needed in desk research, flexibility should be retained. Subsequent analysis and integration of data will be facilitated by good note and record keeping when the material is collected and, if this is voluminous, by reasonably organised filing.
The Limits Of Desk Research
Desk research can be very fruitful. However, it has its limits and it may only provide part of the information sought in a project. As previously suggested, where a mix of desk and primary research is likely to be required there is everything to be gained by carrying out desk research first and then filling the gaps through interviewing. In this way, the more expensive primary techniques are used only where essential.
One limit of desk research is its unpredictability. At least for the novice or where the subject area is unfamiliar, there can be no certainty of what the desk research will yield and what gaps will remain. This is partly the reason why desk research is not a major service supplied by market research agencies. It would be difficult for an agency to quote for carrying out desk research, carry out the project and deliver a scant report at the end saying that despite a thorough search, nothing has been found. For this reason, much desk research is carried out in-house by internal researchers. At least a short desk research exercise will involve only modest costs and may save on much more expensive fieldwork. Unlike an agency, a 'do your own' researcher can live with little to show for the desk research stage.
Some information is also in principle not available from desk research and with a little experience this is obvious from the start. Generally this includes most attitude-type data, especially where the subject of consumer attitudes is particular rather than general opinions - of your own and competitor companies, of a novel product, of a specific advert, etc.
Between desk research and conventional fieldwork there are some useful hybrid activities. These include simple observation as a means of data collection and 'overview' interviews, both techniques within the resources of any 'do your own' researcher.