SME insight on a shoestring

sme business research on a shoestring

Research may seem intimidating when you’re on a tight budget. It may also seem unnecessary. But it’s vital that SMEs realise that they can benefit from insight into their customers just as much as bigger businesses. Conducting research while sticking to a small budget isn’t about cutting corners, it’s about thinking intelligently and flexibly from the outset.

Examine what you already have

Begin at the beginning – analyse the data you already have access to. What do you already know about your customer base, or potential customer base?

If you’ve already collected data then organise it appropriately before considering adding any more to the mix. By analysing what you already have and thinking about how you can feasibly use it, you’ll be in a position to identify the gaps and give a much tighter brief to your research provider.
It’s also important to avoid doing research for the sake of it, or because you think it will make you look credible. For every piece of research you commission, make sure you set a clear research question – what exactly do you want to find out?

Ask yourself what action you will take as a result of the evidence you collect. If the answer is that you don’t intend to do anything much, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate your questions.

Quality over quantity

It’s an old adage, but prioritising the quality and usefulness of each piece of research rather than simply collecting as much as you can remains sage advice, particularly for SMEs. A huge amount of data is not in any way useful until it is properly interpreted. It’s not the information itself that will help you to achieve actionable insight, but the questions you ask of it.

Work with your research company, or an independent consultant, to ensure that your data is mineable from the outset. That means starting small and avoiding early overinvestment in glitzy data with no real application.

I often use a Lego analogy – each constituent part of a database should be able to hold its own, and you should be able to deconstruct the whole and click it back together in multiple configurations for different purposes.

This flexibility is vital in a world where IT and data systems, and indeed business objectives and operations, change so rapidly. If you over-invest too early in a system that cannot be scaled back or adjusted, you’ll just end up with a data behemoth that is little use to anybody.

The beginning is also the best time to establish good practice: our Fair Data scheme has everything you need to know about collecting and storing data ethically. If you sign up, the Fair Data mark allows consumers to trust that their data is safe with you. This is a far more complex process to undertake the bigger you get and the more data you collect, so get your house in order early on.

Take advantage of free resources

There is lots of free data out there which you can access without incurring costs. The census is an ideal place to start, and Royal Mail’s excellent and accessible MarketReach database is useful if you’re thinking of using direct mail in your marketing.

You can also check out the websites of bodies like the Market Research Society (MRS) or the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) for case studies which may be relevant to issues you’d like to explore.

Social media is obviously a great place to establish what matters to your target market, but must be approached with caution and an awareness of your sample.

This resource represents what could be termed an ‘activist’ database. Those who are particularly expressive online represent a relatively small and unique group, so bear in mind that more private or reserved people could be overlooked.

Think flexibly

There are also ways you can adapt your own behaviour to gain insight into your target market. Many brand managers would benefit from observing more and counting less. Don’t underestimate the power of qualitative insights alongside numerical data, and trust the instinctive steer such observation gives you.

During my time at Unilever, most of my brand managers read The Guardian or The Telegraph, but I insisted they read The Sun. This behavioural change was research, pure and simple. It was the paper of choice for the people we were trying to reach. By reading it we were better able to understand and explore their world view without spending a penny.

This flexible approach to what constitutes valid research is vital for businesses who may be struggling with smaller budgets. By thinking flexibly and realising that useful research is not beyond their reach financially, SMEs have everything to gain.

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