Though often dismissed as less relevant when gauging the public pulse, secondary research is widely available in many formats, often on short order, albeit sometimes for a price. But it can provide expansive insights and is worth exploring.
To understand secondary research, it helps to know what primary research is, too. Primary is initiated by those wanting the data, like a restaurant chain crowd-testing a new menu concept. Primary research can involve going directly to customers, doing focus groups, interviewing the target demographic and so on. All valuable, yes, but sometimes it can be akin to shooting fish in a barrel because it's conducted to confirm or dismiss the company's biases.
Secondary research, however, is data that was collected by others for their own purposes. It can be polls, interviews, focus group reports — all the types of data you might initiate first-hand for your own purposes, but which was initiated by others and therefore isn’t tailored to your project or needs. Statistical information from the government, marketing reports from Europe, demographic information from magazines, small business association data on your city or state — these all qualify as secondary research.
Secondary research can give you information you may never have the resources to generate yourself. Focus groups, extensive polling, random interviews — these are very costly and time-consuming to conduct. But they’re not just expensive to contract, they can be hard to do well or within the proper scope to make the information worth the cost.
Obtaining secondary research can give you insight beyond your market area. Some may feel this is irrelevant, but if you’re looking to launch new business ideas or products that have no regional equivalent, sometimes data from further afield is more useful than what could be learned locally.
Secondary data types are vast in their availability. Looking for data online can be advantageous, but so can visiting business, civic and university libraries for a librarian’s help in finding associated data. This can be a great source for local research that might otherwise escape you.
Time saved is a fantastic perk of secondary research. Answers can be found within minutes of doing a web search, for instance, but it's also already been analyzed and organized, because there's no need to group responses or categorize them. Instead, someone else has parsed the data, saving you time and effort.
The breadth of this research can be impressive, since much is done by media companies and governments whose pockets are deeper than yours, and whose professional expertise means they can parse the data far more insightfully than a third-party marketing firm conducting local primary research for you might.
Often, the cost of secondary research is an advantage, but it can be prohibitively expensive at times, too, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars, if it’s exclusive research specific to an industry; in fact, sometimes industry reports can cost thousands of dollars. In these cases, relevance is critical, because it’s still research that has been conducted for someone else’s purposes. What biases were in play? What methods did they use to conduct the research, and are the respondents even relevant to your market?
Freshness is a big concern with secondary research. When was the information gathered? What has changed since then? Is it still relevant? Geography affects data, income and age spreads — as they say, the devil is in the details, and this is never more true than in gathering data.
If you’re making expensive decisions based on poorly gathered information that’s out of date, it could be catastrophic for your outcome, so it's important to view these data sets with a savvy and critical eye.
Ultimately, secondary research can have great value, but it comes down to understanding how the data was collected, what biases the researchers may have been trying to confirm and how recently it was gathered. For instance, a report talking to people about their home viewing habits in 2013 is completely out of date today, as streamable entertainment and cable-cutting trends have skyrocketed in the last few years.
But quality data, conducted by reputable government agencies and media sources, can be hugely valuable in decision-making. In fact, some of today’s best business minds consume secondary research daily through industry news sources, ensuring that they don't just stay ahead of the competition, but will define the trends of tomorrow.