First rules of business – Know your market

Posted: 11th May 2015

It may seem obvious to say that every business, however small, should take time to identify its marketplace, its customer types and what benefits these customers are looking for.

However, you’d be surprised how few businesses really do this thoroughly. Research really is a fundamental aspect of marketing. Not only does it provide a snapshot of your business in a competitive context, it can also set the direction for future marketing activity.

Here are some ways you can start to gather information for yourself, whether you are already in business or just starting out:

Step 1   Existing Information (Desk Research)

Start with available, published information that you can obtain through urban libraries or direct from organisations. It can help you understand, for example, how big the overall market is, if it is growing or declining, what the trends are and what competitive products are available. Likely sources of information include:

• regional directories and publications –  for local area/business information

• national company directories – e.g. Kompass

• national market reports – e.g. Key Note and Mintel, which cover hundreds of topics from giftware to catering equipment!

• trade press – you can identify if there is a suitable magazine related to your market through Benns media guide or Willings press guide

• Office for National Statistics – for social, economic, business and regional information (e.g population census)

• individual company reports, catalogues and websites – for competitor information

• exhibitions and trade fairs – for market trends

• trade associations – try to identify a relevant organisation

• Chambers of Commerce


  • Start a simple filing system to collect information so that you will always have something to refer back to for inspiration
  • Let your friends and family know which areas you are interested in so that they can also act as your eyes and ears
  • If you can’t find something specific to your own marketplace (unlikely), find out about related products or services that might impact upon your business
  • Keep speaking to your suppliers and distributors about market trends, they should also be planning ahead.

Step 2  Direct Customer Research

Stage one should help you understand more about the competitive environment and even help with profiling ideal customer groups for targeting purposes. However, you are likely still to have some unanswered questions about your specific product or service.  Stage two therefore is about talking directly to existing or potential customers. Assuming that budget will not allow for an external research agency to sample your customer base, then you could try speaking to them yourself.

If your customers are ‘consumers’, an ideal opportunity would be through your retail outlet; if you sell to other businesses, the telephone is probably the best option to supplement personal visits. Alternatively, if this proves too daunting or time consuming, allow customers to respond by means of a suggestion box, questionnaire or other reply paid facility, perhaps involving a competition or an incentive.

Typical areas to probe might include:

• identifying how new customers heard about you

• understanding what specifically appeals to customers about your particular product/service and how important that is to them

• objectively identifying your product/service’s strengths and weaknesses in customers’ eyes (and if there is a difference by customer group)

• asking how they rate competitive services/brands

• enabling customers to make suggestions for potential improvements/new products or services

• inviting feedback as you develop new offers – an informal ‘customer panel’

• identifying all the decision makers involved in the purchase and making sure you understand all their different needs (e.g. an IT product might involve an IT contact, several departmental heads, the Finance department and the MD!)

Importantly, the feedback that you gather in stage two should help you pinpoint what makes your business different or, indeed, unique in the marketplace and what benefits customers believe you to offer.

Once you understand this – and this is your ‘unique selling proposition’ or USP – your marketing tools should focus on communicating and reinforcing this message.

WiRE member Lorraine Davidson, a qualified Chartered Marketer and a full member of the Chartered Institute Of Marketing and The Association For Qualitative Research (AQR), established Freelance Marketing Ltd in 1998.

The consultancy offers market research, strategic marketing planning and marketing communications services to both the consumer and business to business markets.