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Market Research

Primary vs. secondary market research: What they are and when to use each

Ancient sailors consumed data just like we do today, but their data wasn't terabytes, it was shiny lights - stars to be exact.

They navigated their vessels by reading Big Three constellations - Cassiopeia, Crux, and Orion. Watching how the constellations rotated and referred to each other in the night sky would point sailors in the right direction. No one star alone could tell the sailors where to travel, it took many together to tell the story of where to sail next.

Today, market researchers use data in similar ways. No one point of data can signal our direction; it takes constellations of research data to guide a strategic path. We also have our “Big” data constellations - specifically secondary research and primary research.

One of the most common questions young researchers ask is, "What is the difference between primary and secondary research"

What is Secondary Research?

Secondary research are findings you did not gather yourself. Some secondary research is for sale and some is offered for free by organizations that have a motive for sharing their data. Before you accept secondary research offered for free, dig into the methodology used to collect it to confirm it is unbiased an trustworthy.

5 resources for free (or partially free) secondary research: helps get you to the right federal stats data even if you don’t know which federal agency collected it. You can see trends related to crime, education, industries, farming, small businesses, population and many other topics.

Harvard Business Review
HBR produces current thought-leadership articles and studies on market trends, demographics and industry strategy. A subscription is required for full access but many resources are available for free.

Forrester is an influential strategic advisory firm that publishes thought-leadership articles and reports on current market trends. Full access to Forrester is very expensive, but they do provide some research at no cost

US Census
The US Census Bureau stores a vast repository of data about US demographics and societal trends. You can search for overall stats or use its map feature to drill down into a specific area. The Census Bureau also hosts seminars to help you navigate its significant data collections.

eMarketer publishes research and articles on digital marketing topics for a multitude of industries, many for free online and with their email newsletter. You can also purchase a PRO membership for full access.

What is Primary Research?

Unlike Secondary Research, Primary Research is data you collect yourself and can customize as you see fit. Common primary research methods are surveys, focus groups, ethnographic research, interviews and digital journal keeping.

Your primary research may be qualitative in nature (not statistically significant) or quantitative (statistically significant) and most organizations prefer to use a blend of both types.

Primary research is usually considered more valuable because you can customize it to answer exactly the questions you need to answer, but primary research can also be more expensive than secondary research.

When to use Secondary Research vs. Primary Research

Most researchers tend to start broad and then go narrow, which means starting with secondary research and drilling down into primary research. Starting with secondary research creates context for your study. It helps you to understand the themes, questions, current events and trends that shape your study. Once you have a general understanding of the factors, you can then extend your knowledge with primary research questions that bring you home to exactly the questions you need answered.

When you start with primary research (often the most expensive part of your study), without having first digested some secondary research data, you may miss important trends or influences. You might misuse certain phrases or vernacular in your questions. And you might overlook important lines of questions that would have been brought to your attention had you properly studied your topic with secondary research.

Overall, consider secondary research as a “crash course” in the preparation for your primary research. It centers your thinking and focuses you on the most important topics.

Together, the constellations of secondary and primary research data points tell the whole story of the path to your destination.

Get your research started with the Handbook of Question Design