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Primary and secondary market research

4 min read
Market research can be divided into two categories – primary and secondary. What are they, what are their pros and cons, and how can you use them together?


What is primary market research?

Put simply, it’s original research that you conduct yourself.

When you’re setting up a new business, or launching a new product or service, you know the context of what you want you want to research, and your target market. You can go directly to your customers or potential customers, gathering information by asking questions and soliciting opinions.

Primary research involves gathering two types of information:

  1. Exploratory: carried out to determine the nature of a problem that hasn’t yet been clearly defined. For example, a supermarket wants to improve its poor customer service.
  2. Conclusive: carried out to solve a problem that exploratory research identified. For example, the supermarket’s exploratory research found that employees weren’t happy. Conclusive research went deeper, revealing that the manager was rude, unreasonable, and difficult, making the employees unhappy and giving less than excellent customer service. A new manager was brought in, employees were happier and customer service improved.

You can conduct primary research in the following ways:

  • Surveys (online, SMS, email)
  • Questionnaires (online, SMS, email)
  • Interviews (face-to-face or telephone)
  • Focus groups

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What is secondary market research?

This is research that was originally done by somebody else.

It’s the best place to start any research project as it will reveal whether someone has already researched the same, or similar topic. If so, you could use their results and findings to help you with your current project.

If not, secondary research will still give you a knowledge base for you to become familiar with your area of research. You may even find some gaps in the market you didn’t know existed before.

You can use the following resources for your secondary research:

Comparing primary and secondary market research

Both methods provide information for your research project. And both provide quantitative and qualitative data. You collect quantitative (numerical) data from analysis of surveys and questionnaires, and qualitative (descriptive) data from forums, interviews, observations and open text survey questions.

Here’s a handy pros and cons comparison table:

Primary research Secondary research
Self-conducted Previously conducted by others
Fills in gaps that secondary research cannot Provides the foundation for project research
Refines and adds to the knowledge base, perhaps eventually becoming part of secondary research Supplies a knowledge base for researchers to study and learn
Answers specific questions that a business needs to know May not provide specific enough information
Expensive and time-consuming Cheaper and quicker
Material is more targeted and manageable Volume of material may be overwhelming
Conclusive results – specifically tailored to your company Inconclusive results – other researchers’ scope may be broader than your business’s niche
100% ownership of data and discretion about sharing the information Data in the public domain or fee to access
More accurate – researchers are fully involved in a project’s design and collect valid, easily authenticated data Less accurate – researchers have no control over the data collection methods and cannot account for or authenticate the data’s validity
You’ll gain valuable experience developing and running a research program You won’t gain experience studying other people’s research

When to use primary and secondary market research

Counterintuitive as it sounds, you’re better off starting with secondary market research, then moving on to primary. Secondary will give you a broad overview of your research area, identify influences and trends, and may give you ideas and avenues to explore that you hadn’t previously considered.

Secondary is your preparation for primary, and when you combine the two methods, you have a highly effective market research strategy.

eBook: A guide to building agile research functions in-house