All smart business people know the value of good market and customer research. Yet as a small business owner, conducting expensive focus groups or buying comprehensive industry studies is likely out of your price range.

Good news is that there are plenty of free services for you to find the things you need to know.

We recommend first starting with a simple matrix outline. What do you need to know about your customers, your industry and your competitors? From there, you have a basic template you can update at regular intervals, as you need it.

Based on our own research, the following are some of the best Internet-based free sources to help you complete your research matrix.

CorporateInformation.com The site features research reports on over 31,000 companies from over 55 countries. There are basic free service and premium upgrade options available.

Hoovers.com Similar to CorporateInformation.com, Hoovers offers a free option and a premium subscription service. Hoovers has everything from SEC filings and company snapshots to industry overviews and people profiles.

Newspaper Publications Many publications, particularly newspapers, allow free access to their stories for a short period of time. Check it out at: http://www.knowthis.com/stories/71/566.htm

Syndicated Research Reports Actual research firms often offer free snippets of their research reports (or the actual reports themselves) in various industries. Visit: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Market+research+services-s1950

BizStats.com

This site has every statistic for small business covered by industry, market size, profitability and debt to equity ratios, to name a few.

PRnewswire.com

This is a useful site to stay current on your industry and competitors, large and small. PRNewswire covers some 40,000 global organizations media releases. Another handy link on the home page is trade shows for all the coverage you may need for shows you didn’t attend but wish you did.

U.S. Census Bureau

No market research would be complete without data from the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov). Be sure to check out the gateway page to the 2000 census for tons of facts on all markets.

U.S. Demographic Trends

CensusScope (http://www.censusscope.org/) provides simple-to-use charts, maps and graphs for demographic information from the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network. The site has solid data charts and graphs to click and paste into your business plans or presentations.

ResearchWikis

ResearchWikis is the latest online library of free market research. The goal is to share market research with the global community. ResearchWikis is written collaboratively by contributors from all around the world and can be added to or edited by anyone in the world. Here, there’s a wiki for every industry, from adhesives to orthopedic care. Market definitions, metrics and industry players are included in each industry overview. Check it out at http://www.researchwikis.com/Main_Page.

One last consideration:

Most of the above resources hold the factual, quantitative market data critical for business planning. However, another popular and free way to obtain valuable qualitative research is through blogs. Since blogs are naturally a two-way street, they’re a perfect forum for you to find out what your prospects and customers think, know and want. Consider launching a blog on your site. (Free blog service include http://blogspot.com & WordPress.com).

Whichever sources you choose, don’t underestimate the power of market research and data in your business planning process. Rest assured that your competitors aren’t skimping on it either.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Okko Pyykk?ɬ?

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