Large retailers that have both brick and mortar and web-based infrastructure conduct a great deal of market research. Let's face it. They have the money to hire the expert market research firms that will give them the results of surveys, that will provide clear data on who buys what, on who potential customers are, and on what types of marketing will best reach consumers most likely to become actual customers. If you are a web-based business and a small-to-medium one at that, how can you compete?
Fortunately, online market research endeavors are amazingly friendly to the ecommerce businesses and, also fortunately, are free and/or quite reasonable. Using these tools will allow a web retailer to obtain the critical information that makes him/her truly competitive - identifying the true customer base, getting great feedback on the shopping experience, receiving suggestions for product expansion, expanding customer contacts, and generally informing improvement and expansion!
Using Forums, Blogs, and Social Media
These are often overlooked mediums for marketing research, but they can provide a wealth of information for absolutely no cost! Just consider all of the information you can get:
1. Use search engines and keywords to access your business niche. Study the forums, directory articles, and blogs. See what customers of the niche in general say about the products, about their web shopping experiences, and certainly about complaints they register, either about products or service. Can you out-perform your competitors by finding improved products? Can you change your site to address the common complaints about navigating, purchasing and check-out?
2. Go the the sites of your competitors. How are they different? What seems to work well? What does not? Use your research to evaluate and revise your own site, to add product, and to improve the overall customer experience.
3. Develop additional ideas for blogs and articles that you can include on your own site that give visitors and customers more information about your products/services and their uses.
4. Access all major social media sites. What ads do you see on these sites? You may find that your particular business niche is represented more on certain sites. Why? Because your competitors have determined that a large potential customer base exists on the site. Promoting your products/services here may drive more traffic to your site too!
Utilize Online Marketing Tools
There are a number of web-based companies that perform market research for ecommerce businesses. Most offer a basic package for free with the ability to upgrade or to design research and marketing specific to your niche and/or your site. Consider using the following:
1. Survey Monkey: You can place a survey right on your site and invite your customers to respond to basic but critical questions about your products, services, site navigation, and overall experience. You can use a 10-question survey for free or upgrade to other levels for reasonable cost. You will, however, pay quite a bit for an unlimited number of questions and responses. With the basic package you will receive up to 100 responses for each survey.
In order to get customer participation in your surveys, perhaps offer a small discount on their purchases or free shipping. You need their feedback!
2. Hoovers: If your business relies upon sales to other companies and organizations, as opposed to individuals (B2B), then you will want to use Hoovers, in order to develop potential client lists. As with all such services, there is a basic list for free, but then a charge for research that provides full company profiles, usually a fee for each name and profile provided. The value of a service such as this is that it will save you hours upon hours of research, often without solid lead results. As well, you can receive a great deal of information about your competition through such a service. An intimate knowledge of both potential customers and your competition can inform critical decisions as you go forward.
Additional Market Research Tools
Other avenues for growth and expansion include the following:
1. Don't forget about keyword research: Use free online tools to keep keywords/keyword phrases up to date, so that your customer niche can be driven to your site.
2. Use sites such as Google Prospector if you are looking to expand brick and mortar locations. You can discover from demographic data and consumer trends where your next best site may be!
3. Don't forget the analytics tools. These will track visitor traffic to your site and include such things as which pages are most popular, how long people stay on your site, and where they are when they leave your site without making a purchase. This will inform changes that you should make relative to visitor experience and site content.
If you are serious about business growth, and yet you are on a limited budget when it comes to market research and data mining, you owe it to yourself to use all of the tools at your disposal - free and low cost. Be assured, your competition is doing this!