How Secondary Market Research Can Uncover Customer Insights (and Scoop Your Competition)

< Back to Must Reads

How Secondary Market Research Can Uncover Customer Insights (and Scoop Your Competition)

Before you launch or expand your business venture, you need to understand your industry, your competitors and your customers.

While specific data is often gathered by conducting primary research through tools such as interviews and focus groups, performing secondary market research can be as easy as heading to the business section of your local library (and can yield valuable insight that helps drive your strategic planning).

Local library, you say? Why not just conduct research using Google? Local libraries have a treasure trove of information and access to data bases that average individuals don’t have. And you will likely find, with the help of a good business librarian, your research will be much more targeted and robust in a fraction of the time.

You’ll find a wealth of information collected and published by organizations such as trade associations, government agencies and commercial publishers. Detailed below are some fundamental secondary research resources, which are either online or library-accessible, to help you analyze your market.


What are the trends in your industry? Is it shrinking or expanding? There are many different access points for industry information, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s Economic Census is a great place to get started with statistical data (and to get a feel for the size of your industry).

You’ll need to know your industry classification (NAICS) code, which you can look up on the site. With your NAICS code in hand, you can find nationwide and state statistics on your industry.

This site is also a springboard for other industry reports (e.g., retail and service businesses). The Economic Census is tracked once every five years. For more current industry statistics, you may need to turn to subscription (fee-based) resources such as the Encyclopedia of American Industries.

For the most targeted and current industry information, trade organizations and trade magazines cannot be overlooked. There are thousands of trade associations, and they have a vested interest in tracking their respective industries.

To find a group that relates to your business, the most complete resource is the Encyclopedia of Associations, available online or in print at the library. To get started on the free internet guide, visit the American Society of Association Executives Gateway of Associations.

Once you find a relevant association, check out its website, which may yield a list of the association’s publications or other related trade magazines. Access a general directory of trade publications through PubList (free with registration). Many magazines put a month or two of articles — and sometimes industry reports, too — on their websites. For the most complete access to magazine articles, you may need to use a subscription database such as EBSCO or ProQuest.


Now that you have a feel for your industry as a whole, you’ll also want a picture of who’s currently operating in your industry. And if you’re in a B2B (business to business) industry, you may also want to develop a list of prospects.

Use company directory databases such as Dun & Bradstreet or ReferenceUSA to build a list of competitors or prospects. These directories (typically available at most public libraries) list millions of companies by line of business (your NAICS code will once again come in handy here).

You can narrow your focus to a geographic region and a particular size of business. You’ll also uncover information such as length of time in business and general sales and employee figures. Online options include and, but note that you’ll need to pay for complete information.


Demographic data can assist you with at least two major aspects of market analysis: locating customers and placing your business. To get started with either task, go to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder database. You can access data on population, housing, and income, narrowed to a specific geographic area such as city or ZIP code.

Take purely statistical data a step further and check out the ZIP code lookup feature provided by Claritas, a leader in demographic and psychographic data. Once you enter a ZIP code, you’ll get a variety of population information, including lifestyle segments, e.g., Urban Achievers or Digital Glitterati. This sort of data is especially helpful in developing or refining your message and marketing strategy to ensure optimal exposure to your targeted audience.

You might also be interested in finding out how your potential customers spend their time and money. Once again, the U.S. government collects some information worth investigating. The first site is the American Time Use Survey. This survey measures the amount of time Americans spend on various activities, such as working, volunteering, and commuting. For information on spending, consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. This annual survey provides data on hundreds of consumer expenditures from pets to floor coverings, as well as some income information.

These sources — and others like them — help you understand demographics in aggregate. To find a specific list of potential customers for your business, however, you may need to purchase a mailing list. Get started with a resource called SRDS Marketing List Source, which suggests thousands of different lists and their costs.

Market research might seem like a daunting task, but it’s critical to your business success. Armed with a few key concepts and information sources, sizing up your market can be a breeze. If you find yourself overwhelmed, however, don’t forget to contact a business librarian. Trained in the use of research sources, they’d be happy to get you pointed on the right path.