When I was a business librarian, I helped entrepreneurs do background research for their companies. Market research is a key component of business plans for new businesses. It can be equally valuable for established businesses and freelancers seeking to reach more consumers or diversify their services. While some excellent market research tools cost a lot of money, many free sources of relevant data exist, too. That’s what I’ll focus on here.
Because research makes more sense (and is more fun!) with examples, I’ll use the case study of a dog gym.
What is your service?
In my fictional example, I’m excited to open a dog gym in Portland, Oregon! I already have a branch of Iron Canine Fitness established in Seattle, and I want to expand. Not only does my fictional gym offer open play areas for pups (and their owners) to run around, but we also offer dog yoga, massage, and aerobics training.
Who is seeking that service (who are your target customers?), and why are they seeking it?
Since I already have a location in a high-end neighborhood in Seattle, I already suspect that wealthier people with more disposable incomes might be more likely to bring their dogs to the gym. I also noticed that I didn’t have very many families with young children. Most of my customers in Seattle are affluent, retired people. I wonder if this is partly due to my location near a retirement community. But I also assume younger people balancing education, careers, and childcare have less leisure time and money to pursue optimal doggy fitness. Still, I’m a savvy business owner who wants to test my common sense and experience-based assumptions with data.
An easy way to find out about your potential customers is through a quick Google search about your industry. I search for pet industry. Here are some free statistics I can apply to my business:
The 72 billion dollar pet industry has grown largely from millennials humanizing their pets and treating them like quasi-children (Source: CNBC).
I make a note to add the words millennial and humanizing to future searches.
Many of these millennial dog owners are couples who are pet parenting, following in the footsteps of their Boomer parents, who started the trend (Source: Sage Business Researcher).
I discard my wrong assumption that mostly single people would be interested in my business.
I add the term pet parenting to my list of relevant terms.
Maybe I’ll add a date night promotional package to my services!
More than 50% of survey respondents agreed with the statement, “Humans have an obligation to provide the best standard of care for dogs that they are capable of” (Source: Purdue). Further, “77% of pet parents are concerned about their pet’s future health . . . and when it comes to choosing products for their pet(s), they would choose their pet’s health/wellness (86%) over cost (14%)” (Source: Kinship/Business Wire).
Great news! I’ll be sure to offer high-end health-promoting and life-extending services and promote their benefits to my customers.
Millennial and Gen Z pet parents want sustainable products for their fur babies. (Source: SPINS)
I add fur babies to my list of terms and make a note to look into green cleaning products and LEED certification.
These younger pet parents also like to dress their pets up and miss their pets when they’re away from them (Source: Adimo).
I’ll be sure to sell doggy track suits and sweatbands. I’ll also install web cams so pet parents can check in on their children when they leave them at the gym.
All this relevant consumer data from a two word Google search! Give it a try yourself: search for your business type in Google along with the word industry. Then, click into results from sources you recognize, ideally written in the last 2-5 years. You’re certain to find some interesting points that can help you make better decisions. This can be a very effective way to gather data for a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, which is a standard part of a business plan or annual report.
What free data can you find about these demographic categories and their preferences?
I now have a better idea of who my potential consumers are (married and single people of all ages who view their pets as children and are able to spend on high-end services to keep them happy and healthy).
Where do my target consumers live?
So, I want to advertise and base my location in an affluent part of Portland. How do I find this out? Let your tax dollars do the work! The U.S. Census Bureau is a treasure trove of information about U.S. communities. You can find data about age, sex, race, ethnicity, income, veteran status, education, family composition, means of commute, and much more! For this question, I go to Census.gov and searched for Portland, Oregon. I then go to the Map view and chose Median Household Income (2015-2019) as the fact I'm interested in. Below is a screenshot of the results. I can see that Cedar Mill or Bethany might be better locations for my business than Milwaukie or Gresham, if I still assume that people with smaller disposable income are more likely to hit a local dog park than the dog gym. Of course, I need to weigh this information with other variables, like where existing businesses are located.
What do my target consumers like?
In addition to doing a web search for an industry, I can also do a web search for preferences and trends for specific demographic groups. For example, perhaps I now, based on my new data, I want to market to younger pet parents. I can develop a better understanding of this demographic by looking at what’s trending when I search for Gen Z or Millennial. I try adding words like values, spending, or marketing to my searches. One of my favorite demographic research sites is Pew Research Center. They even break down what social media platform different demographics groups use (I'll make sure to use Intagram for marketing to young adults!). Large marketing and consulting companies like SalesForce and McKinsey & Company also pay for demographic research that they sometimes post online for free.
Free doesn’t just mean Google. If you belong to a larger organization like a library or business, you may already have members-only access to a premium market research tool like Mintel. Many public libraries offer detailed, location-based consumer data through the Reference Solutions database Consumer Lifestyles. Ask your librarian or company information specialist what’s available.
What do your customers like (and not like) about their current options?
Because a dog gym isn’t an established industry, it would be helpful to look at similar industries like gyms (for people) and pet-care services (walking, training, grooming/spa, boarding/sitting/daycare). Popular websites like Yelp!, Facebook, and Google Reviews can give a sense of what customers do and don’t like about existing services, and how popular they are. You can get lists of businesses in your industry with Reference Solutions: US Business Database, if you have access through your local library. For my doggy gym, I simply do location-based searches on Yelp!, Google, and Facebook. From this simple search for Indoor Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon, I can see:
Locations of competitors on a map
“Best of” lists
Suggestions for similar industries and keywords
A comparison of ultra high-end vs. inexpensive options
How many locations require owners to be vaccinated or have fully vaccinated staff
Websites, contact information, and services
Response time on that particular platform
All of these details give me a sense of what the standards for similar services are, and what gaps I can fill as a newcomer to the pet services ecosystem in Portland.
I can also scan local newspapers, many of which can be easily cross-searched through databases like Newspaper Source (ask your local librarian about free access). Other local newspapers allow you to search their archives from their website. These newspapers will have press releases, police reports, profiles, and other helpful information about similar businesses. If other doggy services have experienced lawsuits or received positive press, I want to know! This can inform my strategy about what to do--and what not to do. For example, I discover that, with rising summer temperatures, more people are turning to doggy day cares to protect their pooches from the heat.
Putting it all together
I hope this case study will help you do some quick, easy, and free data gathering on your own industry, consumers, and location. Whether you’re a new business owner or an established entrepreneur looking to expand, a data-driven approach can optimize your website, content, service design, marketing, advertising, strategy, and aesthetics.