Key data sources for B2B secondary research
July 8, 2020
In most B2B research projects, primary research interviews typically tell only part of the story. Secondary research can be a cost-effective, easy, and quick way to access even more information that can help us with a project objective. Here are the key data sources for secondary research in B2B.
Why is secondary market research important?
What are the different data sources in B2B secondary research?
Bringing it together
Why is secondary market research important?
Most business-to-business (B2B) research projects involve qualitative and/or quantitative interviews with business decision-makers. Typically, these B2B market research methods only tell part of the story.
Often there is additional information available, both online and offline, that could help us to obtain a better understanding of the problem.
Secondary research – also called ‘desk research’ – can be a cost-effective, easy, and quick way to access even more information.
Information gathered through secondary research is often used to help with the design of the primary research, e.g., coming up with a list of competitors to include in a survey. However, desk research can also help with some of the core objectives for a project.
So what are the benefits of secondary market research? We think it helps with the following project objectives:
- Understanding the structure and size of a market – for example: using government datasets to estimate the number of potential customers, and to identify in which sectors/locations to find them; using a variety of sources to develop a view of the competitive landscape
- Uncovering brand perceptions – for example, reading review sites, analyst reports, and online forums to develop an understanding of how the market perceives each of the brands in the market
- Gathering competitive or customer intelligence – for example, reviewing customer or competitors’ websites, marketing collateral and investor relations reports, with the goal of gathering intelligence on their strategic plans, their revenues, marketing activity and product specs
- Building lists – for example: using directories to build a list of potential prospects; using tools such as Kred to identify key influencers/experts in an industry; publicly available information to create a detailed profile of a decision-maker that can be used in Account-Based Marketing (ABM)
- Developing an initial understanding of the buying process – for example, using tools such as Google Keywords to explore how customers and prospects search for or find products such as yours, and tools such as Google Analytics to explore how they behave once on your website
- Informing content marketing strategy – for example, using keyword research tools to identify the content topics that would have the most impact
- Exploring industry trends – for example, using business and trade press to identify political, demographic, economic or technological trends that might impact the industry
- Undertaking a risk analysis – for example, using business and trade press to identify financial, operational, compliance, technological, strategic or reputational risks
What are the different data sources in B2B secondary research?
Once you know what you are looking for, you need to know where to look. There tend to be ten types of information source that are useful in B2B secondary research:
1. Regular government datasets
2. Special government reports
3. Company directories and databases
4. Market research reports
5. Company websites
6. Online communities
8. Trade associations
9. General, business and trade press
10. Social and search tools
In the rest of this article, we’re going to look at each source of secondary market research data, in turn, to answer the following questions:
- Which objectives do they help you achieve?
- What sources are most useful?
#1. Regular government datasets
Helpful for: exploring the size and structure of a market.
For many B2B desk research projects, we suggest looking at government datasets of business demographics. These datasets allow you to explore the number of businesses in a specific location by industry and size segments.
This information is particularly helpful when you are trying to understand the structure or size of a specific market. However, the quality/depth of the data varies by region/country:
- For the US, look for the Statistics of US Business dataset at www.census.gov
- For the EU, look for the Structural Business Statistics dataset at http://ec.europa.eu/info/statistics_en
- For the UK, look for Business Demography datasets at the Office for National Statistics
- Global resources tend to be less detailed and less up-to-date, but we recommend the UN Statistical Database and nationmaster.com. Other intergovernmental institutions, such as the OECD, WTO, IMF and the World Bank, can occasionally have relevant information
Most governmental departments have additional datasets that are regularly published as well. For example, in the US:
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an excellent site for B2B industry-specific information, including data on employment, productivity, pay and costs by industry and region
- The Department of Commerce publishes information about products, services, and industries. The most valuable data is often trade-related, including information on import/export markets
#2. Special government reports
Helpful for: gathering competitive intelligence; exploring industry trends.
Government data isn’t just limited to quantitative datasets. Often, there are reports and publications which provide more qualitative insights.
For example, we recommend searching for rulings by global competition and consumer protection authorities such as the Federal Trade Commission. These authorities regularly publish reports regarding potential mergers and acquisitions.
These reports can reveal a lot about an industry or a specific company’s strategy. As a result, they are instrumental when you are trying to explore industry trends or gather competitive intelligence.
But what if you aren’t sure about where to look for this valuable governmental information? Often what you are looking for is buried in a little-known website run by an obscure governmental organization.
The good news is that in some countries, all official websites share the same top-level domain. In the UK, all government websites end in .gov.uk. In the US, they end in .gov.
To discover data from government organizations that aren’t on our list, just start your Google search with site:.gov (in the US), or site:.gov.uk (in the UK).
#3. Company directories and databases
Helpful for: gathering customer or competitive intelligence; building lists; exploring the structure and size of a market.
Government datasets look at an industry or market on an aggregate level. The downside of this approach is that you often can’t control who is included or excluded from the aggregate, and so your estimates can be incorrect.
That is where company directories and databases come in. They allow us to look at a market in more detail, and potentially refine estimates of market size/structure.
They also allow us to gather more information on customers or competitors. Specifically, we can:
- Identify key decision-makers and officers that may be worth contacting
- Research basic facts about a company, such as location, structure, subsidiaries and size
- Research more about a company’s business activities, including their spend; their products and services; their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT); their media presence
- Build a deeper understanding of the competitive landscape, including key competitors; financial performance of the industry and specific providers
There are several different types of provider of this sort of information:
- Pure directories – these companies allow you to identify key individuals within a company, and provide a few pieces of essential company information. Providers include: Hoovers, Zoominfo, Kompass, Yellow Pages, Bloomberg. LinkedIn is essentially a pure directory, though it has some additional functionality
- Specialist directories – these companies typically specialize in a specific vertical or company type (e.g., manufacturing, start-ups) and provide not just contact information but also more detailed information on the company’s activities and the competitive landscape. Examples include: Crunchbase and AngelList (for companies with VC/PE funding), ThomasNet (for manufacturing)
- Detailed databases – these companies go beyond ‘pure directories’ by also providing more information about companies’ activities, including SWOT analyses and estimates of spend and performance. Examples include: D&B, PrivCo, DataFox, Reference USA, NetAdvantage
- Government directories – in the UK, financial data on companies is also available from Companies House
#4. Market research reports
Helpful for: gathering customer or competitive intelligence; exploring the structure and size of a market; exploring industry trends; undertaking a risk analysis.
Many market research companies focus on a different type of research to Adience. They publish reports about specific industries and issues without a client asking; they just assume the need is there.
These reports typically look at:
- Industry structure
- Industry size
- Industry performance and outlook
- The competitive landscape
- Providers’ market share
- Key trends and challenges
While these reports sound great in theory, they often won’t precisely match what a company needs. Some are too specific, some too generic. Many are out of date.
Regardless, it can be useful to check with these companies to see if they have data that would be of use. Unfortunately, reports can often be expensive, but will still be cheaper than conducting a bespoke research project.
The following providers often have a lot of the most relevant reports: IBISWorld, First Research, Business Monitor Online, Mintel, Forrester, Gartner, Euromonitor, MarketLine, ICD Research, World Market Intelligence.
Additionally, marketresearch.com is an excellent place to start, as it aggregates many of the research reports in the market.
However, the market research industry is increasingly moving away from monolithic reports. Frequently, it is possible to access bitesize charts and data via subscription. We recommend Statista and marketingcharts.com.
Some research analysts specialize in specific industries, and as a result, produce more detailed/tailored reports. They might call themselves consultancies, or analyst houses, but their output is pretty similar.
#5. Company websites
Helpful for: gathering customer or competitive intelligence; exploring industry trends; undertaking a risk analysis; building lists.
Of course, one of the most useful sources of information about any company is its website.
Companies are often happy to share a lot of competitive intelligence about themselves on their site, such as product specs, key decision-makers, and messaging/positioning strategy.
However, publicly listed companies share a lot more information about themselves on their website via their Investor Relations page. Investor Relations documents often disclose details of:
- How a market is structured
- Sources of sales
- Company strategy
- Risks faced
You can also access this information via the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) web site (www.sec.gov), or from the Public Register’s Annual Report Service, or AnnualReports.com.
#6. Online communities
Helpful for: gathering customer intelligence; exploring industry trends; exploring brand perceptions; developing an initial understanding of the buying process; building lists; informing content marketing strategy.
It is straightforward to explore consumers’ attitudes and perceptions online. You just have to go on any popular forum or social network.
Unfortunately, this is a lot more difficult in the world of B2B research. B2B decision-makers tend to be a lot more private in sharing opinions of their vendors.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any useful information out there. In our experience, you can still find a lot of interesting information if you look in the right place:
- Your target audience’s priorities and challenges
- The key trends that are impacting the industry, whether political, economic, sociological or technological
- What the target audience thinks of an organization
- The personal preferences and interests of critical decision-makers that you might want to target through ABM
- The language that decision-makers, so you can craft messaging that will resonate
- Some of the steps that a buyer makes when informing himself/herself about a specific product or brand (e.g., whether they ask questions on online communities)
So, where do you need to look? We suggest the following channels:
- LinkedIn – great for exploring the interests and background of a specific individual. Additionally, if you’re able to join a special interest community (e.g., a group full of your target audience), you can get a real sense of their mindset
- Facebook/Twitter – occasionally useful for similar reasons to LinkedIn. However, communities are rarer, so you just have to try to identify the key influencers and individuals. That often requires paid social tools such as Hootsuite
- Review sites – reviews can also be useful to explore brand perceptions and competitor activity. B2B customer reviews aren’t always readily available on websites like Trustpilot. However, you can find them if you look in the right place (e.g., Quora, Glassdoor, industry blogs)
- Specialist online forums/communities – in each industry, there is often an online community of decision-makers. Sometimes they gather in a formal group on LinkedIn or an industry-specific forum. Other times they are more of an informal community built around something else – for example, in the comments of a popular industry blog
Helpful for: exploring industry trends; developing an initial understanding of the buying process; exploring the structure and size of a market.
The business departments of academic institutions conduct a lot of research about the business world. This research is valuable because it is accurate and reliable, and because it lays down a theoretical foundation for understanding an industry or issue.
Much of the output from academic research can be accessed through specific journals. Google Scholar is a great way to find the article or journal that suits your needs quickly.
However, journals often require a subscription. Here are some alternative ways to access academic insights:
- Some academic outputs aren’t behind a paywall – e.g., graduate student projects or theses
- Some professors provide consulting services in their spare time, so may consider sharing insights or findings for a lower fee than a journal subscription
#8. Trade associations
Helpful for: exploring industry trends; exploring the structure and size of a market; undertaking risk analysis; gathering competitive or customer intelligence; building lists; informing content marketing.
Nearly every trade has a collective body to represent its interests. For example, there’s even an association for Fintech professionals. Most of these organizations produce a lot of relevant information about their industry:
- Directories of companies in a specific trade
- Key trends, challenges and focus areas
- Information about market size, performance, structure and outlook
Some of this information is not publicly available. However, associations are often willing to share it with researchers who reach out with a request.
The key is not just to look at your industry’s trade association but also the trade association of your customers. Doing so will allow you to develop messaging and content, which will resonate with their mindset.
#9. General, business and trade press
Helpful for: exploring industry trends; exploring the structure and size of a market; undertaking risk analysis; gathering competitive or customer intelligence.
The press is a crucial source for any researcher. First, news reports can help a researcher to identify trends or risks, as well as to develop a better understanding of customer or competitor strategies.
Second, they often publish supplemental reports that provide more background on an industry.
#10. Social and search tools
Helpful for: exploring brand perceptions; building lists; developing an initial understanding of the buying process; informing content marketing strategy.
Finally, we recommend using a range of tools for search advertising and social media marketing. These tools allow us to gather the information that we wouldn’t be able to if we used other sources.
- Keyword research tools (e.g., Moz, Ahrefs) – make it possible to identify what a customer or prospect does before arriving at a website. They can be used to inform content marketing decisions
- Website analytics tools (e.g., Google Analytics) – deepen our understanding of how individuals behave once on a website. They can be used to inform content marketing strategy, as well as to build our knowledge of the buying process
- Social influence tools (e.g., Kred, PeerIndex) – allow us to identify key influencers or decision-makers in an industry. That means we can build lists of target individuals, as well as to build a profile of these individuals’ needs and attitudes, which can inform marketing strategy
- Social analytics tools (e.g., Hootsuite, BrandMentions) – allow us to explore, among other things, the priorities and challenges that decision-makers are discussing, as well as the language that is used to discuss them
Bringing it together
Let’s bring this all together.
Eight different objectives can be achieved by conducting secondary research. And there are ten different types of information that you can use to conduct it.
But which information types help with which objectives? The image below should help:
Summary of the 10 key data sources for B2B secondary research
Regular government datasets
Government datasets of business demographics are helpful for understanding the size and structure of a specific market (e.g. census.gov, Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Special government reports
In addition to the demographic datasets, there are a lot of industry reports and publications that government departments publish. Of particular interest are rulings by competition and consumer protection authorities (e.g. FTC).
Company directories and databases
Directories and databases (e.g. Zoominfo, Crunchbase, D&B, Companies House) allow you to build market size estimates when government datasets aren’t granular enough. These databases can also help you to build lists or gather competitor or customer intelligence.
Market research reports
Some research analysts publish monolithic industry research reports, most of which can be found at marketresearch.com. These reports are often too generic to be useful, but occasionally they provide the information you need for a relatively low price. Increasingly, companies like Statista are allowing researchers to access bitesize charts and data via subscription.
Companies reveal a lot about themselves on their websites, especially if they are publicly listed. Investor Relations documents provide a lot of information about: how a market is structured; a company’s strategy; the major risks in the industry.
LinkedIn groups, review sites and specialist online communities can provide a lot of interesting information if you know where to look. For example, you can learn more about perceptions of a brand, as well as get a better understanding of how people make purchasing decisions.
The business departments of academic institutions conduct a lot of research of their own, which can be useful in understanding industry trends, of developing an understanding of buyer attitudes.
Nearly every trade has a collective body to represent its interests. These associations produce a lot of relevant information, including: company lists; trend reports; information about market size and structure.
General, business and trade press
News articles and special reports can help a research to identify trends, gather customer intelligence, and generally get more background on an industry.
Social and search tools
There are a variety of social and search tools that allow researchers to gather information they can’t get elsewhere: keyword research tools; website analytics tools; social influence tools; social analytics tools.
Chris Wells is a B2B marketing researcher and strategist. He was previously on the management team at B2B research specialist Circle Research, winners of the Best Research Agency at the 2016 MRS Awards. Chris has helped to deliver hundreds of research and strategy projects for B2B organizations.