Understanding the differences: primary vs secondary research

Understanding the differences: primary vs secondary research

Primary vs secondary research

Most B2B insight projects involve at least some primary research. It provides a competitive edge, by uncovering exclusive insights only your business has access to (unless you share them to position your brand as a thought leader).

But too often, secondary research – also known as desk research – is underused. It can be a cost-effective way of giving businesses rich information that helps solve their challenges.

Yet not enough market research companies use secondary research methods when they should. Instead, they sometimes fixate on the results of their primary research and deliver a project with key gaps in their reporting.

In B2B market research:

  • Primary research methods engage directly with the business decision-makers to uncover unique insights into their attitudes and behavior
  • Secondary research methods use publicly available data to answer questions about decision-maker attitudes and behaviors

No matter what information you need, there’s a good chance that at least some of it will be available via a secondary research process. Let’s start with some simple examples. 

Company X has a new product idea that’s best suited to small companies with fewer than 100 staff members. As a starting point, they want to know how many firms meet that criteria in the US.

Based on publicly available data from NAICS, 89% of US companies have under 100 staff. They can also use some other data sources for comparison.

Next, let’s say Company X also estimates their product will be most popular with millennials in the workforce. Desk research shows that a few years ago, 35% were millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – further searching may provide more recent existing data too.

Company X can continue with secondary research to get more specific market sizing data in the US, before moving on to other markets as well if necessary.

But ultimately, when Company X is ready to begin new product development, the insights will then need to come from primary research.

It will need to test and learn how the target audience responds to concepts, pricing, UX, marcomms, and so on.

Naturally, that data won’t be available anywhere online, so Company X will need to conduct primary research as well, to get the information required.

That’s one example of how the use cases differ between primary and secondary research, but there are many more. To begin, let’s take a look at the research objectives supported by secondary research and the sources you can use.

Contents

How to do secondary research

Benefits of secondary research

Best practices for secondary research in B2B

How to do primary research

Benefits of primary research

Best practices for primary research in B2B

 

 

How to do secondary research

There’s much more to secondary research than just typing a few words into Google’s search engine and browsing through the results.

To get accurate data, you need a more targeted approach. These are the ten main types of data sources we recommend using for B2B secondary research:

  • Regular government datasets: e.g. Bureau of Labor Statistics or Census.gov
  • Special government reports: e.g. FTC rulings
  • Company directories and databases: e.g. Zoominfo, Crunchbase, or D&B
  • Market research reports: e.g. Statista or Marketresearch.com
  • Company websites: In particular, look for annual reports on an Investor Relations page if they’re public companies
  • Online communities: e.g. LinkedIn groups
  • Academia: e.g. Google Scholar
  • Trade associations
  • General, business, and trade press
  • Social and search tools

Information gathered through secondary research can often assist with the design of primary research questions. For example, if you need a list of competitors for each market you operate in, desk research is a great option. 

And of course, secondary research also supports some of the core objectives for common project types.

Benefits of secondary research

There are eight common B2B research objectives that these secondary research sources can help with. These are:

  • Market size & structure
  • Brand perceptions
  • Market Intelligence
  • List building
  • Buying process
  • Content marketing
  • Industry trends
  • Risk analysis

Here are some examples of how secondary research can support each objective:

#1 Market size & structure

Analyzing government datasets can give estimates for the size of a new market and identify where to find customers. Other sources will provide a view of the competitive landscape.

#2 Brand perceptions

Review sites, analyst reports, and online forums reveal how the market perceives each brand in the market. Social media research tools such as Hootsuite can show the challenges that decision-makers are discussing.

#3 Market Intelligence

Competitors’ websites, marketing collateral, and investor relations reports can share intelligence on their strategic plans, revenues, marketing activity, and product specs.

#4 List building

To build a list of potential prospects, directories, and tools such as Kred can identify key influencers or experts in an industry.

#5 Buying process

Explore how customers and prospects search for products like yours. Also, tools such as Google Analytics reveal how they behave on your website during the buying process.

#6 Content marketing

Keyword research tools such as Moz and Ahrefs identify customers’ search intent and therefore the marketing and thought leadership topics that should have the most impact. 

#7 Industry trends

Business and trade press insights keep you up-to-date with the political, demographic, economic, or technological trends that could affect your industry.

#8 Risk analysis

These same publications can also identify financial, operational, compliance, technological, strategic, or reputational risks that require monitoring.

Best practices for secondary research in B2B

#1 Capture secondary research data systematically

Unlike primary research, which has tried-and-tested analysis formats – data tables, interview transcripts, etc. – there is no uniform way to capture secondary research data.

A simple approach is to copy and paste relevant information found online into a Word doc, or a cloud-based Google doc.

But without a clear structure, secondary research in this format will be difficult to analyze – particularly if the document is tens of pages long, or if there are several documents.

The best desk research format greatly depends on your research objectives. In many cases, it helps to treat desk research like a quasi-quantitative exercise, by collating the data you find in a spreadsheet.

Even if the insights you’re looking for are qualitative, collecting information in spreadsheets with clearly labeled columns and rows will mean it’s easy for anyone to pick up and scan.

#2 Define secondary research parameters clearly

There are 1.13bn websites out there, according to Forbes Advisor. But thankfully, only 18% are active! 

Still, that means there are over 200m websites – some with vast databases of information, so it goes without saying that you can’t browse them all.

A common trap with secondary research is to set a scope that’s too broad, usually because it’s not precisely defined enough. Asking desk researchers to find all the data you want in these circumstances falls into the ‘boiling the ocean’ category – it’s impossible.

Instead, successful desk research has SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

#3 Be ready to pivot to primary research quickly if needed

This is particularly important – it’s worth setting a sensible time limit around the number of desk research hours.

If experienced researchers can’t find the information in that timeframe, that probably means the data isn’t publicly available.

In this case, you will need to include the relevant question in primary research to find the answer.

How to do primary research

Primary research methods involve recruiting, interviewing, and analyzing the responses of a target audience to get insights into their views, attitudes, and behavior.

The two types of primary research are quantitative and qualitative. In short, the different functions of quantitative vs qualitative research are:

  • Quantitative research (a.k.a. quant) tests or validates information that is countable, measurable, and ratable using numerical data collection methods – revealing what people do or think
  • Qualitative research (a.k.a. qual) analyzes information based on communication – telling you why people act or think a certain way

Using the right primary research methodology can help you make many types of decisions.

For example, the insights could inform the way you optimize sales and growth strategies, or find areas where you could reduce costs and resources.

Alternatively, you can conduct primary research to pinpoint the most effective marcomms strategy or see how to target customers efficiently.

Typical product types can help you:

And more. But different project types require different methodologies – some need quant, others need qual, and some need both:

Benefits of primary research

Primary research can have a wide range of benefits, depending on your business objectives. These include:

But arguably what matters most is the part it can play in helping businesses to grow. 

Data that is robust enough will evidence-based decisions, with the potential to achieve better results. For example, data-driven B2B sales can lead to a 15-25% growth in profits, a McKinsey study shows.

And according to Think With Google, companies that are highly data-driven have been three times as likely to see major improvements in decision-making. Yet 62% still prefer to rely more on advice or experience, instead of data.

However, the insights behind informed decisions shouldn’t only be statistical. Many of the most valuable insights come from a qual research method, because you need to understand the reasons why particular decisions will have an effect.

Overall, primary research provides a competitive edge by delivering unique and bespoke insights that can’t be found elsewhere. They’re not publicly available – they take time and the right level of expertise to uncover.

Best practices for primary research in B2B

#1 Design the research with a B2B audience in mind

In many ways, B2C and B2B marketers have the same job description – creating and maintaining demand for their employer’s products and services.

And the research industry tends to have more systems in place for consumer research. As an example, the vast majority of research panels are B2C – and that makes sense because there are many more consumers than businesses in any country.

However, in primary research, it doesn’t make sense to use a standardized B2C approach for a business audience.

There are many ways B2B research differs from consumer research – for example, because:

  • Senior B2B decision-makers are time-poor
  • A product or service purchase decision-making process tends to be longer and more complex in B2B
  • Decision-making usually involves multiple stakeholders

These factors should impact how you design a primary research method to get the most accurate, highest-quality results. 

For instance, marketing focus groups rarely work well for a time-poor B2B audience. Instead, you’ll likely need to consider one-to-one interviews or perhaps, a private online community or mobile diary study.

These considerations also affect things like how to incentivize a senior audience, or how to ask about their decision-making criteria, and so on.

#2 Take extra steps to improve B2B respondent quality

For any particular research project in B2B, the insights will only be valuable if they come from respondents who accurately reflect your target audience.

That’s not straightforward though. Not only do senior decision-makers have little time for research – gatekeepers will protect their schedule and it’s difficult to incentivize B2B decision-makers to take part.

Moreover, the target market is much smaller compared to B2C research, so there are far fewer eligible respondents.

As mentioned, it’s rarely the case that research panels will have the B2B respondents you’re looking for, even though many will claim otherwise. Instead, key resources for finding them include:

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Online forums
  • Trade press
  • Events or conferences
  • Industry associations
  • Buying a list

Other efficient options include leveraging your existing data in a CRM, recruiting visitors already on your website, or browsing your competitors’ marketing e.g. for clients’ names and job titles.

Strict screening and sampling criteria are also essential to make sure that only high-quality, reliable B2B respondents participate in your study.

#3 Tailor your primary research process for different markets

If you operate in several countries, international B2B market research can be very useful in shaping your strategy.

Just bear in mind that the more markets you want insights for, the more complex the primary research requirements.

For starters, you’ll need to localize your research materials. They need to be translated and checked by native speakers, to pick up all the nuances – Google Translate can’t do this.

Qualitative research will need fluent moderators to discuss complex topics and pick up on non-verbal cues, the emotions behind what respondents are saying, and more.

Also, fieldwork dates or times of day that work well in one country may be bad in another. Lastly, research in some countries may even require a different methodology – in some markets, B2B respondents expect a face-to-face approach, so an online survey won’t suit them.

Summary

Primary vs. secondary research

Do your business objectives need primary or secondary research (or both)? The difference between primary and secondary research is:

Primary research methods engage directly with the business decision-makers to uncover unique insights into their attitudes and behavior. 

Secondary research methods use publicly available data to answer questions about business decision-maker attitudes and behaviors.

How to do secondary research

These are the ten main types of data sources we recommend using for B2B secondary research: 

Regular government datasets; special government reports; company directories and databases; market research reports; company websites; online communities; academia; trade associations; general, business, and trade press; social and search tools.

Benefits of secondary research

There are eight common B2B research objectives that these secondary research sources can help with. These are: 

Market size & structure; brand perceptions; market intelligence; list building; buying process; content marketing; industry trends; risk analysis.

Best practices for secondary research in B2B

We recommend that you: capture secondary research data systematically; define secondary research parameters clearly; be ready to pivot to primary research quickly if needed.

How to do primary research

The two types of primary research are quantitative and qualitative – the differences are:

Quantitative research (a.k.a. quant) tests or validates information that is countable, measurable, and ratable using numerical data collection methods – revealing what people do or think.

Qualitative research (a.k.a. qual) analyzes information based on communication – telling you why people act or think a certain way.

Benefits of primary research

Primary research can have a wide range of benefits, depending on your business objectives. These include: 

Understanding how to sell more effectively; segmenting a target audience; assessing new markets; informing brand development activities; analyzing customers’ buying process; tracking customer perceptions; informing product development; identifying the path to growth.

Best practices for primary research in B2B

We recommend that you: design the research with a B2B audience in mind; take extra steps to improve B2B respondent quality; tailor your primary research process for different markets.

Chris Wells
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