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What is secondary research?

Read on to find out more about secondary research, how it differs from primary research, and how you should use secondary market research in your business.

Secondary research is an integral part of your market research plan. With secondary research, you can uncover vital insights into your market, industry, trends, and more—without having to invest the time and funds to do the research yourself.

You may have performed primary market research to gather information directly from your target market, through surveys or other means, to help you make a variety of informed business decisions. 

The secondary research definition is: a research method that uses information that has already been compiled and formatted. It is often used to frame new research. It’s also used to find out if the information you need to uncover has already been explored. It is usually conducted before primary research.

Secondary research is also known as “desk research” because it usually doesn’t require you to go anywhere to access the research data.

There are several reasons you might use secondary research:

  • Identify and fill knowledge gaps in your current research
  • Refine your current or existing primary research 
  • Provide building blocks for new primary research, rather than start from scratch
  • Identify trends in your market that you can take advantage of
  • Augment your research by effectively using credible sources for authentic data that are publicly available 
  • Save costs—it’s more economical to use recent studies with applicable data rather than repeating the data collection yourself
  • Uncover new insights you can use for your business
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Primary research is a methodology for collecting data directly for your own use. Primary research is focused on a specific problem and finding a solution to that problem. It is reliable because it is conducted by the researcher who is going to interpret and use the data. 

Primary research is data collected through interviews, surveys, observations, and focus groups. When you conduct primary research, you know that the data you’ve collected is aimed at your specific business needs. You control the methodology, so you can ensure that the data is accurate and can be used to obtain meaningful business insights and guide solid decision-making.

While it provides reliable results, primary research does have some limitations:

  • It can be time-consuming to conduct interviews or focus groups, create and send surveys, and collect and analyze data. 
  • Primary research can also be expensive, and your business may not have the funds set aside to gather the data you need, depending on the size of your desired dataset. 
  • Sometimes one primary research method isn’t enough and can increase the amount of time and money required to conduct the additional primary research.

Secondary research is the use of existing data from a reliable source to aid in solving a problem or answering a question. It is conducted by collecting existing data online or from journals, books, government websites, or library databases and can be qualitative or quantitative in nature. As the researcher, you would put the relevant data together and collate it in a way that works toward research conclusions. The goal of secondary research is to examine the data collected from prior studies and apply it to the current research context. 

One example of using secondary research to apply the data to current research is in performing due diligence. You’ll search for information about the attractiveness, appeal, and prospects of a future partner, acquisition, or investment, and use this data to supplement your own primary research before making an important business decision.

Check out our quick start guide on how to conduct market research.

Secondary research is extremely advantageous for anyone conducting research. It is an easy, time-saving way to gather useful, existing information.

Some of the advantages include:

  • Easily and readily available data—Data for secondary research is generally readily available online from news articles, reviews, and other readily available analyses. You can usually export data into a spreadsheet for ease of use.
  • Faster research—Data that is already published and available to the public means that you save time collecting data in your primary research.
  • Low financial commitment—While you may have to pay a small fee to access data from some studies, most secondary data sources are publicly available for free. 
  • Fewer costs—Costs for secondary research may include limited purchases of study data compared to the funds needed for primary research surveys, focus groups, interviews, analysis, and interpretation of data.
  • Save time—Initial research has already been completed, so the time it takes to conduct studies is eliminated.
  • Helps provide additional research—Knowledge gaps in secondary research can drive additional primary research into a specific area or follow-up studies into the topic at hand.
  • Useful pre-research insights—Secondary research can be used as the basis for the decision to conduct primary research and to guide the overall research goals.
  • Offers the ability to scale-up results—Secondary sources may include large datasets so that you can scale up your research results quickly and easily.

Like any process, there are some limitations associated with secondary research. 

These limitations include:

The data can be out of date

Because you're not the primary researcher, you don’t have control over research updates. You may try to access data between updates or find that it hasn’t been updated at all. In fast-moving markets, some secondary data may expire quickly.

The research needs to be verified and interpreted

If you’re going to use the data from a secondary source, you’ll need to review, analyze, and verify it for accuracy against other data to ensure you’re using the correct data for your hypotheses and research.

You have no control over the data

As with the updates, you have no control over the data. Examine the methodology and controls closely to ensure the data is error-free.

The data was not collected with new researcher’s goals in mind

Secondary research has been performed with its own set of goals and objectives set by the team performing the research. It may not have the exact data you need or have been conducted in a way you’d prefer.

The data is not exclusive

Secondary data is not only available to you; it’s available to everyone. If you’re using secondary research prominently in your studies, you may run into rights and duplication issues in the future if you choose to make your research publicly available.

There are five essential steps to conducting secondary research: 

  1. Identify and define research topic 

Before you begin your secondary research, it’s critical to identify and define your topic, question, or hypothesis. 

Ask yourself: What is the main point of conducting the research? What is it that you want to achieve? Are you looking to find out why something happened the way it did, or do you want to confirm a hypothesis? 

Depending on your research topic, the answers to these questions will help you discern whether you need to perform primary or secondary research—or a combination of both.

  1. Find existing research and data sources

Once you’ve concluded that you need secondary research, you need to give some thought to trusted, reputable sources for the information you require. Consider what keywords you’ll use in an internet search for data. Are there companies that you know are already working on this research topic?

Compile a list of data sources, information, and experts that may be able to help you find the data you need.

  1. Begin collecting research 

As you begin delving into the data sources you’ve listed, keep detailed notes and stay organized. Set up accounts on research journal sites, and make phone calls to book times to speak with research teams to verify details in data. 

Check each study’s date of publication, the credibility of the resource, and relevance to your research topic. If the information is too old, from a source that may be unreliable, or the data isn’t quite what you’re looking for, pass on it and look for another source.

  1. Combine the data 

This is where your organization in step three pays off. Combine your collected data in one place to filter and order it in a way that makes it easy to use. Delete any unnecessary data, such as data that’s in a format other than what you’re directly using.

Begin looking at your data sets. Are they all relevant to your research? Do you need to compare different data sets over time to examine trends? Does this data help or hinder my research efforts?

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  1. Analyze the data 

As you look at the information you’ve compiled, return to step one. Have you answered your original question? Have you achieved what you set out to do? Are there any gaps in your data? Do you understand the data you’ve collected in a way that relates to your goal? If you feel you need more data, repeat the steps with these needs in mind. Add new knowledge to your findings and update as needed.

If you are unable to find secondary sources of data that meet your needs, you may need to perform some primary research to fill the gaps.

Secondary research is separated into two types of sources: internal and external. 

The first place you want to look for secondary research is within your organization. In-house data can give you a competitive edge because you own the data. Even though it is research that has been conducted within your organization, it is still considered secondary research if you didn’t perform the research yourself.

Examples of internal data include:

  • Database information on your company’s sales history
  • Database information on business goal conversions
  • Information from websites and mobile website data (analytics)
  • Customer-generated data on product efficiency and use (reviews and surveys)
  • Previous research results
  • Supplemental research results
  • Previous campaign results

Data published outside of your organization is considered external data. Your organization does not own the data and may have to obtain permission to use it. External data is useful when you need information on a new topic, need to fill knowledge gaps, or desire data that breaks down a market for trend analysis.

Examples of external data include the following:

  • Government agencies
  • Trade body statistics
  • Company reports and research
  • Competitor research
  • Public libraries
  • Textbooks
  • Research journals
  • Media stories
  • Online journals
  • Online research sites
  • US Census Bureau offers a vast amount of information about US demographics and trends. This resource is free.
  • Harvard Business Review has studies on market trends, industry strategies, and thought-leadership articles. Some information is free, but full access requires a subscription.
  • Statista offers global business data across 170 industries. Some data is free, and other studies require an account to access.
  • Pew Research Center offers demographic research, opinion polling results, and other nonpartisan facts.
  • Dun & Bradstreet provides data, analytics, and commercial insights for millions of businesses.
  • Directory of Associations helps you find an association for your industry to investigate their research.

Secondary research is usually conducted at the beginning of an exploratory research project to put the current landscape into perspective. You can use it to form background context to a topic that’s new to a researcher by bridging knowledge gaps and supplementing learning.

You can also use secondary research with primary research to help you hone in on areas that require primary research or to verify existing primary research findings. You can also use secondary research to provide supplementary knowledge about a topic from a variety of perspectives.

Tip: Do not use secondary research as a substitute for primary research. They are very different, and your approach must take into account what data you need.

  • What is my goal?
    • A clear goal and understanding of what you want to achieve with your research will guide you in finding the right kind of secondary research or conducting the relevant primary research to support your goals.
      • Example: You’ll find more information about your market’s buying patterns in internal or external research about ecommerce and sales data sources than in media sources.
  • How credible will my research be?
    • Credibility is based on accuracy. How accurate do you need your results to be? Will you have to sacrifice any credibility to use secondary sources to get started faster? 
      • Highly-biased sites, such as those of political parties, will skew your results. Try to stick with authoritative, reputable sources.
  • What is the date of the secondary research?
    • In most cases, you need the most recent data to make your research as useful as possible. Using data that’s a decade old won’t provide accurate, helpful research for most purposes.
      • The only time to use a secondary data source that includes past years is when it is a study that collects data over a long-term period for comparison. This can reveal important information about the rate and direction of change.
  • Can the data be verified?
    • Study the research methodology. If the information you need isn’t there, contact the research team that conducted the study or cross-check the facts with other research. If you can’t verify the data, it could be inaccurate. Quantitative research is easier to verify than qualitative research because it uses numerical data.
      • Try using another source or perform some primary research to replicate and verify the results.
  • How was the data collected?
    • Again, this refers to methodology. Look for inconsistencies and thorough explanations of how the data collection process supports or damages the credibility of the source.
      • Is there any type of bias influencing the results?
  • What is my research methodology?
    • Is the structure of the secondary data suitable for your research needs? Will it be compatible with your preferred methodology for analysis? Will it fit in with your overall research design?

There are so many good reasons to use secondary research; even if it’s a jumping-off point for your primary research, you should definitely consider adding it to your plan. All you need to do is look at step one of the process to figure out if it’s a good fit. 

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