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Effective and (Almost) Free Marketing Research

by Roberta Guise, M.B.A.

Roberta Guise, MBA, works with experts, small business owners and professionals who want to be extraordinarily visible and sharpen their marketing edge. A marketing consultant and speaker, she owns San Francisco-based Guise Marketing & PR. You can reach her at 415-979-0611or .

Visit www.guisemarketing.com/articles for more articles and tips to help you with your marketing challenges and increase your visibility.

When you wrote the benefits section of your brochure, web site or sales letter, did you make assumptions about why clients buy from you? If you didn’t first survey your best clients to hear what they value most about you, you probably made assumptions, and those assumptions could be off target.

For many people the thought of doing research sends shudders down the spine. "Too costly!" they think. "Too time consuming. Too difficult. And what if the results are bad?"

In fact, effective research can be simple, doesn’t have to take much time, and can provide you with priceless information for running and promoting your business. And if the results are bad – you’ve been delivered a golden opportunity to keep a client happy or even prevent a disaster.

Situations change for us and for clients, and because the speed of business is accelerating, situations can change quickly. What you know today may be different very soon, so it’s important to keep up with your research. If you adopt a research attitude, both you and your clients will benefit. The bottom line is this: You can never know too much about your customers and prospects.

Start your research with current clients. They have an opinion about you, and there’s an added bonus: they may know a few things about your competition too, which they’ll gladly share with you. By asking clients a few questions about their business and about how they perceive your company, you’ll know where you need to improve or change your services to them, and you’ll know how best to promote your business to your different target markets.

Remember that brochure and Web site? If you really want your message to resonate so prospects want to do business with your firm, choose words that clients use to describe why they hired you. You'll trigger their "Aha!" Button.

It’s easy. Survey a few current clients; ask for an informational interview with a few prospects. Here’s what you’ll find out:

You'll know what services they want. What you want to do for your clients may not be what they want right now (even though they might need it). You’ll be able to make sure that what you offer is what they want and intend to buy.

Your perceptions of your business will align with how clients perceive you. You may think that returning phone calls or responding to e-mails within 24 hours is being responsive. To your clients, waiting 24 hours to get a question answered might seem like an eternity. Get your clients’ definition of responsiveness, and see if you’re on the same page.

You can identify a new target market. Target markets are commonly characterized by geography (location), or industry, or size. If you’re looking to reach a new type of customer, try this: Strike a different path and look for prospects by business culture, by reputation for being ‘green,’ by their support of social causes, or that have a diverse employee population.

You’ll be clear on how you stack up against the competition. Find out if any of your clients has worked with your competition or interviewed them for a project. They usually won’t hold back and will tell you what they think, good and bad.

For example, an engineering consultant client of mine wanted to know the best way to position and market her company. Her competition was primarily large firms with vast resources and geographic reach and she was a solo practitioner. I queried her clients on issues such as:

Perception of firm size and capabilities, and how that perception affects the decision to engage her services

Firm location

How clients use the internet in their business

What kinds of information they would find valuable on this engineer’s Web site


We got plenty of answers and the client received an unexpected benefit — two customers called right after their interviews with new projects.

There are other important questions you can answer with research. They include:


Who are your most profitable customers and prospects?

What’s the best way to reach prospects?

How do they perceive your services and products?

How can you profitably satisfy their needs and wants?

What do your customers read, do for leisure? How do they use the Internet?

What new target markets could you be pursuing?

Is the market you currently serve growing, stable or shrinking?

Who is your primary competition (you and your customers or prospects may have different answers!)


You can’t afford not to do research, because what you don’t know definitely can hurt you. You could be wasting time and money offering your services to prospects who don’t want or understand what you do, or don’t get how they’ll benefit. Or you could be putting your resources exactly where they’ll do the most good, and now’s the time to do more of it.

So make research a habit. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to:


Read newspapers, trade and business publications

Search the internet to glean information about specific companies, and to be on top of industry trends

Review federal, state, local and trade resources for data on the economy and target markets

Study your competition to see how they promote their companies and do business

Join trade associations of industries you’re targeting and get active in leadership roles

And, perhaps most important of all, talk to your current customers. They’ll appreciate that you value their opinions and will reward you with information you can use in your business


Like exercise that can help keep your body in shape, marketing research is a tonic for keeping your business healthy. It will help you fine-tune and focus your growth, and make your marketing efforts effective, targeted and rewarding. 

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