How to use research to get to know your target audience (2)

How to use research to get to know your target audience

We all know about great products, services or communications campaigns that just didn’t work. There are many reasons for this, but a common one is that the target audience wasn’t really understood. 

When it comes to understanding your target audience, research is vital. 

In this Insights article, we’ll look at:

  • the type of audience research that you can do,
  • the advantages and disadvantages of each,
  • some tips on how to get started and tools to use,
  • how you can determine the right research mix according to your organisation’s resources. 

The type of audience research you can do

Audience (or customer research) Research falls into two categories: Primary and Secondary.

Primary Research is research that you have commissioned or are doing yourself to answer a specific question or test a particular hypothesis. 

What are the advantages of Primary Research?

  • You’re looking into exactly what you need to find out.
  • It allows you to see what people are saying / thinking / doing about the exact area you’re investigating.
  • It’s highly valuable and can deliver incredible insights that can really help your organisation get the results it wants.
  • The findings might provide you with material to write Thought Papers or articles or other marketing collateral.

There are also some disadvantages of the Primary Research:

  • It can be time-consuming and expensive (even if you do it yourself).
  • If you do it yourself, you will have biases that influence the answers you get and your view of these answers.
  • If you commission an external resource to undertake it, the cost significantly increases.
  • If your initial hypothesis that you are testing or the area you are looking at is wrong, you may not realise it until it is too late.

Secondary research is research conducted that looks at already published items. These can be other survey results, Thought Papers, Research Papers, and articles. It is often a bit of a ‘pot luck’ approach to begin with, as you need to figure out which previous research was valuable to what you wanted.

What are the advantages of Secondary Research?

  • You can start it immediately – just start looking as soon as you know what you are looking for.
  • It can challenge your thinking. So, if you begin with the hypothesis, ‘All over 60s hate social media,’ but the first thing you find is a piece of research that says, ‘Over 60s biggest users of Facebook,’ it could make you think.
  • There is a wealth of information out there, and if you keep looking, you can find some real gems. Years ago, I did some secondary research for a client on charities in Wales… I kept the following link after link, and eventually, I found a list of all the charities in Wales in nice neat categories and listed by size. My client later found out this was information that wasn’t widely shared and gave her a huge competitive advantage.

Disadvantages of Secondary Research:

  • It’s time-consuming. That gem I found about charities in Wales? I found that after 5 hours of research.
  • You don’t always find exactly what you’re looking for because you are always diving into other people’s research – so it can have limited use.
  • It can be hard to collate the results of this research in a meaningful way; e.g. you find data on men in Scotland, but it is reported differently to data on men in Italy, so how can you compare the results on each group?
  • You can find an utter gem mentioned in an article or a blog post, but it has no source material quoted, so you can’t actually tell how reliable it is.

Tips on free and easy tools you can use to do audience research

First, look at the data you already have. For example, your organisation will already have access to your customers’ or audience data. 

It can be things like:

  • Buying and spending habits such as amount spent, time spent, what they buy.
  • Website usage, visits, pages they like.
  • E-shot openings and clicks.
  • Social media engagement.

Some of this can lead you to other data – for example, if I want to know more about an organisation, I’ll look at who they follow on social media, what events they have been to, and who they are sharing information from. 

Start by thinking about the data you can already access for your customers/community/audience.

Next, choose some online tools if you want to conduct your own research. SurveyMonkey and Mailchimp both offer questionnaire options. LinkedIn and Facebook allow you to run polls.

There are often free options available to allow you to test if they do what you need them to do. Also, remember about the phone. Phoning people, asking them a few questions, and listening to the answers is a phenomenal way of getting customer insight.

My last ‘go to’ are respected business pages and organisations. Here are some that I always visit when I’m conducting secondary or market research, as I know that they tend to provide information that is researched and backed up:

  • Marketing Week and Campaign for info on audiences and consumer behaviour
  • The Drum for similar info – note they have a US and UK version
  • Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Financial Times for marketplace info but also to see trends
  • UK Government websites such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • Companies House to check out specific organisations or Directors.

Whichever you find when you do your research, check it is a reputable source that is backing up what it is saying with credible facts. 

How you can determine the right research mix according to your organisation’s resources

In an ideal world, every organisation has limitless time and money to spend on customer research. So let’s work with the real world.

First, determine which your organisation has the most of – time, money or both. 

Time poor, budget poor: you’ll need to look at the info you already have on your audience and do some secondary research.

More time, less budget: look at your current audience info and do more research with them directly (Primary Research). Do Secondary research to help fill in the gaps.

More budget, less time: engage an agency to do some Primary audience research and look at and analyse your current audience data. Only do Secondary Research if there is a clear pool of research that relates to what you are looking for.


When it comes to amazingly effective marketing and communications, you have to know your audience, which means you have to research them to get that understanding. 

Next Live Seminar: 5 May 2022

In this Seminar, we’ll help you flesh out the stuff that matters – your Customer Personas Psychographics.
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