Marketing intelligence can help you understand the priorities, motivations, decision-making styles and budgets of your target customers. This information can lead to insights that are useful in setting strategic direction and making day-to-day decisions for your business.
Paid sources of marketing intelligence include market research firms, trend experts and trade associations. But you can also tap free sources of information that can help you to:
- Select (or design) products with features and performance capabilities most desired by your ideal customers.
- Define market positioning in a competitive landscape.
- Determine price points based on competitive positioning as well as the quality of products and customer service.
- Categorize customers into market segments.
- Shape approaches to interacting with customers.
- Create marketing messages that convey what differentiates your business.
- Drive adoption of new business practices, changes in product offerings, etc. based on emerging trends and market innovations.
Consider these free approaches to gathering market intelligence:
Shop the market
One of the simplest and least expensive ways to gather market intelligence is to visit your competitors' places of business. Start with your local market and direct competitors, then expand research to include businesses in your industry that have slightly different price points and serve different types of customers. If your travel budget permits, travel to major markets, domestically and internationally.
During your visits, evaluate the customer experience. Notice the ease of locating the place of business along with its signage and parking, merchandise displays, employee greetings, offers of assistance (if any), and approaches to assessing and fulfilling needs. Pay attention to details such as forms of payment accepted, service guarantees, loyalty programs and return policies.
Analyze product offerings and individual items. Make a purchase of key items—those very similar to your top-selling items, prominently displayed, or recommended frequently by sales associates—for closer examination. Look at product components, construction, features and aesthetics along with packaging, inserts, instructions and warnings. Test performance under various conditions. See if a proprietary technology is leveraged to improve performance.
Listen to sales associates interact with customers and present products. Pay attention to features that are emphasized, noting those that are similar and dissimilar to your lines. Observe customers' reactions to see if they are delighted, satisfied, confused or annoyed with sales approaches.
Visit multiple stores two to three times each year to: get a feel for peaks and valleys associated with customer traffic, detect trends, and develop expertise in how business practices tend to drive sales.
Visit e-commerce sites
Analyze the customer experience and product offerings in a way that is similar to a real-life visit as much as possible. Search for products, read product descriptions and note features most prominently mentioned. Interact with staff via phone, email or live chat. Make a purchase and see how quickly the package arrives and how well the product performs. Compare your business practices, merchandise selection, ease of site navigation, and service to your competitors.
Learn from customer testimonials
Market intelligence is often embedded in customer testimonials. Customers may volunteer information that helps you to comprehend the key factors that differentiate your business, product features and service nuances most valued by your customer, customer profiles and problems your employees solve on a routine basis.
The idea of using testimonials as abbreviated focus group sessions was introduced to me by Heidi Kallett, owner of The Dandelion Patch, a specialty retailer of fine stationery and gifts. As she listened to her customers' stories, she discovered that customers held positive but slightly differing views of her company's value proposition.
Through customer testimonials, you may learn the following:
What attracts prospects
For example, potential customers of The Dandelion Patch are attracted to a core offering, such as invitations or another stationery product.
Perceptions of merchandise selection
Customers are impressed with the depth of product selection not only for stationery but also for gifts. Core and complementary products (e.g., save-the-date announcements, wedding invitations, menu cards, programs, party favors, bridesmaid gifts, etc.) create a one-stop shopping experience.
Perceptions of service
Employees are consistently referred to as welcoming, warm and attentive; expert guidance and professionalism alleviates stress associated with customizing products, making purchase decisions, and following up on orders.
Products that keep customers coming back
Niche offerings are needed on a regular basis (event invitations and collateral associated with life milestones, corporate stationery and gifts).
Reasons for customer loyalty
Expertise attracts customers while customized products bridge personal and professional realms. Community involvement reinforces the value of patronizing local businesses.
Testimonials don't have to be videotaped. Customers may give you impromptu recommendations or provide responses upon your request via handwritten notes, phone messages and emails.
Ask questions of your customers
Customer testimonials reveal valuable but sometimes incomplete information. For more insights, pose questions to your customers with their permission. Ask specific questions about new offerings, improvements that your customers may value, and products and services that they perceive as unique to your business.
Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.