How to Research Your Customers and Competitors

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If you’re involved in launching, operating or building a business in any way, at some point you need to find targeted information about your customers and competitors.
Marcy Phelps is the founder of Phelps Research and author of the book, Research on Main Street: Using the Web to Find Local Business and Market Information. Here's some crucial information from Phelps on how to make the reearch process go quickly and smoothly.
—Jennifer Bosavage, editor

Whether you're starting a business, introducing new products or services, or adding locations, it's always a good idea to first do your research. Informed decisions make the best decisions, and – especially when credit is tight – we often need to show that we have a solid understanding of our target markets. How to find information on competitors is a critical skill.

Unfortunately, neither your customers nor your competitors make up one homogeneous group. What motivates people and businesses can vary – depending on the places where they operate, live, or work. That's why it's a good idea to incorporate into your research some business and market information about places – including demographics and the economic, political, social, and other issues that make each market unique.

Several key resources will help you drill to the local level and learn about counties, cities, census blocks, and other sub-state areas:

U.S. Government resources

The federal government collects and analyzes massive amounts of data, much of it about local areas. Population and business statistics, economic indicators, regional profiles, and mapped data are made available for free through a variety of publications and databases.

Most local-level business information comes from three U.S. government agencies: the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Census Bureau

One of the best sources for demographics is the American Community Survey( This annual survey of three million households collects such information as age, race, income, commute time to work, home value, and veteran status.

If you're looking for statistics on business and industry, try the County Business Patterns Web site, which actually offers employment and earnings down to the zip-code level, and the Building Permits database of construction statistics.

Bureau of Economic Analysis

For insights into a local area's economic health, head to the BEA's Regional Economic Accounts Web page. Here you will find information about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and local-area personal income and employment. The BEA Regional Fact Sheets (BEARFACTS), with data compiled into handy tables, graphs, charts, and bulleted lists, make it easy to compare an area's economy to that of the United States as a whole.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

This agency is a great resource for data on hours, earnings, and type of employment for workers in a particular geographic area. Also of interest are the links to information about the demographic makeup of the workforce and regional mass layoffs. Discover which products from the Bureau of Labor Statistics drill to the local level through the
Overview of BLS Statistics by Geography page.

State and Local Governments

Regional, state, and local governments frequently provide more detailed geographic-based information than federal sources, but the data won't necessarily be uniform or consistent across locations – even for locations within the same state. More likely than not, you will have to visit the websites for each jurisdiction separately. What you lose in convenience though, you gain in in-depth and first-hand knowledge.

To find official government sites, try entering the keyword government with the name of your location in a general-purpose search engine. You can also link to official sites through these resources:

State and Local Government on the Net

Local Governments:

Local News

News reports, either from or about a particular location, are a rich source of local information about public and private companies, people, economics, and issues. Local media outlets go into far greater detail than their national counterparts when covering local events and stay with the story long after the national press has moved on. Local news sources also offer something the larger outlets can't – a local perspective – and knowing what's important to local residents is a valuable piece of business and market planning.

The Google News ( advanced search page allows for location-based searching, as does Bing News ( Also try these resources for print, radio, and TV news stories:

American City Business Journals

News and Newspapers Online


Local Experts

Even in the age of Google, you won't find everything on the web. Perhaps no one's collected or posted exactly what you're looking for, or it's not in plain sight and will take too long to uncover. Then there's the information you won't find in any data table or news headline. As competitive-intelligence researcher Ben Gilad puts it, "Only human sources can provide commentary, opinion, feelings, intuition, emotions, and commitment." ("My Source is Better Than Your Source!—The Argument Over Primary and Secondary Sources," by Ben Gilad, Competitive Intelligence Review, Vol. 6(3) 58-60, 1995).

Sometimes the best way to find the answers you need is to ask an expert. People in the following professions make good targets for your research, because they generally keep an eye on the community and will often have subject expertise as well, such as journalists, government workers, librarians, university professors, association members or leaders, economists and economic development executives.

Search the Web to find the right people ask and to prepare for your phone calls — calling is much more effective than emails when contacting local experts. Scan the news to identify the people writing the stories and the people about whom they are writing. Try the Web sites of local governments, libraries, and organizations such as the chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau for key personnel.

Experts are often willing to talk and want to be helpful, but it's important to respect their time. Keep interviews short, and do some background research on both your contact and topic to make sure you quickly ask the right questions.

Business growth will take you into new and unchartered territory. Minimize the risk by arming yourself with a thorough understanding of your customers and your competitors – and the day-to-day local issues that affect their decisions.

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