The phrase “market research” is one that business-y people toss around easily, without feeling the need to define it for the less business literate.

So, for everyone else:

Market research is the simple act of getting to know your market.

When we start a business, we start with a pain point and solve it with an idea – a service or product that addresses the need in the best way possible. Then we figure out who our customer is, getting really granular with it. Think about their demographics as well as the particular quirks of the population you’re going after.

A list of things to figure out about your target market could be:
  • Age
  • Sex/gender
  • Income level
  • Political leaning
  • Education level
  • Location (or if this matters – local vs. globally-available product)
  • Personality
  • Pace of life (super busy? relaxed?)
  • Responsibilities (CEO? Student? Parent?)
  • Social life (who are they friends with? Where do they hang out? Nightclubs? Book clubs? Mom groups? Airports?)
  • Other interests (things that might go hand-in-hand with whatever interest or pain point that drew them to your product. For example, if you’re selling herbal muscle ache balm, think about yoga/running/crossfit).

This list could go on for ages. The important thing is that you make it your own. Take a look at the list and add anything that applies to your market. ANYTHING, even if it sounds ridiculous but just ‘feels’ right. Trust your intuition on this – you wouldn’t have thought up your product if you didn’t know what problem it solved. Chances are, the other people with this problem are a lot like you.

Okay, next: on to market research!

To begin your market research, you’ll need to know who you’re marketing to and where to find them. You’ll also need to know what you want to find out about your product. Even if your product is 100% formulated in your mind, it’s not ‘finished’ until you’ve gotten enough sales to prove that you’re done with product development. Some products will never be finished. What would happen if Apple was still selling the iPhone 4?

They’d disappear. Fast.

My point here is that you don’t have anything to sell until the market tells you it’s developed enough for them to want it. How do you find out if they do?

You ask!

First, think about what questions you want to ask. Sometimes just finding someone you already know who is your target customer and saying “Hey, I’m working on a new product/service, can I have your feedback on it?” will work great. Don’t stop there, though – sometimes people aren’t honest because they like you. A way around this is to cultivate them a bit by asking specifically for negative feedback (or for them to poke holes in your plan). You might need to do some mental jiu-jitsu here to get honesty, so some good questions for that are:

“What would make you not buy this?” – this either brings out complete enthusiasm or a hard truth.

“I feel like I’m missing something here but I can’t put my finger on it, do you have any suggestions?” – this removes the ‘criticism’ stigma (because you already criticized it) and allows them an opportunity to help you.

“I feel like this is too complicated, what could I remove to make it more straightforward?” or “…how could I streamline this idea so it makes more sense?” – same as above, you pointed out the error and told them you’re struggling. The vulnerability on your part will make them want to  help.

The next step is to examine your product. I never start tweaking a product based on one person’s feedback, but I do tweak my questions. You can add in a few that address the suggestions you’ve received. I like to present my original concept (don’t defend it – leave your ego at home!), get uncorrupted feedback, then present any changes you’re considering and get feedback on those.

Next: more research!

The two bits of your target market brainstorm that come in now are these: your market’s social groups and location. Where does your market hang out? If you’ll be selling baby clothes, think about local and online parents’ groups. Dog biscuits? Check out some dog parks. An app geared toward college students? You know where to find them 😉

Now think about how you’ll approach them.  I want you to be very intentional about your approach. If you’re anything like me, you don’t like solicitors. Whether it’s the Comcast guy at the door, his knuckles rapping right next to my little ‘no soliciting’ sign, or the aggressive kiosk pushers at the mall, I am NOT interested.

So: your first project is slipping past peoples’ guard. There are a few ways to do this.


For Oh Happy Plants research, this was easy – people see my watering can and want plant care advice. I help them out, they tell me I’ve been very helpful, then I mention that I’m starting a business and ask if I can ask a few questions. Because I’ve already provided value, they always agree.

One of my coaching clients recently needed to do a bit of outreach to professional offices. This was market research and a way for him to tweak his process and approach. (It was also exposure therapy. It got him used to approaching companies and soliciting their engagement – extremely valuable if you’re not comfortable with the idea!). Anyway, this client showed up to these professional offices to market his service, and he brought them a little gift as a leave-behind with his business cards and info. He was offering free sessions as an introduction to his service, but that requires a ‘yes.’

Give before the yes.

If someone walks in and gives you a gift (of help, information, or a physical thing), then asks for your assistance on something, you’re much more likely to help them. Also, it’s just nice!

…or get before the yes!

There’s another piece of this that isn’t often addressed – when people have already helped you, they’re more likely to help you again. If you can, figure out a very small ‘ask’ that gets the other party in a helpful mood. Allowing people to help you gives them a dopamine hit (happy brain juice) and also ropes in the sunk cost fallacy – a cognitive bias that makes us less likely to stop doing something we’ve already started. Whether it’s the time you spent in a grocery store checkout line (the more time in the line, the more likely you’ll stay) or time spent in a marriage (same hard truth – “But we have history!”), doing something once or a few times will likely cause you to do it again. In that vein, if someone has helped you once or twice in ways that are easy to say yes to, it’s likely they’ll help when you ask a bigger favor.

You can employ this extremely simply – “Could you hold this for me?” or “Would you mind answering two questions about ___?” before going on to something like “It sounds like you’re interested in ___.  I’m developing something to help! Would you like to test my product and give me feedback?”


Let people come to you – kind of.

Another way to do this is to craft signage that attracts attention and is SO ENTIRELY CLEAR THAT YOU’RE NOT SELLING ANYTHING. Can I yell that in a blog? Consider it yelled.

You want people to be completely sure that you’re just asking questions before you approach them. Recently I mentioned this to a woman who’s thinking about selling things at a farmer’s market. When she does her market research, there should be absolutely no question in her target customer’s mind that this is an opportunity for them to help her out.

This is where you want to work on some serious clarity in your messaging. Your copy needs to be very clear and also convey enthusiasm about getting their opinions. People gain a sense of status when they feel their opinions are heard and respected. Address this in your copy as well as when you approach people.

Another way to make people come to you is to give away free stuff!

For me, this will look like informative videos and articles. These will function both as marketing materials as well as research, because I’ll be very active about inviting folks to send me their questions. My product is an information product, so this will be relatively easy. If you have a physical product, think about budgeting for samples to hand out during marketing events. Be sure you’re including a way for folks to give an opinion either in person or online.


Now, this is a very brief overview meant to give you an idea of where to start and how to think about conducting market research. Remember, you aren’t going to do this wrong unless you don’t do it at all.

Also, market research should be a constant part of your process. Always be building, growing, and improving your product. Always be listening to your customers. And always be using the information available to improve yourself.

Now, get to it!


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