Cost cutter: market research

'Information wants to be free', trill members of the open source movement - sadly, though, getting hold of that all-important market data is a very expensive process. Follow Smarta's tips to save money on your market research.

1. Avoid paying for data

With the cost of the average Mintel or Nielsen report edging into the thousands of pounds, most market reports are unobtainable to anyone but multinational corporations. But if you're clever about it, you can get the same data for significantly less: take advantage of enterprise centres such as the British Library's Business & IP Centre, which gives you access to thousands of market reports for free. Failing that, find a student who studies the relevant subject and promise them beer and home-cooked meals in return for their Athens login details. The resource gives students free access to market data, analysis and journals across the disciplines from any computer in the world. For a list of institutions which use it, have a look at the  Athens website.

2. Put your surveys online

Who says you need to pay a market research company thousands of pounds to send out surveys? You can do your own using online tools at a fraction of the cost of hiring a market research company. Tools such as CreateSurvey or SurveyMonkey, which costs $20 a month for 1,000 people to take the survey, allows you to create your own surveys. You can then add them to your website or send your customers the link. And considering you only need to question 342 people for the survey to be technically representative of the UK population, 1,000 should be enough.

3. Team up with others

If you can't afford market research, team up with similar businesses to spread the cost. While forming allegiances with immediate competitors - the shop next door, for example - probably isn't the most sensible move, try to find businesses in a different geographical location or a slightly different space (one of your suppliers, for example) and share the results of your research. Attend networking events or use industry trade bodies or internet forums to make the right contacts.

4. Infiltrate your competitors

When it comes to getting information out of competitors - particularly large companies - confidence and charm will get you everywhere. Smarta has met entrepreneurs who found all they had to do was don an impressive-looking suit, walk into one of their competitors' shops with a clipboard and start taking down prices for staff to assume they were someone important from head office and answer all their questions on merchandising, pricing and company structure. The same approach will work for calling competitors as well: do your research beforehand to find out who you need to speak to, then phone them and get as much information as you can.

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