I’m just going to say it straight out: Small business owners that are not using the library for market research are either throwing money away, leaving money on the table, or both.
If you’re a business owner, how much time and money do you spend on market research (if you actually do any)? Probably more than you should. The saving grace, though, is that there’s probably a library around the corner from you right now and the folks there can help. Asking a librarian for market research assistance is not only totally free, but could potentially save thousands of dollars and lead to sales.
Librarian expertise is underutilized by business owners in a big way, so much so that the innovative possibilities of the two sectors working together could take up a whole book. But for those who only have a few minutes I’m going to outline three substantial ways entrepreneurs could benefit from libraries right away:
Identify your competition and find clients using powerful databases
If you’re not aware of ReferenceUSA and AtoZdatabases, it is likely because the type of intelligence they provide is too expensive for small business owners to afford. Libraries, however, give you access to these databases free-of-charge. These directory databases can help you in two ways:
- They allow you to do industry analysis by identifying your competition better than any Google search. Think about it — when you search Google you rarely go past the first ten results, and those are just the companies that have spent heavily on SEO, hardly a well-rounded view of an industry. Directory databases let you tailor your searches by region, as well as scores of other variables, bringing your competitor info to you in neat charts you can download to your computer.
- Want to find new customers? Who doesn’t? Well you can also search these databases for businesses if you are into B2B sales, or individuals by region, depending on where your customers are. And on top of that, these databases give you customer segmentation info (for example, say you want to find approximately how many married Catholic Republicans with $250,000 houses live in Milwaukee there are? Not a problem!).
Confused by all of these possibilities? Not sure how to access ReferenceUSA or AtoZdatabases? Don’t have much experience searching a powerful database? Don’t worry. Just ask a librarian. Helping you with this is our job!
Using a library facility for primary market research
Now if you’re like most business owners, you do absolutely no primary market research — that’s where you ask customers and potential customers questions directly, either through individual interviews, surveys, phone calls, or focus groups (to give a few examples). Big business pays thousands of dollars for a continuous flow of primary research, but if you’re running a bakery or selling online, chances are you neither have the time nor cash for that. The library can help.
First, you probably want to learn a bit about primary market research so you use your time wisely. I suggest checking Robert J. Kaden’s Guerilla Marketing Research out from your library. This book is an outstanding comprehensive guide to all sorts of information-gathering methods. Once you’ve chosen what’s right for you, simply contact the library and ask to book their meeting room for a few hours. There you can, for example, run focus groups, conduct interviews, or create a temporary showroom to gauge visitor reactions to your new product packaging. This will be somewhat time-intensive to prepare, but the information value is undeniable.
Room rental rates at libraries are typically affordable for community members. Plus, libraries are often centrally-located, seen as trustworthy third-places, and they generally have free parking! If you want to do primary research, you can both form a how-to plan at the library, and put it into action.
Demographic analysis and an untapped trove of information
Where are your customers? Do you know? Are you thinking of running a direct mail or other scalable marketing campaign but are having trouble with targeting? The US Census Bureau has heaps of data — down to the block-by-block level — about communities in the United States. The trouble is that accessing that data and wrangling it are not at all easy for the average person. No dig at the Census, but they have so much information that it can be difficult to track down exactly what a business owner might need. Enter the librarian — a professional with specific, tangible knowledge and skills in figuring out and meeting information needs. Tell your librarian what you’re looking for, and let them do their job!
Up until now, I have focused on how librarians can provide access to heaps of information. But we’re forgetting a very important resource: The librarian herself! Serving a community means that librarians are uber-connected to people from all walks of life. We talk to, and help, all sorts of people all day long. In doing that, we also build up a storehouse of local history and other information that could be invaluable to someone thinking of opening a business nearby.
To give a straightforward example: I can give a fairly comprehensive rundown of dining options near every library I’ve worked at. I’m talking about prices, type of food, whether they’re popular or not, when they’re busy, who the owner is, how long they’ve been there, whether or not you should eat there, and a bunch of other random facts. If you were thinking of opening an eatery in the neighborhood, would you find that information useful? I may have the same level of knowledge about your industry locally, just put the question to me!
Go make an appointment!
Market research can be complex and time-consuming. Librarians will be happy to teach you their skills, though they will not likely be able to give you all the time that requires right at a busy information desk. Instead, use that initial conversation as a jumping-off point to forming a working relationship. If you have specific resource you’re interested in and it might take more than a minute to demonstrate it, ask if you can make an appointment. Respect your librarian’s time and they will do their best to level-up your market research efforts. Best of luck!