Great, Free Consumer-Research Tools

Know thy customer.

In marketing, nothing trumps an understanding of your consumer and how she feels about your product, your brand, your company, and your competitors. The magic ingredient in every great advertising campaign — online and off- — is always a breakthrough insight into the hearts and minds of the people who buy your product.

The processes of gathering that research, though, tend to be as old as advertising itself. We rely, still, on focus groups and in-home visits, surveys and polls, ethnographic studies, and trend-watching wizards.

Which, of course, should be the case. If you want to get to know your consumers, you have to go out and meet them, face to face. However, the Internet has had a profound effect on advertising research. In the long term, the availability of massive amounts of data on consumer behavior will dominate the ad practice.

In the near term, though (as in today), there are tools that any good advertiser should become deeply familiar with. Below, four types of handy, online, free tools that I’ve found to be indispensable in helping get a quick insight into a marketplace. Start using these tools. You’ll be amazed at how smart you can get…and how quickly.

Online Traffic Reporting

Compete is an online service that, amazingly, lets you pull traffic data for nearly any site on the Internet. Alexa provides the same free service. These tools are amazing, in part because you can track several sites’ traffic on the same graph, showing an immediate sense of how well your site is doing versus competitors. These sites certainly aren’t replacements for either your own analytics package or higher-end services from companies like comScore. But the ability to very quickly get a sense of the relative peaks and valleys of you and competitors is invaluable, especially if you line the data up with things like broadcast campaigns or offers.

For example, I used Compete recently to see how one client’s traffic compared to its closest competitor. Never mind the actual numbers: a clear trend emerged. While our client’s traffic stayed stable, the competitor’s bounced up and down like a SuperBall. Intelligence received. Our client had a loyal following; the competition was offer-driven.

Yahoo (and Other) Answers

This has become my absolute favorite way of doing quick research. I go on to Yahoo Answers, or similar services on sites like LinkedIn, and ask a simple question. On these sites, you can ask a question and anyone can provide an answer. The answers are public, and anyone can browse through them.

The first thing I do is browse these sites to see if anyone has ever asked a relevant question. Maybe someone has posted a question, asking about your product’s features. Or maybe someone is in the market for something you sell and is looking for suggestions. If you find just the right thing, you can quickly read the real responses from actual consumers.

Alternatively, you can ask your own question. I try to stay away from brand names or anything else that may tip my hand in what I’m really looking for. But asking a question like, “Anyone have any experience with electric blankets?” tends to produce at least 20 results. This is pretty far from scientific, of course, but it can be a great way to capture some quick thoughts.

Social Network Survey Apps

The recent explosion of applications, designed to run on Facebook or one of its competitors, has opened a new opportunity for consumer researchers. If you go to the Apps section on Facebook and search for “survey” or “polls,” you’ll find several applications that enable you to send surveys out across the network.

The opportunity is really strong. Although you’ll be limited to the people who find your poll directly on Facebook, you can still get a good, directional read on all sorts of topics. The volume of consumers that are on Facebook practically ensures you’ll reach a solid number of respondents, giving your data some level of validity.

Google Trends

Google’s trend tool is an amazing way to peek inside the world’s collective unconscious. On the site, you’re able to enter a keyword and see the search volume involving that keyword for a period. There’s more. Slotted just below a chart that shows search volume, you’ll find a chart that shows the volume of mentions of that same keyword in the news. You can very clearly see whether mainstream media buzz is affecting people, particularly if it’s driving them to perform searches and find out more about a topic.

This is a powerful tool for seeing how a negative story impacts a brand. If people hear about a problem and are concerned that it may affect them, they’ll go to a search engine and do some more research. If you see there’s no spike in searches after a news story breaks, you can be relatively confident that people aren’t panicking.

In the end, none of these tools will tell you everything you need to know, to know a customer as a person. Still, they can give you a great, quick insight into what’s really happening with the people surrounding your product, and that may just spark enough of an idea to give you an edge.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.