Research holds the key to export success

John Cradden’s market research guide for breaking into new markets and scaling internationally.

For some smaller firms, market research may just be a nice-to-have, something that merely reinforces or validates their belief in the company’s likelihood of success in a domestic market that they probably already know a lot about.

Or it might be a box they need to tick for a business plan to convince investors, state agencies or banks into helping you with funding.

“If you don’t research the culture, market trends, customer habits, regulations and even payment methods that are typical in your chosen market, you will struggle to sell your product or service there”

But if you’re seeking to launch into overseas markets, into territories about which you might know little, market research can really reduce risks and help you to avoid costly mistakes. It can also be instrumental to your company’s success.

Why research can make a difference

If you don’t research the culture, market trends, customer habits, regulations and even payment methods that are typical in your chosen market, you will struggle to sell your product or service there.

And this is mainly just secondary research, which is about taking general market data that is widely available and analysing it in a way is tuned to your product or service.

Whether you do primary research – commissioning on-the-ground research that is specific to your company’s needs – may be a more finely balanced question given the greater amount of time and money it would cost. The advantage is that you can establish exact information about the marketing of your product in the desired market, such as your customers’ profiles, who your competition is and what people are prepared to pay for what you have to offer.

Secondary research

Starting with secondary research is usually the first pathway to the market research most exporters need. The good news is that there are lots of secondary research sources out there.  

If you’re an Enterprise Ireland-supported firm, a really good resource is the Market Research Centre. It boasts the largest repository of business intelligence and thousands of market research insights sourced from independent research firms like Gartner, IDC, AC Nielsen, Euromonitor, Frost & Sullivan, Forrester and Mintel. It’s also staffed by information specialists who can help you narrow down the right avenues to what you need.

But universities are often overlooked, too, while companies like Google spend vast sums on market research, and tools like Google Trends and Google Marketing Platform are worth checking out.

Eurostat, the European Statistics Office, is another port of call, as is the CBI, the Centre for the Promotion of Imports. It focuses on SMEs from developing countries who want to import into the European market, but it may contain some useful nuggets of information.

You can also look up the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation) for some top-line data. And of course, there are also the inward-investment agencies of the country you are looking at (our equivalent of IDA Ireland).

When looking at secondary research, be sure to do your homework in terms of checking out whether the data is up-to-date, reliable and verifiable.

The kinds of information you’ll readily find will help you:

  • Assess market characteristics – size, growth, seasonal trends, quality issues.
  • Analyse consumer trends and behaviour – trends in sales of similar products, focus groups or studies.
  • Look at the competition – local or multinational, market shares, prices, marketing methods, brand strengths.
  • Learn about any rules, regulations and risks – language, market barriers, political stability, tariffs, ease of doing business.

Primary research

If you’ve decided that doing some primary research in the overseas target market, it’s generally recommended that you conduct the research with an agent or distributor on the ground, or an external agency. They can help with choosing and formulating the right kinds of questions and channels for a customer survey, for instance.

Surveys aren’t the only way to talk to potential customers, of course. You can conduct face-to-face interviews, questionnaires, or focus groups.

Even if you choose to work with one or more local partners, there’s no substitute for visiting the country to get to know its people, its business culture and trading practices and improve your market awareness – augmenting and, in some ways, validating the data that you’ve gathered through pure market research.

Trade fairs and conferences are a good place to hang out and get a sense of the bigger picture as well as show your face and get prospects to take you seriously.

Main image: Photo by Ryan Searle on Unsplash

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John Cradden
John Cradden is an experienced business and personal finance journalist and financial wellbeing content designer.