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Market research can provide critical information about the buying habits, needs, preferences and opinions of current and prospective customers. While there are many ways to perform market research, most businesses use one or more of five basic methods: surveys, focus groups, personal interviews, observation and field trials. The type of data you need and how much money you’re willing to spend will determine which techniques you choose for your business. Using concise, straightforward questionnaires, you can analyze a sample group that represents your target market. The larger the sample, the more reliable the results.

In-person surveys are one-on-one interviews typically conducted in high-traffic locations such as shopping malls and theme parks. They allow you to present people with samples of products, packaging or advertising and gather immediate feedback. In-person surveys can generate response rates of more than 90 percent.

Telephone surveys are less expensive than in-person surveys, but costlier than mail. However, due to consumer resistance to relentless telemarketing, getting people to participate in phone surveys has grown increasingly difficult. Telephone surveys generally yield response rates of 50 percent to 60 percent.

Mail surveys are a relatively inexpensive way to reach a broad audience. They're much cheaper than in-person and phone surveys, but they only generate response rates of 3 percent to 15 percent. Despite the low return, mail surveys are still a cost-effective choice for small businesses.

Online surveys usually generate unpredictable response rates and unreliable data because you have no control over the pool of respondents. But an online survey is a simple, inexpensive way to collect anecdotal evidence and gather customer opinions and preferences.

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