Secondary Research Advantages, Limitations, and Sources

Summary: Secondary Research should be a prerequisite to the collection of primary data, but it rarely provides all the answers you need. A thorough evaluation of the secondary data is needed to assess its relevance and accuracy.

5 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on January 25, 2022
Topics: Relevant Methods & Tips, Business Strategy, Market Research

Secondary Research

Secondary research is based on data already collected for purposes other than the specific problem you have. Secondary research is usually part of exploratory market research designs.

The connection between the specific purpose that originates the research is what differentiates secondary research from primary research. Primary research is designed to address specific problems. However, analysis of available secondary data should be a prerequisite to the collection of primary data.

Advantages of Secondary Research

Secondary data can be faster and cheaper to obtain, depending on the sources you use.

Secondary research can help to:

  • Answer certain research questions and test some hypotheses.
  • Formulate an appropriate research design (e.g., identify key variables).
  • Interpret data from primary research as it can provide some insights into general trends in an industry or product category.
  • Understand the competitive landscape.

Limitations of Secondary Research

The usefulness of secondary research tends to be limited often for two main reasons:

Lack of relevance

Secondary research rarely provides all the answers you need. The objectives and methodology used to collect the secondary data may not be appropriate for the problem at hand.

Given that it was designed to find answers to a different problem than yours, you will likely find gaps in answers to your problem. Furthermore, the data collection methods used may not provide the data type needed to support the business decisions you have to make (e.g., qualitative research methods are not appropriate for go/no-go decisions).

Lack of Accuracy

Secondary data may be incomplete and lack accuracy depending on;

  • The research design (exploratory, descriptive, causal, primary vs. repackaged secondary data, the analytical plan, etc.)
  • Sampling design and sources (target audiences, recruitment methods)
  • Data collection method (qualitative and quantitative techniques)
  • Analysis point of view (focus and omissions)
  • Reporting stages (preliminary, final, peer-reviewed)
  • Rate of change in the studied topic (slowly vs. rapidly evolving phenomenon, e.g., adoption of specific technologies).
  • Lack of agreement between data sources.

Criteria for Evaluating Secondary Research Data

Before taking the information at face value, you should conduct a thorough evaluation of the secondary data you find using the following criteria:

  • Purpose: Understanding why the data was collected and what questions it was trying to answer will tell us how relevant and useful it is since it may or may not be appropriate for your objectives.
  • Methodology used to collect the data: Important to understand sources of bias.
  • Accuracy of data: Sources of errors may include research design, sampling, data collection, analysis, and reporting.
  • When the data was collected: Secondary data may not be current or updated frequently enough for the purpose that you need.
  • Content of the data: Understanding the key variables, units of measurement, categories used and analyzed relationships may reveal how useful and relevant it is for your purposes.
  • Source reputation: In the era of purposeful misinformation on the Internet, it is important to check the expertise, credibility, reputation, and trustworthiness of the data source.

Secondary Research Data Sources

Compared to primary research, the collection of secondary data can be faster and cheaper to obtain, depending on the sources you use.

Secondary data can come from internal or external sources.

Internal sources of secondary data include ready-to-use data or data that requires further processing available in internal management support systems your company may be using (e.g., invoices, sales transactions, Google Analytics for your website, etc.).

Prior primary qualitative and quantitative research conducted by the company are also common sources of secondary data. They often generate more questions and help formulate new primary research needed.

However, if there are no internal data collection systems yet or prior research, you probably won’t have much usable secondary data at your disposal.

External sources of secondary data include:

  • Published materials
  • External databases
  • Syndicated services.

Published Materials

Published materials can be classified as:

  • General business sources: Guides, directories, indexes, and statistical data.
  • Government sources: Census data and other government publications.

External Databases

In many industries across a variety of topics, there are private and public databases that can bed accessed online or by downloading data for free, a fixed fee, or a subscription.

These databases can include bibliographic, numeric, full-text, directory, and special-purpose databases. Some public institutions make data collected through various methods, including surveys, available for others to analyze.

Syndicated Services

These services are offered by companies that collect and sell pools of data that have a commercial value and meet shared needs by a number of clients, even if the data is not collected for specific purposes those clients may have.

Syndicated services can be classified based on specific units of measurements (e.g., consumers, households, organizations, etc.).

The data collection methods for these data may include:

  • Surveys (Psychographic and Lifestyle, advertising evaluations, general topics)
  • Household panels (Purchase and media use)
  • Electronic scanner services (volume tracking data, scanner panels, scanner panels with Cable TV)
  • Audits (retailers, wholesalers)
  • Direct inquiries to institutions
  • Clipping services tracking PR for institutions
  • Corporate reports

You can spend hours doing research on Google in search of external sources, but this is likely to yield limited insights. Books, articles journals, reports, blogs posts, and videos you may find online are usually analyses and summaries of data from a particular perspective. They may be useful and give you an indication of the type of data used, but they are not the actual data. Whenever possible, you should look at the actual raw data used to draw your own conclusion on its value for your research objectives. You should check professionally gathered secondary research.

Here are some external secondary data sources often used in market research that you may find useful as starting points in your research. Some are free, while others require payment.

  • Pew Research Center: Reports about the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research.
  • Data dissemination platform to access demographic and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • The US. government’s open data source with almost 200,00 datasets ranges in topics from health, agriculture, climate, ecosystems, public safety, finance, energy, manufacturing, education, and business.
  • Google Scholar: A web search engine that indexes the full text or metadata of scholarly literature across an array of publishing formats and disciplines.
  • Google Public Data Explorer: Makes large, public-interest datasets easy to explore, visualize and communicate.
  • Google News Archive: Allows users to search historical newspapers and retrieve scanned images of their pages.
  • Mckinsey & Company: Articles based on analyses of various industries.
  • Statista: Business data platform with data across 170+ industries and 150+ countries.
  • Claritas: Syndicated reports on various market segments.
  • Mintel: Consumer reports combining exclusive consumer research with other market data and expert analysis.
  • Data aggregator with over 350 publishers covering every sector of the economy as well as emerging industries.
  • Packaged Facts: Reports based on market research on consumer goods and services industries.
  • Dun & Bradstreet: Company directory with business information.