Understanding your customers without extensive research

June 23, 2023
B2B Customer insights Brand research

BrandMatters’ Director of Brand Strategy, Kylie McNamara, discusses what simple steps businesses can take to gain understanding of their customers.


To say that it’s important for brands to understand their customers is stating the obvious. 

But for many brand owners the idea of “understanding customers” is daunting. It’s often associated with big, complex and expensive research projects which feel out of reach for many businesses, particularly in hard economic times when managing budgets is paramount.

So, should we file customer understanding in the too-hard basket? Perhaps put it off for another day, when conditions are less challenging and we have more time?

Or are there ways that businesses can gain valuable insights without huge budgets?

As much as I love to run large scale market research projects, I love uncovering useful insights about customers and markets even more. And I firmly believe that gathering rich, useful insights is in reach of any business with a little thought and planning.

There are two broad approaches to consider if you are looking to build your customer understanding, but the coffers are slim or even empty:

• Gathering insights about your customers without formal market research
• Looking for more cost-effective ways of conducting market research

Today I want to cover how you can gain insights without research. I’ll cover cost-effective market research in another blog.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to uncover insights about your customers without research is to make a subtle attitude shift. Take the time to slow down, absorb information and believe that insights are all around you, and you may be surprised at just how much you can find out. 

More specifically, here are some of my favourite ways of learning about customers:

1. Draw knowledge from your people

Your people can be an amazing source of knowledge. People who interact regularly with customers, those who have been in your company or industry for many years or even those who have recently come from an adjacent industry or competitor can bring valuable and diverse perspectives. 

The biggest challenge with this form of insight gathering is to remain objective and to draw out useful implications from simple observations. This is why it can be helpful to use an external person to help facilitate this process, to provide structure, objectivity and importantly to give the team confidence. 

Workshops with key members of your team can be a great way to spark off each other and share observations. A workshop facilitator will be able to design exercises and activities to make this process as easy and productive as possible.

2. Review previous research

Many companies have shelves and hard-drives full of research reports that haven’t been looked at since they were delivered. While these reports may not be able to specifically answer your current questions, they are highly likely to contain useful clues and information that can inform your thinking. So before lamenting a lack of budget to conduct new research, it is well worth looking at previous research, even if it is a few years old. You may be surprised what you can uncover!

3. Review other sources of data

Formal market research is unquestionably the best way to answer specific questions. However, like a good detective, clues about customer behaviours and attitudes can be found in a range of data sources. Some areas to think about include:

• Customer reviews, both formal and informal
• Customer satisfaction surveys
• Customer comments and communications

4. Search for publicly available information

In this data rich era, information is everywhere, and a simple google search can uncover reams of information to help you better understand your customers. Some of my favourite sources of information include Harvard Business Review, McKinsey and even LinkedIn. There is also plenty of useful syndicated research which can be purchased for considerably less than it would cost to undertake research yourself. Some great examples include IBISWorld Reports and WARC.

Of course, the trap with all this information is sifting through everything that is available and working out which information is credible and valuable. This is where working with a good consultant can help.

5. Talk to others in the industry

Experts in your field can provide informed, insightful perspectives that can be enormously helpful in understanding your customers. Consider industry leaders, journalists, academics, industry bodies, think tanks and more. A number of one-on-one interviews, facilitated by an experienced interviewer, with these types of opinion leaders can furnish you with a rich understanding of your category for a fraction of the cost of a larger study.

6. Be a good observer!

Get into the habit of keeping your eyes open whenever you are interacting with or exposed to customers. You never know when your observations will be helpful.

So, if you want to understand your customers but your budgets are limited, don’t despair! There are plenty of ways of uncovering useful information and insights without having to spend a fortune. If you’d like some advice on how to go about doing this, please contact us at BrandMatters. We’d love to help!

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