Market research is expensive.

I mean, how much does it cost to run a focus group? You have to hire a company that knows how to find people in your target market. They get paid to recruit the participants, rent the location, buy gifts for the participants, hire the moderator, and work with you for the demonstrations, exhibits, and questions you want to pose. And then you need to pay the travel expenses for your team and that of all your helpers. And pay for the analysis of the results.

Surveys aren’t cheap, either. You need a company to help you prepare the questions, to come up with a mailing list or phone list of the right target market, you pay for printing and mailing the survey (or even more for phone operators to call up and ask questions), and you need someone to tabulate the results and help you interpret them.

Now, some of these costs aren’t going away, but the Internet can help banish many others. Let’s look at some free and cheap ways to conduct market research without going into hock.

  • Use online focus groups. While this isn’t the least expensive way you can go, you get most of the same benefits you get from an in-person focus group without the hassle and expense of traveling. Famous companies like Del Monte have recruited online panels that work with them over long periods of time to get deeper information than a transient focus group experience provides. Just make sure you answer “why” questions with online panels, not “what” questions better left to Web metrics analysis. Companies like Panel+ Pro make online panels easy, which pits them as a much cheaper alternative to in-person focus groups.
  • Use online surveys. OK, OK, here comes the free stuff. If you’re still doing paper or phone surveys, start cutting out expenses by doing online surveys. SurveyMonkey and SurveyGizmo might be the best known free survey tools, but 4Q has been getting a lot of headlines recently for surveys about your Web site. Remember that for some surveys, you’ll need to qualify your participants as part of the right target market the same way you always did offline, but that can be as simple as finding e-mail lists rather than phone and snail mail lists.
  • Use search keyword analysis. Think more broadly about what market research is—it’s just a fancy name for finding out what your target market thinks. So why aren’t you thinking about Web activity as market research? Instead of using search keyword tools only for marketing, think of search engines as the most popular fill-in-the-blank survey of all time. When searchers look for things, they are telling you what is on their minds and what words they use to describe it. In addition to the traditional keyword tools, pay attention to Google Zeitgeist, Google Trends, and trend analyzers from sources.
  • Use conversation monitoring. PR folks are spending a lot of time using tools to monitor the conversation about their brand on the Web, but you can think of this as market research, too. True, it is not as easy to tease statistical significance out of this data for free (you might need a pricey reputation monitoring solution for that), but you can still learn what your customers are thinking. Use Google Alerts or similar services to monitor what is being said about your industry, your competitors, or your company itself. Perhaps you’ll be able to notice new conversations that make sense to be investigated further with the other techniques mentioned here.

None of these options are the same as traditional market research, and some professionals might question your ability to draw conclusions from them. But I think that because the cost is so low, you have an opportunity to do more quantitative research than ever before, which might give you more information, not less. You can use more participants and research more questions, just because it is so cheap. So, big companies, challenge your market researchers to try these new methods. And, small companies, don’t be intimidated by the term “market research” to think you need a Ph.D. to try things. Free market research is our best chance at learning more about what our customers, and those that are not yet our customers, really want.

Want more tips to raise your Internet marketing success? Check out Search Engine Marketing, Inc., which contains a complete step-by-step program for successful search marketing for your business. For more ways to improve your overall Internet marketing, take a look at Do It Wrong Quickly, an indispensable guide to the new ways of marketing on the cheap.