Our guide to effective market research for B2B startups

This post is part of our series Marketing Now, about marketing activities that will always serve you well, regardless of market conditions and external factors. We believe that “right now” is always the time to invest in marketing initiatives that will serve you in the short and long term.

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After doing marketing for three years at Amazon, I was hired as the marketing lead at a B2B startup selling marketing analytics. I had no experience doing B2B marketing. What I had was intimate knowledge of the target persona — marketers at large online retailers — because I was one.
Naturally, you can’t always hire a former-target-persona to lead your marketing efforts, nor should you. But you should always work to understand your target audience. Get to know them so well that it’s like they’re a member of your team. It makes everything better: marketing campaigns, product development, sales calls, even investor pitches.

Below are our recommendations for activities that will help you know your audience. They’re useful for any startup, and are especially geared towards early stage B2B startups—those who typically have little to no budget to invest in market research tools.

10 market research activities for early stage B2B startups

  1. Sign up to mailing lists and blogs of competitors, customers, and influencers in your space. You can sign up from a separate email account or use filters to avoid overcrowding your inbox.
  2. Follow “influencers” like industry analysts, reporters, and bloggers via email, social (LinkedIn and Twitter, especially), or RSS (blog subscription).
  3. Set up Google Alerts on your space and competition.
  4. If you’re using LinkedIn Sales Navigator, follow companies to receive alerts about company news, people changing jobs and so on. You don’t have to invest in Sales Navigator just for market research, but you’ll need a premium LinkedIn account at some point anyway, so Sales Navigator is a good option.
  5. Find a good source of curated content in your industry and make sure to read notable articles. No need to obsessively check Twitter and read every article, but you do want to read the articles everyone is talking about. Find a newsletter that aggregates such content and read the articles it features. A few general B2B / SaaS examples of recommended content curators: SaaStr Cloud Daily (on Quora), Crunchbase daily newsletter, Work-bench Enterprise Weekly newsletter.
  6. Attend meetups / conferences in the space. And the current equivalent: webinars.
  7. Interview or meet with people in your industry: customers, prospects, other startup founders that are selling to the same persona.
  8. A scaled up version of the previous idea: run a survey on your marketing database and get feedback on goals, challenges, trends from dozens or hundreds of people at once. (A survey is also a great marketing campaign in and of itself.)
  9. Sit in on sales and customer success calls (or listen to recordings).
  10. Ask other people you respect — mentors, people who read a lot, startup founders — what resources they follow. Can be as simple as asking them to forward you a good newsletter or recommend a blog, or share their RSS feed list.

Market research – Frequently Asked Questions

Who should do market research?

Everyone on the marketing team, but really any startup employee (especially new ones), and definitely the founders. It’s a great way to learn about and keep up-to-date with your space, customers, and competition.

How can you encourage your team to do it?

  • Tell your team that following the industry is everyone’s job.
  • Set research-oriented goals and KPIs (e.g. attend an industry webinar every month, sit on a sales or customer success call every week).
  • Compile a list of recommended resources and share it with every new employee or on your company wiki / portal / watercooler.
  • Share: Run a weekly company-wide meeting sharing a new industry trend, an interesting meeting with an analyst, or a customer story.

When should you do it?

All the time. As a founder, you probably did most of these when you were starting out or when you last raised a round of funding. The key is to keep doing it so that you’re always up to speed on the industry. For example, if you interviewed 50 people when you started out, make it a habit to have (virtual) coffee meetings with a couple of industry folks every week.

How much time should you dedicate to it?

It really varies. No need to spend a ton of time on research; the key is to do it consistently. Make sure you’re doing something research-related every week. Talk to a customer, read an analyst report, or attend a webinar.

How much should we focus on competition?

Not a ton. We like to take a page from Jeff Bezos, and recommend being customer-obsessed, not competitor obsessed. Focus your market research efforts on understanding your customers and their needs, and good things will follow.
“If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering” — Jeff Bezos.

The bottom line

Now is a great time to deepen your relationships with your target audience, and take your market research up a notch. The research seeds you’re sowing now will blossom into magnificent demand generation flowers in the (hopefully near) future.

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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