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Market Research Means Money
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I recently made a critical mistake in my progression towards business success. I had decided that I was going to make some money with an online store. After a bit of brainstorming, I picked a few things that I thought might be good to sell online. I then started to look for suppliers. This may seem like a reasonable course of action, but it is not. It is missing a key component of any business plan: Market Research.
Competition is involved with any business. Even if you make your own, unique product, similar products will compete against yours. But the existence of competition is not necessarily bad. The fact that online retailers are selling items similar or identical to your own means that people want your product. Competition is only bad for you when the market is becoming saturated.
Check the electronics market for a good example. Electronics go for rock-bottom prices online because there are so many stores that sell them. The difference in prices between stores often comes down to the cost of shipping. Competition in this area is extreme. Electronics dealers depend on volume, and very good suppliers, to make their money. Small retailers cannot sell at those prices and turn a profit.
In order to be successful it is essential that you know what you're up against. If you are selecting your products, then you need to know which stores already sell those products. You need to know how many stores there are, how much they are charging and, if you can find out, how well they are doing. Could you sell for less (if only a little)? What are other ways you could differentiate your store?
If you already have your product, then you need to know where and how your competitors are advertising. Are they concentrated in one location? Are there good places that they have overlooked? How much is it going to cost to compete with them for prime ad space?
So where do you begin? The answer is Overture. Owned by Yahoo, Overture is one of the largest pay-per-click advertising services. What you need for research are two tools in the Overture Advertiser Center. The first is the Search Term Suggestion Tool. This tool allows you to look up a keyword, like 'digital camera', and find out how many searches there were for that term last month. The tool will also suggest a list of related terms, like 'digital camera review'.
The number of searches per term comes from Overture's partners like Yahoo, MSN, AltaVista, CNN, etc. This is critical information because it tells you whether or not people are looking for your product online and, at the same time, shows you how they are searching for it. This indicates a certain interest for your product. You may be able to judge the amount of interest by the number of searches for your terms. For example:
Digital Camera - 1,337,422 (high interest) Used Car - 890,346 Mountain Bike - 133,553 Blender - 26,648 Bubble Gum Machine - 1,502 Chapstick Raspberry Vanilla - 25 (very low interest)
Tip: Users searching for 'digital camera' are not necessarily shopping for one. They may just want information.
Also: If people are searching on Yahoo and MSN, then you can bet that even more people are searching for the same things on Google.
The second tool Overture provides is the View Bids Tool. This allows you to take the keywords that you found and see how many ads there are for each term and how high the bids are (higher bids get top listings). This can help you judge your competition.
For example, at the time of this writing there are 131 ads for the term digital camera. The top bid is 79 cents. Bubble gum machine has 13 ads with a top bid of 49 cents. Chapstick Raspberry Vanilla has no bids on the term which means that the top spot could be purchased for the minimum price of 10 cents per click.
Google is your likely next step. To my knowledge, Google analysis tools are only available to registered advertisers. However, it is easy to find your competition on Google. Simply enter your search term and check the right side of the results screen. Those ads are from the top advertisers. Checking subsequent pages will reveal the entire list of advertisers for that term.
Tip: Sometimes advertisers target your term, but don't sell your product. Read the ads and visit the sites to get a more accurate idea of your direct competitors.
The natural results (the normal, non-ad results) of your search are important as well. Check those to see the top ranked sites in your market. Users are much more likely to click on the natural results than they are the ads. The stores at the top of the list are likely to be well established and may represent some solid competition.
Visit your competitor's web sites and see what they are selling. Get names and site locations. This may seem time consuming, but it will help with future research. Check for site quality, organization, and ease of use. If their site is ugly or hard to navigate, that can work to your advantage.
Next, check out Yahoo Shopping. Retailers setup stores with Yahoo's services and are then included in Yahoo Shopping's listings. This can be a good way to get fast traffic. For market research, it means easy access to competitor sites. On the Yahoo Shopping main page, do a search for your product (Braun blenders for example). The results show sponsored ads and normal listings. The sponsored ads come from Overture, so you should already be familiar with those.
The normal listings come from Yahoo Product Submit results and Yahoo's web-crawler database. What is important in this list is displayed just below the top sponsor listings and just above the normal listings. There should be two numbers: Number of products and the number of stores. 'Braun blenders' shows 989 products from 76 stores (at time of writing). Those numbers give you an indication of how many stores you're up against.
Finally, visit eBay. Find the eBay Stores area (located in the Specialty Sites box on the homepage at time of writing). Enter your search term to see how many eBay stores are selling your product. 'Braun blenders' shows ten items in eBay stores. The search may show regular listings below the store results. These results can give you some idea your product's popularity as well as the feasibility of selling it on eBay.
Remember, some competition is good because it shows that there is an interest in your product. Too much competition is bad because it means low profitability. The spot where you can make good money is somewhere in between. A solid business plan built on thorough market research will certainly boost your chances significantly.
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Jason Carr is a small business owner, dedicated student of e-commerce strategy, and producer of BeginBiz, an online resource for those looking to start an internet business. Check BeginBiz for more help with your market research, advertising, web hosting, or domain registration.
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