Securing accurate, cost-effective market research is a challenge for any organization. From the moment I realized marketing was all about your audience I had to face the problem, and still do today. We all have to find a way to check our assumptions and refine the communications we create.

What was my first lesson in market research, you ask? I can’t afford market research. So I focused on budget-minded research methods to help me piece together a workable image of the audiences I engaged. These eight scrappy approaches to market research for nonprofits can help you get a step or two closer to understanding who you’re speaking with, what matters to them, and how they view your organization.


1. Talk to people on the front line

Find whoever it is in your organization that spends the most time with your clients or donors and interview them — rigorously. If they’re smart and experienced, then there’s likely a treasure trove of insight sitting right across the office.

A couple of things to consider before you pepper internal players with questions:

They make assumptions too

Real market research helps businesses shake their assumptions. Try to balance personal perceptions with some other secondary source — say a recent report within the industry. Get interviewees to share stories of their experiences and then extrapolate. Identify where the anecdotes from your team align with third party statistics and call it a good start.

Your team might give you the answer they think you want to hear

Be careful not to make internal players feel under pressure to give the right answer. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re starting with them, without leading them into a particular angle. Make it clear that they’re the experts and that you want to learn from their experiences so as to not muck up the info before you get to it.

And remember that you too, already have assumptions about your services, mission and audiences. It’s important not to let your own bias prevent you from asking truly impartial questions.


2. One question per call per month

Not too long ago I was introduced to this hip market research exec. I asked him, “How am I supposed to do market research with no budget?” He said, “You have sales guys don’t you? That’s all you need!”

He told me to give sales team members one question per call for the month.

“For June, you ask every prospect or client you call THIS one question and record the answer.” For example, what do you think is the biggest issue in our community?

Just like that, you have your own market research team pulling in a few data points per day. For a nonprofit, it could be your office administrator or fundraising coordinators asking simple questions to help you understand what your audience really cares about. Within a few months you’ll have data to confirm three or four key qualities shared by your target audience.

The challenge in this approach is making sure everyone documents the responses month over month. In my experience, it can be harder than it sounds. Try establishing a weekly target for each team member based on the number of calls they usually make and track the results in a shared spreadsheet.


3. Find and download media kits

When it works, accessing media kits is one of the best shortcuts to market research I’ve stumbled upon. All you have to do is identify a few publications that share your audience and request or download their media kit. Just like that, you have access to a high-level analysis of the people you want to reach.

When magazines or newspapers try to sell advertising space, they give marketers their media kit to show them the audiences they command with their amazing publications. Many media kits share demographic information, reading habits, and popular themes and topics. Any useful information that can be scraped from here is more or less reliable.

Depending on your audience, this might involve a lot of leg work. The most insightful media kits, those offered by mainstream publications, are somewhat guarded. This is valuable information and they want to make sure its going to real prospects. Smaller publications that are hungry for new advertisers will usually offer it as a downloadable piece on their website. Start there and gauge the value.


4. Explore Google Analytics & Adwords

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tools are a great way to understand how your audience thinks and speaks. Sign up for a Google Adwords account and use the keyword planner to get a sense of how popular particular terms are or the seasonal changes in searches related to your organization.

For instance, when working with a nonprofit that connects marketers with social initiatives, I had to know whether we were targeting marketers interested in “social marketing,” “cause marketing” or “mission marketing”. Although all related, each term has a particular meaning specific to the interaction of marketing and society. Google’s suite of tools helped me understand which was the most popular term and what other search results aligned with it. From there, “social marketing” became the phrase we used across our material.

Another way to see trends in popular search terms is with Google Trends. Although easier to use, Trends is fairly topical and won’t work well for niche nonprofits.


5. Complete a competitive analysis

I hate seeing what my competition is up to, especially when they’re good. But the reality is that it’s a great way to identify what works. A bigger, better competitor is a shortcut to learning.

Try to analyze what competitors do and come up with ways to improve it. How does their copy or design reflect your own? What’s surprising to you? Where do your organizations seem to diverge? Think like a marketer and reverse engineer their creative work into the most likely characteristics they’ve assumed of their target audience.

Look at their choice of photos, for instance. What demographic and mood are they showing to their audience? That’s how you know who they’re targeting and trying to engage. Also try and find out if they have a strong marketing team. If they do, chances are they’ve done their homework. Take what’s working for them and leave what isn’t, behind.


6. Ask your mom, best friend or significant other

You need your mom to say what you want to hear. Your best friend to tell you you’re wrong. And your significant other to tell you the truth.

For those of us willing to bring a little work home, asking someone you trust can help you at least refine your ideas at the outset. This is the bare minimum “research” for those with neither time nor money for marketing.

This works best, of course, if your significant other or friends can somewhat relate to your target audience.


7. Conduct an online survey

If you’re lucky enough to have a list of contacts to work with, set up your own survey. Depending on the relationship your organization has with your contacts, try to keep it short and simple. Apply a few best practices of survey design and you’ve got near-free data to work with.

The biggest advantage here is that the information is truly your own. The process can be repeated (if you want information often, make sure you provide tangible incentives to those who participate) and your data can be quickly refined.


8. Participate in an omnibus study

Specialized, full service market research is very expensive.

Another option is to participate in an omnibus study — a market research survey funded by various organizations with the same target demographic. The study itself covers a variety of subjects for those funding the study and provides quantitative data for marketers. Unlike the other options, this one costs money — less than other forms of market research, but still something.

If you’re planning to spend a few thousand to participate in a reliable omnibus study, spend time on carefully developing your questions; you’ll want to make sure they’re well designed to get the most bang for your buck.


Market research for nonprofits in a nutshell

Market research is important, laborious and often expensive. The most important thing you can do — arguably more important than which type of research you choose — is make sure you track the results of any decision driven by your research. Insights gleaned from even the best market research can be wrong. When you act on information, always document the results to know whether your assumptions are accurate and that you’re not making the same mistake twice!

Nicholas Buccheri

Nicholas Buccheri

Marketing Manager at Green Standards
Nicholas Buccheri is the marketing manager at Green Standards and a freelance communications consultant. He has worked on a variety of branding and marketing projects for businesses and nonprofits including Marketers Without Borders, The Exchange Lab and Epik Networks.
Nicholas Buccheri
Nicholas Buccheri