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Free Market-Research Tools -- A Sampler Small businesses can tap a variety of free resources for insights about customers, competitors and trends.

By Gwen Moran Edited by Frances Dodds

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Free Market-Research ToolsBefore Darlene Tenes, founder of CasaQ in San Jose, Calif., sinks a lot of money into new designs for Christmas ornaments, she sends sketches to retail and wholesale clients. They report back through questionnaires she creates on the online research service SurveyMonkey, and their reactions influence which designs become decorations.

"If you have four choices and there's a strong reaction [like] 'I love it. I would absolutely buy it,' then you know it's a seller," says Tenes, whose ornaments and other products reflect Hispanic culture.

SurveyMonkey is only one of a wealth of free tools and resources that can help you gather valuable market-research information. Here are eight you should consider:

Survey Monkey Basic
Survey Monkey
Portland, Ore.
www.surveymonkey.com
Cost: Free. Enhanced plans with additional services run up to $65 per month.
What It Is: An online survey and opinion poll service.
How to Use It: You can creative surveys free of charge for your own audience. For a fee, you also can get feedback from your target audience via SurveyMonkey's own samples.
Get the Most Out of It: Beyond the answers to survey questions, respondents may provide additional insight in their open-ended comments.

BizStats
Brandow Co.
Camp Hill, Pa.
www.bizstats.com
Cost: Free.
What It Is: Free business statistics and financial data for various industries.
How to Use It: The various filters help you find financial information about other companies in your field that are of similar size. The site also provides calculators and others tools to help you understand profit-risk ratios, cost of goods sold and valuation factors for your business.
Get the Most Out of It: Use BizStats to see the revenue potential for your startup and to determine how much you should be spending on advertising. You also can compare your inventory turnover with that of your competitors.

Related: Five Affordable Consumer Research Tools

Securities and Exchange Commission Filings
Securities and Exchange Commission
Washington, D.C.
www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml
Cost: Free.
What It Is: Periodic filings by public companies to comply with SEC regulations.
How to Use It: The SEC's EDGAR tool can search annual reports and 10-K forms, which provide detailed financial information and market analyses.
Get the Most Out of It: Market research expert Marcy Phelps suggests zeroing in on the sections of 10-Ks that include the description of the business, the management discussion and market risks.

Zoom Prospector
GIS Planning
San Francisco
www.zoomprospector.com
Cost: Free.
What It Is: This online tool helps companies choose the best locations for their facilities based on market data provided by a network of communities.
How to Use It: Answer questions about your market, type of business and real estate needs, and ZoomProspector will provide a list of locations it deems best for you.
Get the Most Out of It: Be sure you understand the demographic profile of your target customers so your business will be matched with areas that offer the most promising prospects.

FreeLunch.com
Moody's Analytics
West Chester, Pa.
www.economy.com/freelunch
Cost: Free. Registration required.
What It Is: Economic, demographic and financial data.
How to Use It: The data, covering everything from consumer and labor markets to gross domestic product and inventory ratios, will give you insight into economic and population trends.
Get the Most Out of It: Check out the reports on 387 regions, including gross metropolitan product, migration flows, population and descriptions of the area's characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.

Related: A New Way to Crowdsource Customer Feedback

Hoover's Free Edition
Hoover's, a unit of Dun & Bradstreet
Austin, Texas
www.hoovers.com
Cost: Basic profiles are free. Pay-as-you-go options are available for in-depth reports and lead generation.
What It Is: A searchable collection of business profiles, including financial data, key personnel and an overview of the company and its markets.
How to Use It: Search for key business-to-business prospects and competitors to get hard-to-find data, including information on privately held companies.
Get the Most Out of It: It isn't free, but Hoover's Lead Builder promises to deliver B2B leads matching your criteria for as little as 34 cents each.

Census.gov
U.S. Census Bureau
Washington, D.C.
www.census.gov
Cost: Basic profiles are free. Pay-as-you-go options available for more in-depth information.
What It Is: Data from the U.S. Census.
How to Use It: Enter terms into the search box on the main page or head right to the page of the Small Business Ombudsman, where you can find demographic data, overviews of various industries, population statistics, regional economic data and much more. Also, check out American Fact Finder for hundreds of demographic, population and labor cost demographics.
Get the Most Out of It: If you have trouble finding what you need, the Small Business Ombudsman is available to help. Call 866-564-5431 or email census.ombudsman@census.gov.

mPact
mBlast
Kennesaw, Ga.
http://www.mympact.com/
Cost: Free
What It Is: A scoring index of online influence and a tracker of social media topics.
How to Use It: Sign in with one of your social media accounts. Then you'll get a report that includes your online influence score -- a measure of your social media connections and how often your content is reposted -- as well as a list of influential social media users in your areas of interest. Topic searches reveal what people are saying online about your brand -- or just about anything else.
Get the Most Out of It: mPact provides tips on increasing your visibility and influence in the online world.

Related: Hacking the U.S. Census for Market Research

Gwen Moran

Writer and Author, Specializing in Business and Finance

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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