THE BLOG
08/09/2011 07:03 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

Know Before You Grow: Key Resources for Learning about your Customers and Competitors

Whether you're starting a business, introducing new products or services, or adding locations, it's always a good idea to first do your research. Informed decisions make the best decisions, and -- especially when credit is tight -- we often need to show that we have a solid understanding of our target markets.

Unfortunately, neither your customers nor your competitors make up one homogeneous group. What motivates people and businesses can vary depending on the places where they operate, live or work. That's why it's a good idea to incorporate into your research some business and market information about certain localities, including demographics and economic, political, social and other issues that make each market unique.

Several key resources will help you drill down to the local level and learn about counties, cities, census blocks and other sub-state areas:

Federal Government resources

The federal government collects and analyzes massive amounts of data, much of it about local areas. Population and business statistics, economic indicators, regional profiles, and mapped data are made available for free through a variety of publications and databases.

Most local-level business information comes from three U.S. government agencies: the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

- Census Bureau
One of the best sources for demographics is the American Community Survey. This annual survey of three million households collects such information as age, race, income, commute time to work, home value, and veteran status.

If you're looking for statistics on business and industry, try the County Business Patterns website, which actually offers employment and earnings down to the zip-code level, and the Building Permits database of construction statistics.

- Bureau of Economic Analysis
For insights into a local area's economic health, head to the BEA's Regional Economic Accounts web page. Here you will find information about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and local-area personal income and employment. The BEA Regional Fact Sheets (BEARFACTS), with data compiled into handy tables, graphs, charts, and bulleted lists, make it easy to compare an area's economy to that of the U.S. as a whole.

- Bureau of Labor Statistics
This agency is a great resource for data on hours, earnings, and type of employment for workers in a particular geographic area. Also of interest are the links to information about the demographic makeup of the workforce and regional mass layoffs. Discover which products from the Bureau of Labor Statistics drill to the local level through the Overview of BLS Statistics by Geography page of this agency's website.

State and Local Government Resources

State, and local governments frequently provide more detailed geographic-based information than federal sources, but the data won't necessarily be uniform or consistent across locations -- even for locations within the same state. More likely than not, you will have to visit the websites for each jurisdiction separately. What you lose in convenience, though, you gain in in-depth and first-hand knowledge.

To find official government sites, try entering the keyword government with the name of your location in a general-purpose search engine. You can also link to official sites through these resources: state and local government on the net and local governments via USA.gov.

Local Experts

Even in the age of Google, you won't find everything on the web. Perhaps no one's collected or posted exactly what you're looking for, or it's not in plain sight and will take too long to uncover. Then there's the information you won't find in any data table or news headline. As competitive-intelligence researcher Ben Gilad put it in a Competitive Intelligence Review article, "Only human sources can provide commentary, opinion, feelings, intuition, emotions, and commitment."

Sometimes the best way to find the answers you need is to ask an expert. People in the following professions make good targets for your research, because they generally keep an eye on the community and will often have subject expertise as well:

* Journalists

* Government workers

* Librarians

* University professors

* Association members or leaders

* Economists and economic development executives

Search the web to find the right people ask and to prepare for your phone calls (yes, calls are much more effective than emails when contacting local experts). Scan the news to identify the people writing the stories and the people about whom they are writing. Try the websites of local governments, libraries, and organizations such as the chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau for key personnel.

Experts are often willing to talk and want to be helpful, but it's important to respect their time. Keep interviews short, and do some background research on both your contact and topic to make sure you quickly ask the right questions.

Business growth will take you into new and unchartered territory. Minimize the risk by arming yourself with a thorough understanding of your customers and your competitors - and the day-to-day local issues that affect their decisions.