Research realities: Don’t get strung up on a shoestring budget

Samuel Brealey
4 min readJun 25, 2021


Every business has a similar problem, how to find valuable information that will help them to make better decisions.

The best marketers play the dual role of marketing and research. Research has always been part of marketing, but so often it’s relegated to the side-lines or to external suppliers. Marketers who take on the role themselves bring value to their clients and employers by helping them find the right information so they can make more informed decisions day to day.

We often see research reports and methodology that is unusable in the context of a small business.

I am not a high flying marketer working with mega brands. Like many of you I am in the trenches, rolling my sleeves up and working with very limited resources and often overworked and stressed business owners.

I live and work in the East Midlands of the United Kingdom. This is an area that is wrought with the scars of the financial crash of 2008. Going into 2021 will see new wounds made and new scars forming as a result of Covid19’s impact.

Industrial stagnation and little investment have plagued the region since the 1980s. The story of my clients is largely one of cash strapped, hard working and down to earth people that have skills they want to share with a marketplace that needs them. Plumbers, gas engineers, gyms and student accommodation providers.

One of my clients is a solo entrepreneur. His day job at a local city council funds his business as a side project that he hopes will one day be much larger, one day big enough to be his job. His problem is one of context, that he is incredibly time and resource poor. He has little to give to a project that demands so much of him.

So the problem he is facing, how does he make better decisions quicker? Without having to run the risk of baptism by fire or trial and error.

My role in this was to make sense of it, to put on my researcher’s hat to understand the competition in the market. Understand his customers. And the economic, legal and political pressures that may impact his business.

More risk management than marketing as we think of it.

By giving him a clear idea of what was happening around him, he could understand the competitive constraints that he is under. This allowed us to define the boundaries of decision making. He now knows what he can and more importantly, cannot do.

What he could not do was compete with industry leaders on their turf. What he could do was carve out a profitable section of the market to focus on and even though his business is virtual, we came to the conclusion that going all in on the local geography was a better use of time and energy than spreading too thin.

Without research, businesses are operating on a hunch. A guess. Our jobs as marketers are to remove the fog that clouds their decisions.

Good marketing helps businesses answer several questions:

Where are we now?

Where are we going?

Where do we want to go?

How do we get there?

These questions apply to all businesses. From the solo entrepreneur, to the very largest multinationals.

By reducing a business situation down to these simple questions we begin to understand the specific context of the businesses that we work with. We have to remember that sometimes marketing can come across as impenetrable and our jobs are not to overcomplicate but to simplify and inform.

Often, we are given a project brief for research, but no measure is taken to provide greater context. This can sometimes taint research as rapidly changing circumstances can make the research redundant before it even lands on someone’s table.

There are several methods we can use to get at our answers, and the reality of shoestring research is one of being comfortable with some degree of variability in the data. We want to paint a broad picture with research and not a piece to rival the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Explaining this to clients helps them understand the value of what we do. Our jobs are not to find “facts” in this but to find information that creates a picture of a world that is complex and full of dangerous turns.

In terms of practical methodology, I use a mix of methods, including both qualitative and quantitative research. One of the most impactful ways to learn about customers when resources are tight is to conduct qualitative research among existing customers.

If you can find common themes and comments from a small group of people you can choose to test those using quantitative methods against a larger sample size. Though, this sample will not be representative as the reality for many small businesses is that they won’t be able to generate thousands of responses, but hundreds are better than nothing, which is the reality of many businesses.

If we obsess over process, we will never find ways to navigate research that is helpful and actionable to clients.

A final story of a client of mine. A small financial practice that made the usual assumptions around their brand values. Those of integrity, innovation and creativity. These clichés were then tested against their customers, existing and former and from those grew the seeds of a more realistic positioning in the market.

One that was grounded in the experience of their customers.

The negative comments? Those were acted on too, with the implementation of new customer service monitoring techniques. To ensure that the new positioning was something that was carried through with action, not just a PowerPoint presentation on a rainy afternoon.

Good marketing research isn’t about complex or fine toothcomb methodologies that cost a fortune and take months to complete. It’s about making a positive difference that can help a business make more money, and very simple methods can make a difference where there is nothing to base decisions around. Any positive difference made to a small client that doesn’t have much in the way of resources is a win nonetheless.



Samuel Brealey

Better Marketing, means better business.