Secondary Research: How It Can Supplement Primary Research And Surveys

Philip Cleave
December 8, 2023
Man conducting secondary research from a range of sources

When it comes to research, secondary research is focused on the analysis and interpretation of existing data and information collected by others. It can provide a quick and invaluable source of insights that helps inform decision-making or serve as a precursor to exploring some of its areas in more detail through a survey.

So, more generally, how can businesses benefit from using secondary research? Well, that’s what we will go on to look at next including its importance, its advantages and disadvantages and how to go about conducting it.

However, before we do that, we’ll just explore in a bit more detail exactly what we mean by secondary research.

What is secondary research?

Secondary research, also known as desk research, is a research method that typically involves gathering existing data sourced from external sources such as government statistics, organizational bodies and the internet. Available in a range of formats from published datasets and reports to survey responses, it can be sourced from websites, libraries and museums.

Secondary research is also about bringing information together, to draw meaningful conclusions from it. In some cases, this can involve sifting through vast datasets to identify patterns, trends and correlations. It's an approach that can help transform raw data into actionable insights that can help move organizations forward.

Tapping into pre-existing data like this allows businesses to gain valuable insights without the resource and time-intensive process of conducting primary research, for a more cost-effective and efficient approach.

Primary vs secondary research

Compared with secondary research, primary research is all about creating first-hand data by directly working with interviewees, target users, or a target market. Primary research also involves carrying out research, asking questions and collecting data through approaches such as interviews, questionnaires or surveys and focus groups.

By using these methods, researchers can obtain in-depth, targeted responses to questions, so that their results are more accurate and specific to their research goals. But this does take time to carry out and administer.

Unlike primary research, secondary research uses existing data, which also includes published results from primary research. Researchers can summarize existing research and use its results to support and back up their research goals.

Both primary and secondary research offers its own value to the research process. While primary research can support the findings found through secondary research, while also filling in any knowledge gaps, secondary research can be the starting point for further primary research. As a result, both research methods are often used together to optimize the value and accuracy of research results.

Primary research Secondary research
First-hand research for gathering data, which may take a while to carry out The researcher collects existing, published data, which is quicker to gather
Results in raw data that the researcher owns There is no control over the data method or ownership
Data is relevant to the goals of the research Less likely to be relevant to the goals of the research
The research is conducted by the researcher, which if not careful could introduce researcher bias The researcher collects results, but no information exists on whether there is any researcher bias affecting this data
Can be costly to carry out Much more affordable, through access to free data

Sources for secondary research

Any secondary research that is carried out by an organization can be typically narrowed down to a range of sources that offer relevant insights into market trends, consumer behaviors, industry competition and other business-related mediums.

This tailored list of sources and references commonly includes:

Industry reports and market research firms

Industry-specific reports from reputable market research firms can provide detailed analyzes, market forecasts and competitor landscapes that help aid businesses in better understanding customer demands and market trends.

Competitor websites and annual reports

The websites and annual reports of your competitors are like a personal diary that can give you an insight into their personality and their strengths.

Analyzing them can give you a better idea and understanding of their products, strategies, financial performance and market positioning, so you can better identify market gaps where you may be able to gain a competitive advantage.

Trade publications and business magazines

These sources offer industry-specific news, expert opinion and case studies, which can provide useful insights into emerging trends, best practices and successful business strategies.

Government economic data and regulatory publications

Governments share economic data and regulations, which can include anything from data about GDP growth to information about employment rates and industry regulations. Again, such information about what’s going on in the wider world can give you an essential insight into what’s changing and how it might affect your business.

Academic journals and research papers

These references are another great source of information, offering in-depth information about theories and analyzes. They can also help you to better understand the reasons behind market behaviors.

Advantages and disadvantages of secondary research

At this point, it can be helpful to recap with a quick overview of the key pros and cons of this approach.


Cost-effectiveness: by utilizing existing data, it helps save on research costs

Time efficiency: it offers swift access to a wide range of data

Wide scope: it covers diverse topics and provides historical data

In-depth analysis: it allows detailed examination and exploration


Data quality concerns: the quality can vary depending on the source, leaving this existing data potentially open to biases

Limited control: you have no control over data collection, which can impact the validity of that data

Data relevance: the data may not precisely align with the research questions

Out of date information: in some rapidly changing disciplines, data can quickly become outdated or obsolete

How to conduct secondary research

Having gone into a bit more detail about secondary research, where it can be sourced from and its pros and cons, it’s helpful to know how to carry it out, if you’re looking to conduct your own secondary research.

Here’s some pointers to help you with this:

Determine your research questions

The first thing you’ll need to do is clearly outline what you want to know.

You’ll need decide on some specific research questions to help guide your search and sharpen your focus. Remember to keep your questions straight to the point to provide a clear direction for your study.

Identify your sources

Rather than sticking to one source, you’ll want to explore all the options available to you, to get a broad view of the subject.

You can narrow down your findings much later, to get to the precise point you have been trying to deduce.

Search online databases effectively

If you’re to get the most out of your research of online databases, you need to develop a robust set of keywords related to your topic of interest.

Utilize Boolean operators (and, or and not) to help refine your search. And to obtain the most relevant results, you’ll need to experiment with various combinations.

Evaluate your sources

From the author’s credentials to the publication date and publisher details. You need to be evaluating your sources carefully to ensure their credibility.

However, the one exception to this are peer-reviewed journals and academic institutions. which are usually trustworthy.

Make thorough notes

Whether it’s recording key points, statistics, quotes and more. Whatever it is, you need to ensure any notes you’re taking are thorough. This includes noting the publication details for proper citation and organizing your notes by topic to allow for simpler reference.

Bring information together

To help you analyze and identify any patterns, trends and discrepancies in your data, you need to be able to gather and bring all your data together first.

Compare and contrast information from different sources to gain a more detailed insight.  By doing this, you can see how different sources complement or contradict each other.

Validate your information

Once you have all the information you require, you need to reference and validate it. This is because any unauthorized data can cause huge differences in the decisions you make based on the insights.

Remain inquisitive and keep exploring

Your research shouldn’t end with a single project.

Remain curious about new developments, theories and research findings, and continue to broaden your knowledge base and refine your research skills.

Secondary research can support primary research and surveys

We hope you found this blog interesting. And if you weren’t already informed about the subject, you’re now more knowledgeable about secondary research, in terms of where to source it and make best use of it.

However, one of the most important aspects of secondary research is how it can be used to support primary research. In particular, whether you’re at the beginning or in the middle of your research, secondary research can help save you a lot of time and effort in quickly identifying the trends that matter. This then allows you to go deeper into your topic of interest with a survey and use the trends you’ve already identified to guide your questions and hopefully get the validation you need from your survey respondents' answers.

Essentially, while primary research can help support and fill in the knowledge gaps of secondary research, this research method can also provide a great starting point for further primary research. Consequently, given how well they complement one another, these research methods are often combined to ensure optimal research results, that offer both accuracy at the micro and the macro level.

Survey software: a key part of your research toolset

Given how well the secondary and primary research methods complement one another and are often used together in different research projects, it’s important to have access to good quality survey software. From what you need to create great looking surveys and collect data, to high quality analysis and reporting tools. The right choice of survey platform is vital.

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