For marketers, the Internet is a blessing. Never has there been so much information about consumers and how they think right at your fingertips. In years past, marketing firms and businesses had to rely solely on costlier, more time consuming methods like focus groups, surveys and other data-gathering methods. Online research offers some excellent shortcuts.

Whenever you start an online marketing campaign, the most basic step is to gather relevant keywords. Keywords are essential but they don’t get you much hard data about your target audience other than what they’re searching for online. Here are the top 5 other methods used to do market research online.

Online Surveys

The survey has always been a viable method of conducting quantitative market research and discovering general trends. Now that we can do surveys online, it’s much cheaper and more convenient than standing in the shopping mall harassing passers-by. You can use software programs that automate everything for you, tallying the results so you don’t have to. Online surveys are particularly effective because respondents can be completely anonymous.

Blog Questions

On your blog, you can gain valuable information from your readers by simply asking questions. Write a blog post and at the end say something like, ‘What do you think about this?’ People love to share their opinions and they’ll eagerly do so. The great thing about blog questions is that they’re versatile; you can introduce a new line and ask them directly what they think, or share a story that’s unrelated to your business and ask for their opinion to find out how they feel about life in general.

Your Email List

If you have an email list, this is a wonderful audience for your questions. Mixed in with your valuable content and targeted offers, you can ask them questions and use this data for future offers. The great advantage with your list is that they’re pre-screened. You already have a built-in audience that’s interested in your products or services.

Forums and Q&A Sites

Online forums and question-and-answer sites are a natural source for gathering information. You often don’t even need to ask; someone else may have started a discussion on the topic. If you want to know, for example, how people feel about Facebook’s new Timeline format, chances are good that people are already talking about it.

Social Networks

Social networks are priceless because there are far more happening than just personal discussions. On sites like Facebook, people tell you exactly what they like. You can look at the kind of content they share to get an idea of what they’re into. Sites like Twitter and Facebook also offer apps that help you do market research.

Don’t Quit Offline Market Research

The Internet makes market research easy, but it’s still a good idea to research offline as well. The main advantage of offline research is that it’s more in-depth. Focus groups, for example, give you personal interaction that you don’t always get online. Participants are more engaged in the sessions and they’re likely to tell you more. The best strategy is to do market research both online and off, depending on your budget and resources.