Guest columnist: Informed decisions start with research

Filed under Columns

By Marcy Phelps

Guest Columnist

Whether you’re starting a business, introducing new products or services or adding locations, it pays to do some research. Informed decisions make the best decisions, and businesses need a solid understanding of their target markets.

Unfortunately, neither your customers nor your competitors make up one homogeneous group. What motivates people and businesses can vary, and it often depends on 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 places. Look for information on demographics and the economic, political and social issues that make each market unique.

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

Federal sources

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 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: For demographics data, try the American Community Survey ( This annual survey of 3 million households collects 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 (

Bureau of Economic Analysis

For insights into a local area’s economic health, visit 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 Bureau of Economic Analysis 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 United States 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 Governments

Regional, 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 (

Local Governments: (

Local News

News reports are a rich source of local information about public and private companies, people, economics, and issues. Local media outlets go into far greater detail than their national counterparts when covering local events and stay with the story long after the national press has moved on. Local news sources also offer something the larger outlets can’t – a local perspective – and knowing what’s important to local residents is a valuable piece of business and market planning.

The Google News ( advanced search page allows for location-based searching, as does Bing News ( Also try these resources for print, radio, and TV news stories: American City Business Journals (; news and newspapers online (; radio-locator (

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. Some information isn’t available in any data table or news headline. As competitive intelligence researcher Ben Gilad once put it in an article in the Competitive Intelligence Review, “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, goernment workers, librarians, university professors, association members or leaders, economists and economic development executives.

Search the web to find the right people to ask and for background 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 chambers of commerce or visitors bureaus to find key personnel.

Experts often are 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.

Marcy Phelps is the founder of Phelps Research and author of the book, “Research on Main Street: Using the Web to Find Local Business and Market Information.” For more information, please visit, and


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