The Quest for Useful Secondary Research

The Quest for Useful Secondary Research
Chelsea Maupin
August 05, 2016
Google parody image that says "Gudgle"

Secondary research - a review of existing information and research - is often overlooked or hastily done. But it shouldn’t be! It can be incredibly helpful in starting a new project or new research endeavor. It grounds the project in fact and can help you avoid reinventing the wheel when it comes to research.   

In the Internet age, secondary research typically goes one of two ways: “THERE IS TOO MUCH INFORMATION. WHERE DO I START? HELP!” or “HOW IS THERE NO INFORMATION ABOUT THIS? THIS IS THE INTERNET! IT’S SUPPOSED TO HAVE EVERYTHING.” Both the ocean of information and the desert of information can be overcome by approaching secondary research with a plan of action rather than a haphazard Google search.   

1. Outline Information Needs

First things first: Ask yourself what information do you need to know to do your best work. Think broadly. Do you need information about the audience, about the marketplace, and/or about competitors? Then break it down into questions that you can investigate without being overwhelmed such as how big is the audience? Where do they live? What channels are our competitors using? What do they care about? What do they watch on TV?

2. Check Your Assumptions

Every project starts with a certain amount of information that you, your team and the client just “know,” information that falls between obvious and conventional wisdom. In addition to investigating the questions you’ve formed, it’s a good idea to check those assumptions early in the research stage. This is particularly important when your assumptions relate to your audience.

A reasonable assumption may be that individuals without health insurance choose not to buy it because it is too expensive. However, the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center’s research can easily tell you factors such as being unaware of the requirement to carry health insurance, uncertainty about how to sign up for health insurance and low literacy and numeracy abilities are all in play when it comes to health insurance enrollment.

Or you may assume that an informational campaign about child care payment assistance for low-income working families is most needed in Detroit, but that doesn’t hold up with a quick review of secondary data. A simple comparison of current use of the child care payment assistance program and U.S. Census Bureau data on the number of low-income, working families will tell you Detroit families are already utilizing the assistance and there is greater need in Oakland or Macomb counties to inform families of the existence of program.

3. Saving Information

Secondary research typically involves reading a great deal of data, some of it relevant and much of it not, and being able to keep track of the important bits of information that have been learned is critical. Everyone has a system that works best for him or her – print and highlight, handwritten notes, copy and paste to a blank document, etc. Try each and stick with what works for you.

Additionally, keeping track of what information you’ve reviewed and where your information is coming from is important. An earlier piece of information may be more important as you learn more, but retracing your steps can be time consuming. Also, that information may be useful for future work. My preferred method is to bookmark everything that I review, useful or useless, just in case I need to come back to it later. Build a system that works for you. I’ve found that folders full of bookmarked sites titled by topic or a rating system based on usefulness of the information can serve as a digital catalog of possible sources.

4. Finding Good Information

The type of information needed will dictate what sources are relevant. But I typically work my way through the following sources of information to gather data from a variety of references. Listed here are sources that generally provide free information. Paid data require an evaluation of how much value the information has to your work to determine if purchasing is a good idea.

Governmental sources
Typically, I start with governmental data, both state and federal, because it is generally free, reliable and large in scope. The Census Bureau has an enormous amount of data about people, businesses and housing in the United States. The American Fact Finder guided search tool can help you access data on how many people are uninsured in a particular county, the number of residents who speak a language other than English at home, how many florists are in an area and many, many other topics.

Certain industries have a directly correlated state or federal agency that can provide valuable information. For example, a search for information on health care should lead to the U.S. Health and Human Services or the state equivalent, education will take you to the state and federal education departments, and housing will lead to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the state housing finance authority.

Nonprofit Research
Nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation data are not always available, but there are great resources to be discovered. Frequently, a good way to find new nonprofit data is to note who or what foundation is being quoted in the popular press about your topic of study.  

  • Pew Research Center regularly publishes great information from both its own research and that pulled from census data. Information about Internet, Science & Tech, the current state of Journalism & Media, trends in the growing U.S. Hispanic population and changes in the social dynamics of the modern world can be useful for a number of campaigns.
  • The Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center is doing great work on health care reform and other current issues in health.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation also covers health care reform and policy issues with insightful information.
  • In Michigan the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation (CHRT) is doing great work, particularly concerning health care reform in Michigan.
  • Annie E. Casey Foundation has robust data on the state of children across the country.
  • The Joint Center for Housing Studies offers in-depth data about affordable housing, urbanization, trends and more from Harvard University.

Trade Associations and Industry Leaders
Trade associations frequently do research on behalf of their membership and the industry at large. The information is not always publicly available but may be available if your client is a member or even if you call to ask on behalf of your client (even if it isn’t affiliated with the organization). Sometimes industry leaders make their research publicly available to help build a reputation as industry experts.

Trade associations and industry leaders do not always present balanced research, but the data can still be useful if you’re mindful of the source and likely bias.

Google & Wikipedia
There are better ways to Google than just typing in a question! Try using Google Advanced Search (or learn Boolean operators) to narrow your search results, and try Google Scholar to search academic literature on a topic.

Wikipedia should never, ever be your source of information, but a good Wikipedia page will provide a citation of where the information originated. Information should have a superscript number next to it that will pop up the citation, or it can be found at the bottom of the page in the references section, allowing you to evaluate the source of data for reliability and accuracy.