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A marketing strategy will help you identify your best customers, understand their needs and implement the most effective marketing methods.

The internet has transformed business marketing. No matter what you do, the internet is likely to be at the heart of your marketing strategy.

Social media is firmly established as a marketing tool. Having a presence opens up new lines of communication with existing and potential customers.

Good advertising puts the right marketing message in front of the right people at the right time, raising awareness of your business.

Customer care is at the heart of all successful companies. It can help you develop customer loyalty and improve relationships with your customers.

Sales bring in the money that enables your business to survive and grow. Your sales strategy will be driven by your sales objectives.

Market research exists to guide your business decisions by giving you insight into your market, competitors, products, marketing and your customers.

Direct marketing can be a highly successful way to generate sales from existing and new customers. Find out how to target them in the best way.

Exhibitions and events are valuable for businesses because they allow face-to-face communication and offer opportunities for networking.

PR

Favourable media coverage can bring a range of business benefits. But how do you attract the attention of editors, broadcasters and journalists?

Market research

A market research agency can design, carry out and analyse bespoke market research on your behalf. Using a professional market research company can ensure that you get the right information so that the strategic decisions you make are based on reliable market intelligence.

Market research agencies will make sure you're complying with current data protection legislation. They will also make sure the feedback you get and the conclusions drawn are fully objective - difficult to achieve when it's you researching your own idea, product or business.

Market research companies won't generally take on projects with budgets of less than £1,000. However, there are market research services available to firms with smaller budgets, including online surveys and omnibus surveys that allow you to ask a few questions of your own along with others.

If you have less to spend but need professional help, you may want to consider using a freelance market researcher to ensure objectivity. A freelance consultant can conduct surveys and questionnaires and also do qualitative research using face-to-face focus groups.

Finding a market research agency

Your trade association and business contacts may be able to suggest market research groups with knowledge of your industry and experience working with small firms. Organisations such as the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Marketing can provide information on members, and you can also search local and online directories. Two other useful organisations are the Business Intelligence Group (BIG) and the Independent Consultants Group (ICG).

If you are using other marketing consultants, it's worth checking whether they have the market research capabilities you need. Specialist marketing consultants will often be able to carry out related research: for example, your advertising agency should be able to research advertising effectiveness. Integrated marketing consultancies can offer a wide range of marketing services, including market research.

Your market research agency shortlist

Some market research agencies are heavily focused on a particular type of research (such as online surveys, qualitative research or quantitative research) or a particular industry. Others specialise in areas such as brand research or offer marketing research as part of a broader marketing consultancy service.

As long as you understand your own research needs, a quick check of what each agency offers will allow you to eliminate unsuitable ones. Smaller businesses tend to find that smaller agencies know how to get useful results within tighter budgets. Unless you know what type of research you need, you may prefer to work with a company that offers a wide range of market research services rather than a specialist who is certain to recommend their particular type of research.

Market research agency selection

You should draw up a brief to circulate to the market researchers on your shortlist, explaining your background, target market and what you want to achieve. Ask each market research company to provide a brief proposal setting out what kind of research they would suggest, their timelines, costs and enclosing examples of past assignments. You will probably want to meet the agencies with the most promising proposals to get a feel for who they are and how well you get on together.

It may not pay to cast your net too widely. Some market research agencies may ask for payment for writing a proposal if you invite more than three companies to pitch.

And be wary of comparing different market research agencies on the basis of cost alone. Cutting corners - for example, by using small sample sizes or cheaper forms of research - can undermine the accuracy and usefulness of the results. Instead, you should choose an agency that understands what you need to know and has shown that they know how to get the right information.