Closing Time

Marketing on a Budget: 3 Cost-Effective Ways to Conduct Audience Research

Can you afford to do audience research? The better question may be, can you afford NOT to?

Most marketers are doing typical market research right, but when it comes to audience research, they’re missing the mark.

Audience research is exactly what it sounds like: you are discovering who your audience is, what they pay attention to, and what sources influence them.

The better you know your customers and how their purchasing decisions are being influenced, the better you can serve them.

In this episode of Closing Time, Insightly CMO Chip House welcomes Rand Fiskin, CEO of SparkToro, to talk through 3 free or cost-effective ways to conduct audience research that every marketer can put in their toolkit.

Watch the video:
Key Moments:
Market vs. Audience Research: What's the Difference?

When someone says customer research, what comes to mind? Market segmentation, in-depth interviews with stakeholders, highly-targetted surveys, expensive third-party research firms… a whole lot of budget that you don’t have? 

We know that understanding and researching customers is the cornerstone of successful B2B marketing, but the good news is that quality research can be conducted without breaking the bank – in many cases, even at no cost at all.

If done correctly and paired together, cost-effective market and audience research methods can be the driving force behind tailored, effective strategies that lead to growth and long-term success. 

But here’s the catch: many companies are missing the mark when it comes to true audience research. They exclusively focus on researching the addressable market (a.k.a customers and potential customers), while ignoring a treasure trove of places and people who are influencing them.

Let’s start by defining market research and audience research.

Market research focuses on understanding the entire potential customer base within a specific field, often referred to as the “addressable market.” This includes identifying who buys a product, where they make purchases, and how they learn about brands. It also delves into market size, demographics, and other broad product strategy insights that are particularly beneficial for early-stage companies.

For instance, if we were launching a hiking boot company, market research would help us determine the size of the hiking boot market, the preferences of different customer segments, and other essential information.

Audience research takes a different approach – it’s concerned with identifying the specific individuals and sources that influence your target audience. These influencers could be individuals, publications, or sources of information that your potential customers turn to for advice or guidance.

For instance, someone in our hiking boot audience might be influenced by AARP magazine, NPR, podcasts, YouTube channels, or social media accounts related to outdoor activities. Even park rangers at national parks could be part of our audience if they recommend our hiking boots to visitors, though they are not a potential customer.

The key distinction lies in recognizing that your audience extends beyond just your customers. Ignoring the broader ecosystem of influencers and information sources that impact your audience’s awareness and purchasing decisions is a common mistake in marketing. Audience research seeks to uncover where your audience pays attention, how they learn about products, and how you can effectively reach them.

Research Method 1: Surveys

Surveys: We’ve all taken them and we’ve likely all conducted them. Whether you’re using Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Typeform or the equivalent – online surveys are a powerful tool for gaining in-depth insights into your audience. 

Contrary to popular belief, surveys do not need to be polished and perfected, nor do they need to be sent to a carefully built list of high-intent leads or customers. Rand suggests beginning with a broader audience and then narrowing it down based on responses. Your goal is to distribute the survey anywhere your audience is paying attention. Start by considering these three primary distribution channels:

Utilize Your Email List: If you already have an email list of subscribers or contacts, this is your goldmine. These individuals are already engaged with your content or have shown interest in your business. They form your core audience, making them an ideal target for your survey. Craft an email that introduces the survey and explains its importance. Encourage participation with a clear call to action.

Leverage Social Media: Your social media followers are likely interested in your business. They follow you for a reason, and that reason often aligns with your survey’s objectives. Share your survey on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Craft compelling posts that highlight the survey’s purpose and benefits. Remember to use relevant hashtags and, if possible, pin the survey post for greater visibility.

Leverage Your Network: If you lack direct connections to your target audience, consider tapping into your network. Collaborate with people or businesses in related fields who have access to your desired audience. This could involve co-promotions, sponsoring email newsletters, or hosting webinars together. Leveraging their audience can be an effective way to reach your research goals.

(Last Resort) Consider Paid Options: For those with more financial freedom, paid options can yield excellent results. Survey firms and platforms like SurveyMonkey with built-in panels offer access to a broader pool of respondents. While these options can be more expensive, they can be worth the investment if your budget allows.

Research Method 2: Interviews

In the quest to understand your audience better, don’t overlook the simple yet highly effective method of in-depth interviews. While surveys are a popular go-to for audience research, interviews offer a different level of depth and detail that can be invaluable for shaping your strategies. So, let’s delve into why interviews matter and how to make the most of them.

Interview the Right People: The first step in conducting insightful interviews is to select the right individuals to interview. While surveys can provide you with broad data, interviews allow you to dig deeper and truly understand your audience’s pain points and preferences. It’s not about interviewing just any customers; it’s about finding individuals who represent your ideal audience. Use responses from your surveys to narrow down the search, and aim to interview around 30 people who closely fit this profile.

Hire a Professional Interviewer: Surveys can often be handled in-house, but interviews are a different game altogether. Hiring a professional interviewer or contractor can make a world of difference. An external expert is often better at asking the right questions, creating a comfortable environment for honest feedback, and ensuring that interviewees feel at ease sharing their unfiltered opinions.

Customize Your Questions: One key advantage of interviews is that you can tailor your questions to address the specific challenges and objectives you want to explore. Instead of relying on generic interview templates, craft questions that directly align with the insights you need. Whether you’re trying to understand the effectiveness of your communication channels, refine your messaging, or explore specific tactics, ensure your questions are designed to provide you with the answers that matter most.

Research Method 3: Audience Research Tools

So, after conducting online surveys, you chose a few respondents for third-party interviews. What’s next? If you want to fine-tune your messaging to reach the right audience at the right time and in the right place, you’re going to need actionable data on what’s influencing them. That’s where audience research tools come into play.

Tools like SparkToro, Brandwatch,, and Audiense crawl millions of unique profiles across billions of web pages, social media profiles, podcasts, and YouTube channels to find out what (and who) your audiences reads, listens to, watches, follows, shares, and talks about online. 

The goal? To find common threads that tie groups of people together so you can execute your marketing in all the right places.

Let’s say you want to understand the world of orthodontists. In SparkToro you can select the “uses these word(s) in their profile” drop-down and search for “orthodontists.” What the software does is aggregate data from all of the profiles that use that keyword and present to you everything from demographic information to the specific YouTube channels they’re subscribed to.

Then, your job as a marketer is simple: Use these strategic and tactical insights to better understand your audience’s presence and preferences. Dive deep into the content they engage with, tailor your messaging, build a content strategy, and create a presence in those places. It’s a whole new level of data-driven insights, and one that can change the came for growing businesses.



Interested in learning more about audience research? Ask Rand questions directly on LinkedIn or visit SparkToro’s website to try the product for free. 


Think marketing research is too expensive?
We’re exploring three easy and cost effective ways you can start conducting
audience research on this episode of Closing Time.
Thanks for tuning into Closing Time the show for Go to Market Leaders.
I’m Chip House CMO at Insightly CRM and I’m joined by Rand Fishkin,
CEO of SparkToro and Audience Research Platform, is also
the former CEO and co-founder of Moz, which maybe is how you know him.
And he’s also the author of the book. Lost and Founder.
Welcome to the show, Rand.
Yeah, great to be here, Chip.. Thanks for having me.
I’m super excited to dig into this this topic.
And I know you know a thing or two about it.
And I’m excited for our viewers, frankly, because I know you have the reputation as
the guy who uses whiteboards and offers, you know, very actionable feedback.
And so I don’t know if we’re going to see the whiteboard today or not, Rand, But,
you know, nonetheless, excited to talk about audience research.
So, you know,
when I think a lot of marketers hear the term, hey,
I want to do audience or market research, they think a couple of things.
They think that’s hard.. They don’t know anything about it.
And they also might think it’s really expensive.
So what do you say to that?
It can be really
expensive, if you would, if you would like to blow a lot of money on it.
There are lots of companies who would be happy to take that money from you.
Survey design firms, you know, your McKinsey’s and such.
However, market research and audience research, which are sort of two different
things, but have have lots of overlap in terms of how you might do them tactically.
It does not have to be expensive.
So when started SparkToro, which was almost five years ago now,
the first year and a half was literally all market research, audience research.
And essentially the way we did that was how I recommend almost everyone does it.
And that is a combination of three things
surveys, interviews
and passively collected data at scale,
which you can do that in a variety of ways and we can go deeper on that.
But a survey can be free, right?
Like a Google Form survey, totally free.
You can sign up for the free version of
SurveyMonkey or Typeform.
I actually like Typeform a lot.
It’s very inexpensive and I get very high response rates there.
So I do a lot of my like public surveys through Typeform.
And essentially what we did is
we just promoted that Typeform, you know, research survey
on our social channels and through, you know, my personal network and people
I had known and I reached out to people and asked them to amplify it.
And when I went to events,. I asked people at those events to take it.
This is you know, that’s
the sort of start up mentality,
market research, and it can be shockingly effective.
You know, it told us who our customers were,
demographically who they were, psychographically, geographically.
It told us what they cared about and didn’t care about.
So we were specifically interested in the problem of,
you know, at the time what I was calling like influencer marketing,
like not influencers, but sources of influence marketing.
And so I was trying to figure out, like,
how did people discover this, how they solved this problem,
what were they doing today, what tools did they use,
what processes did they ignore the channel entirely?
And we learned a tremendous amount.
And I think it helped us be very successful
with the initial launch of the product, which was informed by both
those surveys at the high level and then a lot of interviews at the detail level.
So I just call up folks, a lot of folks like yourself actually, Chip.
I’d be like oh, CMO at a SaaS company like Fantastic, right?
Chip Like, hey, walk me through your process for this.
How do you make these kinds of investments?
Do you make these kinds of investment?. Have you ever done them?
Why don’t you?
What would make you like, you know, all that kind of stuff
and you get phenomenal data from this that is incredibly actionable, right?
It helps you tune into what product should I build, What features
should I build, how should I talk about it? Right.
If you’re a marketer, a ton of your problem
is what message should I tell in which places to reach my audience
and get them to pay attention to me and convert to you know, a future buyer.
And this information is priceless for that.
So yeah, anyway, that’s a starting point.
It doesn’t have to be pricey.
Yeah, and I guess I’ve used Typeform and SurveyMonkey
and get feedback and there’s a number of great platforms
now, and they’re all mobile friendly now too, right?
With like great output.
And so it’s a great place to start for sure.
So you
mentioned something there, and I think that you’re a bit more evolved
then honestly, I think a lot of marketers are relative to the language
to even use to think about conducting research
and you know, when we had a chat before you talked about
there is a difference between your potential
and your current customers versus who your audience is.
Do you want to break that down for us?
I think it’s super important.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
And this is a big part of the difference
between market research and audience research as well, right?
So when you’re doing market research, you’re generally interested in
all the people in the field who might be in,
you know, what an investor or a founder might call an addressable market.
So let’s say you and I are selling
hiking shoes, right?
We’re going to sell a new brand of hiking boots.
It’s going to be Chip and Rand’s hikers.
This is a terrible brand name.
Don’t anyone start this company.
It sounds amazing. I’d buy it. Yeah.
Well, you are named Chip, so.
Right. You can see the appeal.
It’s one those. Oh, yeah.
So let’s say we start this this hiking boot company
and we want to know what is the addressable market.
Right. So.
So who are the people who buy hiking boots?
Where do they tend to buy them?
Is it online, Is it in stores?
Where do they learn about brands, all that kind of stuff.
And how big is that market?
How many people buy them?
Men versus women, age range demographics, you know, all this kind of stuff.
That information is great for kind of starting the company
and your broad product strategy, like what should we make for whom?
How are we going to tell the story to market it?
Who is it specifically for?
Like maybe we’re making hiking boots
for folks who have a lot of
walking trouble, right?
Like folks who are older folks who have disabilities, folks who have,
you know, whatever problems with their
their heels, you know, whatever their arches.
So we’re going to make this special type of hiking boots.
Great. You know, fantastic, right?
That’s a niche market, probably underserved, underinvested in.
Very cool.
But now we want to move
from just market research to audience research.
And that’s essentially who are the people that are in our crowd
and what are their sources of influence and the people who influence them?
So it could very likely be the case that there are many people who are
people and
publications who influence our audience, right?
It could be things like maybe it’s the AARP magazine, maybe it’s
they listen to NPR, maybe they have podcasts
or YouTube channels or follow certain social accounts in these spaces.
Maybe it’s they go to, you know, the websites of the national parks, right?
And we’re like, oh, okay, that all is our audience.
Even though I’m not trying to get park rangers at Mt.
Rainier or, you know, Sonoma Desert Park
to buy our shoes, but they’re still my audience.
I still need to I want them to pay attention and be familiar with our brand
and have heard of us, like us, trust us and be able to recommend us.
So audience is different than customers in a ton of the problem
in a lot of marketing spaces that I see is brands that exclusively market
to their customers and ignore the fact that there’s this whole layer
of people and publications and sources of influence
that affect the purchase decisions and even the awareness,
and they pay no attention to them and they don’t try and reach them.
That’s what audience research is all about, right?
It’s what is my audience pay attention to?
Where do they learn about this product and how could I go reach them?
The most obvious one Chip, the one I bet everyone who’s listening is familiar
with in that bucket
is keyword research, which is one kind of audience research, right?
Like in search engine optimization and search engine marketing.
You go and you look for what are all the keywords that are relevant to my business,
how many times they get searched for, where do they come from,
what ranks for them, all that kind of stuff, right?
That keyword research is just one slice.
That’s it. Just a single channel.
Now, what’s the keyword research equivalent for Instagram,
LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube,. Twitter doesn’t exist anymore, but
websites, podcasts,
radio shows, sources of influence in the
in the real world, events and places people go,
all that kind of stuff.
So that’s what the core of this difference is.
Okay, very, very cool.
So let’s go back to the three ways we can do this in a cost effective way.
And so like we talked about surveys, but there’s a piece that
I think that people might be wondering about, okay, I have a survey tool.
I can do surveys. Great. Okay.
Who am I sending the survey to or how am I distributing it?
You don’t have to be extremely polished
and perfect
to get a lot of value from a survey.
As long as you are collecting data from some of your ideal customers.
So my suggestion would be you want to target a broader
than you need audience and then niche down.
And your goal is to try and distribute this in places you know this
audience pays attention.
There’s a few options there.
Well, first off,
if you are starting a company in a sector where you have very few or
no connections, let me strongly encourage you
to make some of those connections before you start that company.
Right. So let me back up a step.
I’m going to assume most of our listeners here, Chip, already have a company,
already have an audience, already know how they can reach some of them.
The best place I’ve seen to distribute surveys like this to learn more about
your audience is your email list.
If you already have 3000 people, 30,000 people, 100,000 people who’ve subscribed
to whatever your content or you’ve captured their email
at some point, that’s the core person, right?
Send it out to that list.
The second option is your social media channels.
The third, which should be quite relevant as well, right?
If they’re following you on social or your business on social across
whatever platform you’re on, that probably means they care about what you do
and would be likely to fill out a relatively simple survey.
The third
option there is sort of your network.
So, gosh, you know, I don’t know anyone or I don’t have connection
to whatever the audience in the the shoes world.
But I actually you know, I know a few people who are in clothing and fashion and
into outdoors and outdoor gear.
I’m going to hit them up and be like, Hey, could I sponsor your email newsletter?
Could I do a co-promotion with you?
Could we do a webinar together?
Whatever it is, right.
And then I’m going to use their audience to become mine.
The last option, the one that I would
really caution folks against, unless you just have tons of money,
is you can pay survey firms to go find the people for you.
And that’s where it gets incredibly expensive.
There are some cheaper options now, right?
Like SurveyMonkey has an audience, SurveyMonkey
changed their name. I apologize I don’t remember.
A panel, right? Yeah.
But they have a panel, right, of people where they promote it to or they have
they use like gated content.
So you want to read a story on the L.A.
Hey, fill out this survey first. Right.
And the company has paid
you know, they provider to sponsor that.
And once they fill out the survey, then they can read the article on the L.A.
Times. So there’s stuff like that as well.
It’s made it somewhat more accessible and cheaper, but it can still be thousands
or tens of thousands of dollars to collect enough responses.
If you have the budget, go for it.
Yeah, and it makes good sense that I’ve actually leveraged
the SurveyMonkey panel data and had great results with it.
But that’s back when, you know,. I had a bit of budget to work with.
So not everybody, not everybody’s in that situation. So
the next idea that we talked about
Rand is really an idea that’s hiding in plain sight.
And it’s just talking to people, doing interviews.
And I think that a lot of people missed this step for some reason
because it’s right in front of you.
But talk about I’ve also heard them called IDIs, in-depth interviews.
I don’t know how often that acronyms used, but interviews, Right?
Yeah. I mean, that one’s new to me.
I will say this about interviews.
I’m going to give a little bit of the opposite advice that I gave about surveys,
which is I am going to strongly suggest
that while you should
usually from your surveys, right?
So like you, you can pick out, oh, you know, 500 people answered this survey.
These 300 were particularly relevant.
And these 20 looked like archetypal members
of our audience who are likely to be great customers for us.
Oh, and ten of them
already are customers, but the other 20 are not yet customers.
We’re going to perform we’re going to do interviews on those 30 people, right?
We’re going to invite them, ask them if they would be willing to do a 30 minute
call, our call whatever, with us and my suggestion here
would be that for most companies,
unless you have a professional
customer researcher,
you know, someone who’s used to doing interviews and
getting good information and that kind of stuff, that you hire a contractor.
Every time we have done customer research,
except for once, we hired somebody else to do it.
I did. I did one round myself.
I shouldn’t say one, but I did a lot in the very early days, right.
Sort of informally when we did, I did one formal round, and Chip, you know what?
People don’t like telling you that your baby is ugly,
So if you are looking for the truth.
And tough feedback and like the real critical opinions,
you’re not going to get it if you work at the company,
especially not if you’re in leadership or you’re the CEO
or you’re the founder or co-founder or something like that. Right.
And I’m co-founder and CEO, right?. So when I call up people.
I’m like, What do you think of. SparkToro?Everybody says, Oh my God, Rand.
It’s so good. I love it.
I’m like, No, no, no, no, no.
What do you really think?
Yeah, like, what do you think about this new feature idea?
Oh, my God, that’s incredible.
Is that your idea, genius.
I can imagine a thousand ways. I’m going to use it. Yeah.
So ideally, hire somebody who’s good at this, and they’re not you, right?
And they know how to ask questions, and they’re going
to be much more disarming for the people that they’re asking questions to.
So. Exactly. And people will give
them their real feedback, real opinions.
And you’re trying to get two things here, right?
You’re trying to get like potentially feedback, customer research, right?
This feedback on your product, what you should do.
But when we’re talking about audience research,
what you’re really trying to understand is the problem space, right?
So you would be asking questions like,
Oh, hey, you find it very uncomfortable to walk
because you have, you know, arch problems and so you tend not to go hiking and have
you looked into orthopedic footwear before and then you’ve got to wait, right?
You have to wait.
And what brands would you consider?
Bite your tongue and wait. Exactly. Yeah.
And then you’re asking questions
like how often do you currently, you know, do an activity like this?
How often do your friends currently do an activity like this or family?
And if you were more capable, like, would you be invited?
You know, so you’re asking questions in this case, right?
It can be somewhat pointed and personal.
In the case of
a lot of B2B SaaS, it can be high pressure because it can feel salesy
if it’s done the wrong way or it can not get to the core of the problem.
If you don’t give that person time to explore.
So, you know, if you say, Oh, how did you learn about the piece
of software that you bought recently, you know, they’ll give you an answer
and you can move on or, Okay anything more you want to tell me about that?
Mm hmm.
And that, what a good tactic that’s got to be.
Oh, my God.
Outstanding. Right?
Because people really, really dig in to the.
Oh, well, actually, you know, it turns out, you asked, Yeah,
since you asked. Yeah.
So you think you can get phenomenal information from this and this?
You know, I think that this process to
just needs to be very pointed.
Like I would not don’t go to someone else’s,
you know, whatever audience research template or customer research template
make sure that if you even if you do do that,
make sure that you’re taking only questions and designing
questions that are solving the problem you need to solve,
start with your problem.
If your problem is channels, ask about that.
If it’s tactics, dig in to that.
If it’s messaging, go there.
Whatever it is.
You should be customizing those questions to get the right answers
that deliver the value you need.
Yeah, So you have to understand what you want to get out of the survey
and what outcomes do. I want to learn about what problems
and pain points am I really trying to understand for my customers?
Right. Absolutely. So.
So let’s move on Rand because I know that there are some other
low cost or, you know, inexpensive tools out there.
SparkToro is one of them to do audience research.
So can you talk about that?
Sure, sure.
And I, I always feel I’m from Seattle, so I’m
very uncomfortable, you know, promoting myself. And
I know that sounds weird because we have Amazon and Microsoft here,
but if you visit the Pacific Northwest, you’ll notice.
I’ve used the tool a bit, though.
I mean, it’s, you know, and Rand, It’s great.
Yeah. Yeah.
But so here’s what I would say about tools like SparkToro.
We’re not the only ones.
Brandwatch has a great audience research tool.
There’s a tool called,
there’s another one called audiense, but with an S instead of a C,
And this whole class of tools, like what they essentially do is they
collect public data from the web,
social data, clickstream data.
From a panel, for example.
And then they can tell you, like SparkToro, if you go to SparkToro,
you could type in my audience uses these words in their profile.
It’s one of the dropdowns, orthodontist.
And we could tell you,. Oh, well, orthodontists, you know,
we have whatever, 42,000 of those in our profile index.
And they have these behaviors and they have these demographics.
And you can find them, you can find whatever
12% of them subscribe to this YouTube channel.
Woah, 12% of orthodontists on the public social Web.
Granted, that’s,
you know, a subset of all orthodontists, because the ones that are in our database
are ones who are active online, of course, and publicly active online.
But still, that YouTube channel is probably a great place
to go reach a lot of orthodontists.
And, you know, they’ll be 50, 100, 600 more YouTube channels that you could
select and you could conceivably take that and do several things, right?
You could start watching videos from those YouTube channels
to try and get a better sense of like, what are the topics being talked about?
Why do orthodontists
like particularly like this one or this podcast, this social account?
Like what?
What is it that they do that is compelling?
Could I bring that to my content strategy or my media strategy, my
PR strategy or whatever.
And then the other thing that’s valuable is
you could just try and be present in those places.
Yeah, I’m going to pitch to be a guest on that YouTube channel
or I’m going to throw that YouTube channel into my Google ads account
and I’m going to run ads in front of that YouTube channel.
Probably going to be more effective than the advertising targeting
that Google gives me
and that
type of audience research can be
is both strategic and tactical, right?
Because you can get the big picture sense of, okay, here’s the audience,
here’s where they’re present, here’s some data about them.
And also if I want to reach them,
here are messages and content that’s resonating
and here are channels and sources that they’re paying attention to.
So you find out where they are, but also what kind of content they’re responding
to now and engaging with, Right?
Yeah, exactly.
I mean, I think this is kind of the core of a marketer’s
job, right, is to know what message in which places
will resonate with our audience and then how do we achieve that?
How do we tell that message in those places at the right time.
The right message to the right person at the right time, in the right place.
So often the challenge, well Rand, this has been a phenomenal discussion.
That’s all we have time for.. But thanks so much for joining us.
Yeah, my pleasure, Chip.. Thank you for having me.
Yeah,. I would love to have you back some time
and we’ll find another topic to talk about. So
appreciate it very much
and thanks to all of you for joining us on this episode of Closing Time.
Make sure to subscribe, tick the bell, and we’ll see you next time.

You may also like:

See all episodes
7 Types of Go-to-Market Strategies: Creating a Winning GTM Plan for Your Business
Bouncing Back After the Death of Marketing Attribution
Sales Prospect Research: Are You Doing Enough?