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What Is Desk Research? Meaning, Methodology, Examples

TJ Kiely

Apr 4, 2024

Research in the digital age takes many shapes and forms. There are traditional methods that collect first-hand data via testing, focus groups, interviews, and proprietary data. And then there are ways to tap into the time and effort others have put into research, playing “armchair detective” by conducting desk research.

Desk research gives you a shortcut to insights by pulling data from other resources, which is crucial for understanding the customer journey. It takes less time and is more cost-effective compared to conducting primary market research. Most importantly, it can give you the consumer insights you need to make important business decisions.

Let’s explore the official desk research definition along with types of desk research, methodologies, examples, and how to do desk research effectively.


Desk Research Meaning: What is Desk Research?

Desk Research definition: Desk research, also known as secondary research or complementary research, involves gathering information and data from existing sources, such as books, journals, articles, websites, reports, and other published materials. Users analyze and synthesize information from already available information.

Companies use desk research at the onset of a project to gain a better understanding of a topic, identify knowledge gaps, and inform the next stages of research. It can also supplement original findings and provide context and background information.

Advantages and Limitations of Desk Research

Advantages of Desk ResearchLimitations of Desk Research
Faster insights with done-for-you researchPotential bias
Cost-effectiveLack of control over types and methods of data collection
Diverse types of secondary research/plenty of data to pull fromData quality could be questionable

Desk research gives marketers attractive advantages over traditional primary research, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Let’s explore these in more detail.

Desk research advantages

  • Quick insights. Conducting interviews, focus groups, panels, and tests can take weeks or even months, along with additional time to analyze your findings. With desk research, you can pull from existing information to gain similar results in less time.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Desk market research is usually less expensive than primary research because it requires less time and fewer resources. You don’t have to recruit participants or administer surveys, for example.
  • Accessibility. There’s a world of data out there ready for you to leverage, including online databases, research studies, libraries, and archives.
  • Diverse sources. Desk market research doesn’t limit you to one information source. You can use a combination of sources to gain a comprehensive overview of a topic.

Desk research limitations 

  • Data quality. Marketers don’t know how reliable or valid the data is, which is why it’s important to choose your sources carefully. Only use data from credible sources, ideally ones that do not have a financial interest in the data’s findings.
  • Less control. Users are at the mercy of the data that’s available and cannot tailor it to their needs. There’s no opportunity to ask follow-up questions or address specific research needs.
  • Potential bias. Some sources may include biased findings and/or outdated information, which can lead to inaccurate conclusions. Users can mitigate the risk of bias by relying only on credible sources or corroborating evidence with multiple sources.

Desk Research Methodology and Methods

Desk research typically involves multiple sources and processes to gain a comprehensive understanding of an idea. There are two main desk methodologies: qualitative research and quantitative research.

  1. Qualitative research refers to analyzing existing data (e.g., interviews, surveys, observations) to gain insights into people's behaviors, motivations, and opinions. This method delves deeper into the context and meaning behind the data.
  2. Quantitative research refers to analyzing and interpreting numerical data to draw conclusions and make predictions. This involves quantifying patterns and trends to find relationships between variables.

Both desk research methodologies use a variety of methods to find and analyze data and make decisions.

Examples of desk research methods include but are not limited to:

  • Literature review. Analyze findings from various types of literature, including medical journals, studies, academic papers, books, articles, online publications, and government agencies.
  • Competitor analysis. Learn more about the products, services, and strategies of your competitors, including identifying their strengths and weaknesses, market gaps, and overall sentiment.
  • Social listening. Discover trending topics and sentiments on social media channels to learn more about your target audience and brand health.
  • Consumer intelligence. Understand your audience based on digital behaviors, triggers, web usage patterns, and interests.
  • Market research. Analyze market reports, industry trends, demographics, and consumer buying patterns to identify market opportunities and strengthen your positioning.

Now let’s look at how to use these methods to their full potential.

How to Conduct Desk Research Effectively

While desk research techniques can vary, they all follow a similar formula. Here’s how you can conduct desk research effectively, even if it’s your first time.

woman conducting desk research effectively

1. Define your objective

Desk research starts with a specific question you want to answer. 

In marketing, your objective might be to:

  • Learn about Gen Z buying behaviors for home goods
  • Gauge the effectiveness of influencer marketing for food brands
  • Understand the pain points of your competitor’s customers

These questions can help you find credible sources that can provide answers.

2. Choose reliable data sources

Based on your objectives, start collecting secondary data sources that have done the heavy lifting for you. Examples include:

  • Market reports (often available as gated assets from research companies)
  • Trade publications
  • Academic journals
  • Company websites
  • Government publications and data
  • Online databases and resources, such as Google Scholar 
  • Libraries
  • Secondary research companies or market research tools like Meltwater and Linkfluence
  • Online blogs, articles, case studies, and white papers from credible sources

In many cases, you’ll use a combination of these source types to gain a thorough answer to your question.

3. Start gathering evidence

Go through your source materials to start answering your question. This is usually the most time-intensive part of desk research; you’ll need to extract insights and do some fact-checking to trust those insights.

One of your top priorities in this step is to use reliable sources. Here are some ways you can evaluate sources to use in your desk research:

  • Consider the authority and reputation of the source (e.g., do they have expertise in your subject)
  • Check whether the content is sponsored, which could indicate bias
  • Assess whether the data is current
  • Evaluate the publisher’s peer review processes, if applicable
  • Review the content’s citations and references
  • Seek consensus among multiple sources
  • Use sources with built-in credibility, such as .gov or .edu sites or well-known medical and academic journals

If your source materials have supporting elements, such as infographics, charts, or graphs, include those with your desk research.

4. Cross-reference your findings with other sources

For desk research to be effective, you need to be able to trust the data you find. One way to build trust is to cross-reference your findings with other sources. 

analyzing data resulting from desk research

For instance, you might see who else is citing the same sources you are in their research. If there are reputable companies using those same sources, you might feel they’re more credible compared to a random internet fact that lacks supporting evidence. 

5. Draw your conclusions & document the results

Organize and synthesize your findings in a way that makes sense for your objectives. Consider your stakeholders and why the information is important.

For example, the way you share your research with an internal team might have a different structure and tone compared to a client-facing document.

Bonus tip: Include a list of sources with your documentation to build credibility in your findings. 

Best Practices for Desk Research

When conducting desk research, follow these best practices to ensure a reliable and helpful outcome.

Organize and manage your research data

It’s helpful to have a system to organize your research data. This way, you can easily go back to review sources or share information with others. Spreadsheets, databases, and platforms like Meltwater for market research are great options to keep your desk research in one place.

Create actionable recommendations

It’s not enough to state your findings; make sure others know why the data matters. Share the data along with your conclusions and recommendations for what to do next.

Remember, desk research is about decision-making, not the data itself.

Document your sources

Whether you choose to share your sources or not, it’s best practice to document your sources for your own records. This makes it easier to provide evidence if someone asks for it or to look back at your research if you have additional questions.

Applications of Desk Research

Now for the big question: How can marketers apply desk research to their day-to-day tasks?

Try these desk research examples to power your marketing efforts.

Use desk research for market intelligence

Markets, preferences, and buying habits change over time, and marketers need to stay up to date on their industries. Desk research can provide market intelligence insights, including new competitors, trends, and audience segments that may impact your business.

Apply desk research in competitive analysis

Desk research can help you identify your true competitors and provide more context about their strengths and weaknesses. Marketers can use this intel to improve their positioning and messaging. For instance, a competitor’s weak spot might be something your company does well, and you can emphasize this area in your messaging.

Include desk research in content strategy and audience analysis

Desk research can support consumer intelligence by helping you define various audience segments and how to market to them. These insights can help you develop content and creative assets on the right topics and in the right formats, as well as share them in the best channels to reach your audience.

How To Conduct Desk Research with Meltwater

Emerging technologies like Meltwater's integrated suite of solutions have a strong impact on desk research, helping you streamline how you find and vet data to support your desired topics.

Using a combination of data science, AI, and market research expertise, Meltwater offers the largest media database of its kind to help marketers learn more about their audience and how to connect with them. Millions of real-time data points cover all niches, topics, and industries, giving you the on-demand insights you need.

Our clients use Meltwater for desk research to measure audience sentiment and identify audience segments as well as to conduct competitor analysis, social listening, and brand monitoring, all of which benefit from real-time data. 

Learn more about how you can leverage Meltwater as a research solution when you request a demo by filling out the form below: