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Secondary Research Guide: Definition, Methods, Examples

TJ Kiely

Apr 3, 2024

The internet has vastly expanded our access to information, allowing us to learn almost anything about everything. But not all market research is created equal, and this secondary research guide explains why.

There are two key ways to do research. One is to test your own ideas, make your own observations, and collect your own data to derive conclusions. The other is to use secondary research — where someone else has done most of the heavy lifting for you. 

Here’s an overview of secondary research and the value it brings to data-driven businesses.


Secondary Research Definition: What Is Secondary Research?

Secondary research definition: The process of collecting information from existing sources and data that have already been analyzed by others.

Secondary research (aka desk research or complementary research) provides a foundation to help you understand a topic, with the goal of building on existing knowledge. They often cover the same information as primary sources, but they add a layer of analysis and explanation to them.

colleagues working on a secondary research

Users can choose from several secondary research types and sources, including:

  • Books
  • Journal articles
  • Reports
  • Databases
  • Research papers

With secondary sources, users can draw insights, detect trends, and validate findings to jumpstart their research efforts.

Primary vs. Secondary Market Research

We’ve touched a little on primary research, but it’s essential to understand exactly how primary and secondary research are unique.

laying out the keypoints of a secondary research on a board

Think of primary research as the “thing” itself, and secondary research as the analysis of the “thing,” like these primary and secondary research examples:

  • An expert gives an interview (primary research) and a marketer uses that interview to write an article (secondary research).
  • A company conducts a consumer satisfaction survey (primary research) and a business analyst uses the survey data to write a market trend report (secondary research).
  • A marketing team launches a new advertising campaign across various platforms (primary research) and a marketing research firm, like Meltwater for market research, compiles the campaign performance data to benchmark against industry standards (secondary research).

In other words, primary sources make original contributions to a topic or issue, while secondary sources analyze, synthesize, or interpret primary sources.

Both are necessary when optimizing a business, gaining a competitive edge, improving marketing, or understanding consumer trends that may impact your business.

What Are Secondary Research Methods?

Secondary research methods focus on analyzing existing data rather than collecting primary data. Common examples of secondary research methods include:

  • Literature review. Researchers analyze and synthesize existing literature (e.g., white papers, research papers, articles) to find knowledge gaps and build on current findings.
  • Content analysis. Researchers review media sources and published content to find meaningful patterns and trends.
  • AI-powered secondary research. Platforms like Meltwater for market research analyze vast amounts of complex data and use AI technologies like natural language processing and machine learning to turn data into contextual insights.

Researchers today have access to more secondary research companies and market research tools and technology than ever before, allowing them to streamline their efforts and improve their findings.

Advantages of Secondary Research

Conducting secondary research offers benefits in every job function and use case, from marketing to the C-suite. Here are a few advantages you can expect.

Cost and time efficiency

Using existing research saves you time and money compared to conducting primary research. Secondary data is readily available and easily accessible via libraries, free publications, or the Internet. This is particularly advantageous when you face time constraints or when a project requires a large amount of data and research.

Access to large datasets

Secondary data gives you access to larger data sets and sample sizes compared to what primary methods may produce. Larger sample sizes can improve the statistical power of the study and add more credibility to your findings.

Using larger sample sizes, researchers have more opportunities to find and analyze trends and patterns. The more data that supports a trend or pattern, the more trustworthy the trend becomes and the more useful for making decisions. 

Historical context

Using a combination of older and recent data allows researchers to gain historical context about patterns and trends. Learning what’s happened before can help decision-makers gain a better current understanding and improve how they approach a problem or project.

Basis for further research

Ideally, you’ll use secondary research to further other efforts. Secondary sources help to identify knowledge gaps, highlight areas for improvement, or conduct deeper investigations.

Tip: Learn how to use Meltwater as a research tool and how Meltwater uses AI.

Disadvantages of Secondary Research

Secondary research comes with a few drawbacks, though these aren’t necessarily deal breakers when deciding to use secondary sources.

Reliability concerns

Researchers don’t always know where the data comes from or how it’s collected, which can lead to reliability concerns. They don’t control the initial process, nor do they always know the original purpose for collecting the data, both of which can lead to skewed results.

Potential bias

The original data collectors may have a specific agenda when doing their primary research, which may lead to biased findings. Evaluating the credibility and integrity of secondary data sources can prove difficult.

Outdated information

Secondary sources may contain outdated information, especially when dealing with rapidly evolving trends or fields. Using outdated information can lead to inaccurate conclusions and widen knowledge gaps.

Limitations in customization

Relying on secondary data means being at the mercy of what’s already published. It doesn’t consider your specific use cases, which limits you as to how you can customize and use the data.

A lack of relevance

Secondary research rarely holds all the answers you need, at least from a single source. You typically need multiple secondary sources to piece together a narrative, and even then you might not find the specific information you need.

Advantages of Secondary ResearchDisadvantages of Secondary Research
Cost and time efficiencyReliability concerns
Access to large data setsPotential bias
Ability to analyze trends and patternsOutdated information
Historical contextLimitations in customization
Basis for further researchA lack of relevance

Best Practices for Secondary Research

To make secondary market research your new best friend, you’ll need to think critically about its strengths and find ways to overcome its weaknesses. Let’s review some best practices to use secondary research to its fullest potential.

Identify credible sources for secondary research

To overcome the challenges of bias, accuracy, and reliability, choose secondary sources that have a demonstrated history of excellence. For example, an article published in a medical journal naturally has more credibility than a blog post on a little-known website.

analyzing data resulting from a secondary research

Assess credibility based on peer reviews, author expertise, sampling techniques, publication reputation, and data collection methodologies. Cross-reference the data with other sources to gain a general consensus of truth.

The more credibility “factors” a source has, the more confidently you can rely on it. 

Evaluate the quality and relevance of secondary data

You can gauge the quality of the data by asking simple questions:

  • How complete is the data? 
  • How old is the data? 
  • Is this data relevant to my needs?
  • Does the data come from a known, trustworthy source?

It’s best to focus on data that aligns with your research objectives. Knowing the questions you want to answer and the outcomes you want to achieve ahead of time helps you focus only on data that offers meaningful insights.

Document your sources 

If you’re sharing secondary data with others, it’s essential to document your sources to gain others’ trust. They don’t have the benefit of being “in the trenches” with you during your research, and sharing your sources can add credibility to your findings and gain instant buy-in.

How To Conduct Secondary Research with Meltwater

Secondary market research offers an efficient, cost-effective way to learn more about a topic or trend, providing a comprehensive understanding of the customer journey. Compared to primary research, users can gain broader insights, analyze trends and patterns, and gain a solid foundation for further exploration by using secondary sources.

Meltwater for market research speeds up the time to value in using secondary research with AI-powered insights, enhancing your understanding of the customer journey. Using natural language processing, machine learning, and trusted data science processes, Meltwater helps you find relevant data and automatically surfaces insights to help you understand its significance. Our solution identifies hidden connections between data points you might not know to look for and spells out what the data means, allowing you to make better decisions based on accurate conclusions.

Learn more about Meltwater's power as a secondary research solution when you request a demo by filling out the form below: