Detective stories, legal thrillers, murder mysteries – have you ever thought about why people love these so much? I love them for two reasons. First, I love puzzles, and these stories allow me to solve the crime along with the detectives. Second, people are puzzles, and I love getting a glimpse into other people’s lives in other times and places. Somehow by following a detective in his or her journey to find the killer helps us better understand the living. I think this is also the reason I love research so much. Market research is much like detective work – you have a list of unanswered questions and you have clues about the information you need to fill in the gaps. Now, all you have to do is find sources you can trust for that information.

The first step is to create a successful research plan – by starting with the end in mind. After you’ve created your plan, you need to pull out all your skills of stealth and insight to sleuth your way into the secondary research phase. This phase is helpful as a starting point for new program design, feasibility studies or business plansstrategic planning or marketing strategyBefore you move into primary research, always start with what already exists.

Passing the Polygraph – Be on the Search for Credible Sources

Secondary research, by definition, is the collection and synthesis of existing research. In your investigative work, it is wise to start here, because the information is often free and readily available. Starting with secondary research also allows you to build a solid understanding of what research already exists. This enables you to reserve your own valuable primary research time for unanswered questions.

Words of caution during the secondary research phase: not everything you need exists, and not everything you find will be reliable. Like a detective, you will want to “interrogate” your sources to make sure they are credible.

Here are some of our favorite sources that have passed the polygraph:

  • Government: U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder’s advanced search capabilities allow you to find all sorts of demographic data. You can find the latest statistics by geographic boundaries (state, county, ZIP code or census tract) or by population group (age, gender, veteran status and much more). You can be as general or specific as you like.
  • Foundations: Many foundations house great data. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s State Health Facts database is a great source for those providing health services or access to services. Another helpful foundation resource is The Foundation Center’s Nonprofit Collaboration Database, where those who are working on collaborations can access best practices and reach out to others for guidance.
  • Think TanksThe Urban Institute has several interactive tools that simulate the impact of policy or economic changes on those with whom we work. Its Net Income Change Calculator allows you to estimate how much a family’s benefits from safety-net programs will go down if their family income goes up. The Institute also maintains tools related to children of immigrants, senior citizens and more. Other think tanks that produce reports or tools of interest include RAND and the Aspen Institute.
  • Research Firms: Those of us working to improve outcomes in education can refer to reports from companies like MDRC that continually share progress and promising practices on topics like effective programs that help GED students complete college. MDRC also publishes research on youth, families and health.


Breaking the Code – Find the Story in the Clues

Detectives gather all the relevant information of the case and synthesize the details into a story. They crack the code and make meaning of seemingly random facts. Likewise, you can do the same for your organization. Be vigilant: it can be easy to be led astray by clues that are interesting, but do not serve your ultimate purpose. So, as you follow the trail of secondary research clues, use your research questions to keep you on track.

If you’ve ever wanted the thrill of being Sherlock Holmes or a private eye, take the plunge into secondary research to piece together clues that help solve your case. Send us examples of ways you’ve used secondary research in your organization for projects like program design, feasibility studies or strategic planning.

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