I just binge-watched the Hulu crime comedy, Only Murders in the Building, which is a series built around Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short solving a murder in their building. 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 following a detective on a journey to find the killer helps us better understand each other and human nature. I think this is also why I love research so much. Market research, which is the key to unlock future programs and services in your community, is much like detective work. You have a list of unanswered questions and 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, needs assessments or feasibility studies or business plansstrategic planning or marketing strategyBefore you move into primary research, always start with what already exists. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel – we should all embrace leapfrog innovation. 
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 DataOpportunity Nation’s Opportunity Index offers advanced search capabilities that 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. We also love monitoring the great reports put out by economists at the Federal Reserve – they provide great analysis of current issues and opportunities to improve through best practices. Although we follow all of the Federal Reserves across the country, it’s beneficial to get to know your local branch.
  • 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 Candid’s Collaboration Hub, 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. A new favorite source is the Bipartisan Policy Center. Their recent reports on mental health and rural issues were outstanding. 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 and workforce development can refer to reports from companies like MDRC that continually share progress and promising practices on topics such as how programs can help GED students complete college. MDRC also publishes research on youth, families and health.
To help you stay on top of the latest research, follow Social TrendSpotter on TwitterFacebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. When one of the sources we trust posts a game-changing report, we share it with our analysis of important points or new information.
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 stay 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. If you have preferred sources of data, send them along. We would love to add them to our collective list.

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