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Desk Research 101: Definition, Methods, and Examples

Parvathi Vijayamohan

Last Updated:  

30 May 2024

7 min read

If you ever had to do a research study or a survey at some point, you would have started with desk research.

There’s another, more technical name for it – secondary research. To rewind a bit, there are two types of research: primary, where you go out and study things first-hand, and secondary, where you explore what others have done.

But what is desk research? How do you do it, and use it? This article will help you:

What is desk research?

Desk research can be defined as a type of market/product research, where you collect data at your desk (metaphorically speaking) from existing sources to get initial ideas about your research topic.

Desk research or secondary research is an essential process from a business’s point of view. After all, secondary data sources are such an easy way to get information about their industry, trends, competitors, and customers.

Types of secondary data sources

#1. Internal secondary data: This consists of data from within the researcher’s company. Examples include:

  • Company reports and presentations
  • Case studies
  • Podcasts, vlogs and blogs
  • Press releases
  • Websites and social media
  • Company databases and data sets

#2. External secondary data: Researchers collect this from outside their respective firms. Examples include:

  • Digital and print publications
  • Domain-specific publications and periodicals
  • Online research communities, like ResearchGate
  • Industry speeches and conference presentations
  • Archives
  • Research papers

What are examples of desk research in action?

Desk research example: A product survey
You can also capture primary data from your desk with SurveySparrow’s omnichannel surveys.

#1. Testing product-audience match

Let’s say you’re developing a fintech product. You want to do a concept testing study. To make sure you get it right, you’re interested in finding out your target audience’s attitudes about a topic in your domain. For e.g., Gen Z’s perceptions about money in the US.

With a quick Google search, you get news articles, reports, and research studies about Gen Z’s financial habits and attitudes. Also, infographics and videos provide plenty of quantitative data to draw on.

These steps are a solid starting point for framing your concept testing study. You can further reduce the time spent on survey design with a Concept Testing Survey Template. Sign up to get free access to this and hundreds more templates.

Desk research example: The wayback machine
Fun fact: was saved 193 times on the Machine in 2021.

#2. Tracking the evolution of the Web

As we wade into the brave new world of Web 5.0, there are quite a few of us who still remember static websites, flash animations, and images sliced up into tables.

If you want to refresh your memory, you can hop on the Wayback Machine. iI gives you access to over 20 years of web history, with over 635 billion web pages saved over time!

Curiosity aside, there are practical use cases for this web archive. SEO specialist Artur Bowsza explores this in his fantastic article Internet Archeology with the Wayback Machine.

Imagine you’re investigating a recent drop in a website’s visibility. You know there were some recent changes in the website’s code, but couldn’t get any details. Or maybe you’re preparing a case study of your recent successful project, but the website has changed so much, and you never bothered to take a screenshot.

Wouldn’t it be great to travel back in time and uncover the long-forgotten versions of the website – like an archaeologist, discovering secrets from the past but working in the digital world?

Desk research example: Online reputation management
Goodbye? Facebook was voted the Worst Company of 2021 in a survey done by Yahoo Finance.

#3. Repairing a business reputation

As a brand, you hope that a crisis never happens. But if hell does break loose, having a crisis management strategy is essential.

If you want examples, just do a Google search. From Gamestop getting caught in a Reddit stock trading frenzy to Facebook being voted The Worst Company of 2021, we have seen plenty of brands come under fire in recent years.

Some in-depth desk research can help you nail your crisis communication. Reputation management expert Lida Citroen outlines this in her article 7 Ways to Recover After a Reputation Crisis.

Conduct a thoughtful and thorough perception sweep of the reputation hit’s after-effects. This includes assessing digital impact such as social media, online relationships and Google search results.

The evaluation gives you a baseline. How serious is the situation? Sometimes the way we believe the situation to be is not reflected in the business impact of the damage.

6 popular methods of desk research

#1. The Internet

No surprise there. When was the last time you checked a book to answer the burning question of “is pineapple on pizza illegal?” (it should be).

However, choosing authentic and credible sources from an information overload can be tricky. To help you out, the Lydia M. Olson Library has a 6-point checklist to filter out low-quality sources. You can read them in detail here.

#2. Libraries

You have earned some serious street cred if your preferred source is a library. But, jokes apart, finding the correct information for your research topic in a library can be time-consuming.

However, depending on which library you visit, you will find a wealth of verifiable, quotable information in the form of newspapers, magazines, research journals, books, documents, and more.

#3. Governmental and non-governmental organizations

NGOs, and governmental agencies like the US Census Bureau, have valuable demographic data that businesses can use during desk research. This data is collected using survey tools like SurveySparrow.

You may have to pay a certain fee to download or access the information from these agencies. However, the data obtained will be reliable and trustworthy.

#4. Educational institutions

Colleges and universities conduct plenty of primary research studies every year. This makes them a treasure trove for desk researchers.

However, getting access to this data requires legwork. The procedures vary according to the institution; among other things, you will need to submit an application to the relevant authority and abide by a data use agreement.

#5. Company databases

For businesses, customer and employee data are focus areas all on their own. But after the pandemic, companies are using even more applications and tools for the operations and service sides.

This gives businesses access to vast amounts of information useful for desk research and beyond. For example, one interesting use case is making employee onboarding more effective with just basic employee data, like their hobbies or skills.

#6. Commercial information media

These include radio, newspapers, podcasts, YouTube, and TV stations. They are decent sources of first-hand info on political and economic developments, market research, public opinion and other trending subjects.

However, this is also a source that blurs the lines between advertising, information and entertainment. So as far as credibility is concerned, you are better off supporting this data with additional sources.

Why is desk research helpful?

Desk research helps with the following:

  • Better domain understanding. Before doing market research, running a usability test, or starting any user-centric project, you want to see what companies have done in the past (in related areas if not the same domain). Then, instead of learning everything from scratch, you can review their research, success, and mistakes and learn from that. 
  • Quicker opportunity spotting. How do you know if you’ve found something new? By reviewing what has gone before. By doing this, you can spot gaps in the data that match up with the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • More money saved. Thanks to the internet, most of the data you need is at your fingertips, and they are cheaper to compile than field data. With a few (search and mental) filters, you can quickly find credible sources with factual information.
  • More time saved. You have less than 15 minutes with your research participant. Two minutes if you’re doing an online survey. Do you really want to waste that time asking questions that have already been answered elsewhere? Lack of preparation can also hurt your credibility.
  • Better context. Desk research helps to provide focus and a framework for primary research. By using desk research, companies can also get the insight to make better decisions about their customers and employees.
  • More meaningful data. Desk research is the yin to the yang of field research – they are both required for a meaningful study. That’s why desk research serves as a starting point for every kind of study.

This brings us to the last question.

How do you do desk research?

Good question! In her blog post, Lorène Fauvelle covers the desk research process in detail.

You can also follow our 4-step guide below:

  • First, start with a general topic like “handmade organic soaps”. Read through existing literature about handmade soaps to see if there is a gap in the literature that your study can fill.
  • Once you find that gap, it’s time to specify your research topic. So in the example above, you can specify it like this: “What is the global market size for handmade organic soaps”?
  • Identify the relevant secondary data for desk research. This only applies if there is past data that could be useful for your research.
  • Review the secondary data according to:
  1. The aim of the previous study
  2. The author/sponsors of the study
  3. The methodology of the study
  4. The time of the research

Note: One more thing about desk research…

Beware of dismissing research just because it was done a few years ago. People new to research often make the mistake of viewing research reports like so many yogurts in a fridge where the sell-by dates have expired.

Just because it was done a couple of years ago, don’t think it’s no longer relevant. The best research tends to focus on human behaviour, and that tends to change very slowly.

  • Dr David Travis, Desk Research: The What, Why and How

Wrapping up

That’s all folks! We hope this blog was helpful for you.

How have you used desk research for your work? Let us know in the comments below.

Parvathi Vijayamohan

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

Fledgling growth marketer. Cloud watcher. Aunty to a naughty beagle.

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