If you're expanding a marketing effort or are an entrepreneur in startup mode, you know you need market research — to scope out the size of our industry, determine your best niche, learn about your competitors and figure out how to price your products and services. You also need to figure out your competitive advantage, which means you need to know what problem customers have that isn't being filled. If your business is already under way, you will still need to consult research from time to time to help you build a convincing sales presentation and identify new opportunities. There is no shortage of market data on every topic and vertical industry imaginable. Usually you will have to pay to access existing information. Luckily, there are ways to keep costs down. There are four major types of market research: Demographic information, which you can use to gauge the size and behaviors of consumer and business-to-business markets. Existing survey data about all kinds of things, from trends in managed security services to what drives adult purchases of game consoles. Trend watches, which can help verify that you've chosen the right niche or find a new one. Analysis of breaking news that affects your industry. Visit market research aggregators. Market research aggregators are a good starting place for basic information. Try government research sources The U.S. government has a wealth of data on a mind-boggling array of topics, all there for the taking. 2002 Economic Census. American Fact Finder is your source for population, housing, economic and geographic data. See the Center for Economic Studies' variety of continually updated research data centers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' business employment facts and current population survey. Also take a look at data from the small business finance survey from the Federal Reserve Board and from the National Federation of Independent Business' small business poll. Try research firms' press releases The large research firms (Gartner, Forrester, IDC) charge their clients large sums for their research. But they often put snippets of their most recent reports into their press releases. Pay for data when you really need it If the research will help you sell your product to a profitable new client, for example, the investment is justified. Don't get carried away on the spur of the moment and pay big bucks for a report without being sure you can use it. Ask for an executive summary or a few of the tables so you can see if it is truly worth the investment. Follow the news. Google lets you create a filter for news stories on the subject of your choice and receive emails with links to stories from publications around the world on a daily or even more frequent basis. Want to watch what a competitor is doing, or keep your eye on a trend that affects your business? It's easy and free. The key to finding good external market research is to be willing to put in some time. If you find relevant research for a fee, see if you can get snippets for free. Scope out firms' news pages for press releases that highlight research. Strapped for time? Get help from business students at nearby universities. Contact the public relations person at your industry trade association and ask if that association has done a "state of the industry" or similar report recently. Some trade associations even post these industry reports on their Web sites.