By Marcy Phelps

When starting a business or launching a new product, it’s wise to do your research.

Informed decisions make the best decisions. And when credit is tight, we often need to show lenders and investors that we have a solid understanding of our target markets.

Unfortunately, neither your customers nor your competitors make up one homogeneous group. What motivates people and businesses can vary depending on the places where they operate, live or work.

Your research should include the demographic, economic, political, social and other issues that make each market unique.

These resources will help you learn about counties, cities, census blocks and other sub-state areas:

U.S. Government Resources

The federal government collects and analyzes massive amounts of data, much of it about local areas. Population and business statistics, economic indicators, regional profiles and mapped data are available for free through a variety of publications and databases.

Most local-level business information comes from three U.S. government agencies: the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Census Bureau

One of the best sources for demographics is the American Community Survey (http://snipurl.com/temfx). This annual survey of three million households collects information such as age, race, income, commute time to work, home value and veteran status.

If you’re looking for statistics on business and industry, try the County Business Patterns website, which offers employment and earnings down to the zip-code level

(http://www.census.gov/econ/cbp/index.html)

and the Building Permits database of construction statistics

(http://censtats.census.gov/bldg/bldgprmt.shtml).

  • Bureau of Economic Analysis

For insights into a local area’s economic health, head to the BEA’s Regional Economic Accounts webpage (www.bea.gov/regional). Here you will find information about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and local-area personal income and employment. The BEA Regional Fact Sheets (BEARFACTS), with data compiled into handy tables, graphs, charts and bulleted lists, make it easy to compare an area’s economy to that of the nation as a whole.

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics

This agency is a great resource for data on hours, earnings and type of employment for workers in a particular geographic area. You’ll also find links to information about the demographic makeup of the workforce and regional mass layoffs (www.bls.gov/bls/geography.htm).

State and Local Governments

Regional, state and local governments frequently provide more detailed geographic-based information than federal sources, but the data won’t necessarily be uniform or consistent across locations – even for locations within the same state. You’ll likely have to visit the websites for each jurisdiction. What you lose in convenience though, you gain in detailed, first-hand knowledge.

To find official government sites, try entering the keyword government with the name of your location in a general-purpose search engine. You also can link to official sites through these resources:

Local News

News reports can offer a rich source of local information about public and private companies, people, economics and issues.

Local media outlets go into far more detail than their national counterparts when covering local events and stay with the story long after the national press has moved on. Local news sources also offer something the larger outlets can’t – a local perspective – and knowing what’s important to local residents is a valuable piece of business and market planning.

The Google News (news.google.com/news) advanced search page allows for location-based searching, as does Bing News (www.bing.com/news). Also try these resources for print, radio and TV news stories:

Local Experts

Even in the age of Google, you won’t find everything on the web. Perhaps no one’s collected or posted exactly what you’re looking for or it’s not in plain sight and will take too long to uncover. Then there’s the information you won’t find in any data table or news headline.

As competitive-intelligence researcher Ben Gilad puts it, “Only human sources can provide commentary, opinion, feelings, intuition, emotions and commitment.”

Sometimes the best way to find the answers you need is to ask an expert. People in the following professions make good targets for your research:

  • Journalists
  • Government workers
  • Librarians
  • University professors
  • Association members or leaders
  • Economists and economic development executives

Search the web to find the right people to ask and to prepare for your phone calls – yes, calls are much more effective than emails when contacting local experts.

Scan the news to identify the people writing the stories and the people about whom they are writing. Try the websites of local governments, libraries and organizations such as the chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau for key personnel.

Experts are often willing to talk and want to be helpful, but it’s important to respect their time. Keep interviews short, and do some background research on both your contact and topic to make sure you quickly ask the right questions.

Business growth will take you into new and unchartered territory. Minimize the risk by arming yourself with a thorough understanding of your customers and your competitors – and the day-to-day local issues that affect their decisions.