Last reviewed 15 September 2023

In the digital age, there is an unimaginable amount of information available to us at our fingertips. In this article we explain that the important thing is to know what matters to your business and to use it to make a difference.

But it’s also very easy to waste a lot of time collecting data that doesn’t help. The key to making our work effective is firstly to think very carefully about what we want to know and why.

Business objectives

So, we should start by considering our business objectives. If we’re a novice exporter, or a business with limited exposure to international trade, we may be interested in a global view so that we can evaluate market opportunities and set priorities. If we’re a global business, our objective might be different. We may want to evaluate our performance against sector trends, or we may be interested in researching specific market opportunities in depth.

Market research divides into two broad types — primary and secondary. Confusingly, secondary research is where we almost always start. That’s because secondary research is using information that’s already been collected. Secondary sources are often free to use and can often be accessed and processed very easily. Relevant examples of secondary sources include trade statistics, economic reports, government studies, trade association and company reports. They usually comprise hard data, which means they are quantitative rather than qualitative sources and are typically useful in enabling an exporter to broadly evaluate and compare opportunities.

So, a business seeking to export for the first time, or to improve its export performance, might firstly be looking to find out which markets appear to give them the best opportunities, but what does that mean? Rapid economic growth might point to a general increase in demand in all sectors but might not always lead to growing demand for the exporter’s products. Trade statistics can point to markets that are showing growing demand for specific products or sectors. Governments all over the world collect and publish data on imports and exports. While they may not all be collected in the same way, they can point to trends. UK export and import statistics are accessible at and can be refined using tariff numbers up to eight digits, which would give information on very specific categories. Of course, this only shows us what UK companies are buying and selling, but from the perspective of a UK-based company, this can be highly relevant. A competitor in a low-wage economy might sell to very different markets, but that might not point to an opportunity for the British company. The information on this site goes back over 20 years, which is more than adequate for most purposes.

Global perspective

For a more global perspective, the International Trade Centre collects data from almost every country in the world and collates it into an easy-to-use database that can show trade between specific countries and global trends for specific products. Access to the general data is free, but a subscription is needed to interrogate data at finer levels.

From these two sources alone, we can start to get a picture of where goods like ours are being traded. This might enable us to draw up a shortlistof markets that look interesting, either from size or from the rate of growth.

We can then look at the selection of markets in more detail, and one of the next issues to consider might be barriers to entry. These typically consist of both tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers. The UK Government website contains details of both for virtually every country in the world and for all products. Tariffs are the charge that will be imposed on the buyer of our goods and in some countries may be set very high in order to protect local business, or just to collect tax. Non-tariff barriers take many forms but might include technical standards or documentary requirements that may be costly to achieve.

The country information pages contain detailed information about aspects of trading with target countries.

Economic performance and the political climate

It might also be important to consider the economic performance and the political climate of a country. The World Bank produces an annual report called the Ease of Doing Business Rankings. It headlines by producing a list of countries ranked according to their perceived level of accessibility, and beneath the overall score is a wealth of very specific information about subjects such as the availability of electricity, the ability of courts to enforce legal agreements, crime levels and business disclosure requirements.

Transparency International, a non-government group, produces a powerful report called the Corruption Perception Index. Sadly, businesses need to consider the risk of exposure to corruption in their development strategies, and if focusing on a market where corruption may be prevalent, must consider their approach carefully in order to avoid becoming either a victim of corruption, or perhaps worse, becoming involved in illegal activity.

A particularly versatile and wide-reaching resource is The World Fact Book, compiled by the CIA. The extensive information on each country covers broad economic and political data as well as specific information such as the amount of roads, railways and airports, the amount spent on activities like health, education and the military, and the composition of the economy.

The Institute of Export and International Trade produces a range of Doing Business Guides, which are guides to about 50 individual countries that provide extensive information about the legal and cultural climate.

Adopt a focused approach

By adopting a focused approach to using sources such as these, an exporter can draw up a useful profile of each country and can use this to “score” each country against aspects that the exporter sees as most relevant to them, thereby producing a pointer to the markets that are likely to offer the greatest potential.

Secondary market research can only point us to potential opportunities and does not allow us to reach definitive conclusions, but it can help an exporter to focus. From the limited information that this approach provides, the exporter’s next step should be to research more deeply by meeting potential end-users or intermediaries and finding out more qualitative information, such as customer preferences, local methods of distribution and ways of reaching target customers. For the time-being, this might be restricted to online meetings, but might also benefit from engaging with local marketing agencies. The marketing section of the country pages provides contact details of such agencies in most countries.

Exporters should not be reluctant to research information that will help to design their strategies. It’s important to use reliable sources such as the ones shown above, to be clear about assumptions and to take a step-by-step approach. The biggest handicap to export success is acting on assumptions that were unfounded or not sufficiently checked.