Even cheaper and easier is using social media sites and tools to ask questions.
Bloggers have long used their blogs to ask questions of their audience. They simply post a question on their blog and ask readers to use comments to answer. The Small Business Trends blog does this quite often.
But even if you don't blog, you can still ask questions online.
LinkedIn has a section where users can ask questions. Chad Moutray, chief economist for the U.S. Small Business Administration, uses this feature to ask questions related to his work on small business. One of his questions got over 1,000 answers (yes, that number of answers is unusually high).
Twitter can also be used for market research. Recently, Stone Payton held a contest asking Twitter users to define innovation in 140 characters or fewer (Twitter's per-message limit). In addition to getting a lot of answers and good information, he greatly expanded the number of Twitter users following him.
Using social media tools and sites to ask questions is part of a broader trend called crowd-sourcing. This is tapping into the collective intelligence of the public to complete a task. One of the best-known examples of crowd-sourcing is Innocentive, which uses crowd-sourcing to solve corporate research problems.
Social media tools are making it much easier to connect and converse with customers, prospects, and broader audiences. And while asking questions on blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media sites does not produce statistically valid results, you can learn a lot from the responses.
Steve King is a partner at Emergent Research, where he leads an ongoing research project to identify, analyze, and forecast the global trends and shifts affecting small business. He blogs at www.smallbizlabs.com.