By Martin Bysh, chairman of Usurv

The ability to make informed decisions is a key skill for any successful entrepreneur, especially when starting a company or launching new products and services. Does your offering have a viable market? What product attributes do people value - and how much are they willing to pay for them? Understanding your customers and making sure what you are providing appeals is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to do. Previously there was a choice of backing a hunch, asking friends and family or investing in expensive and time consuming market research.

The internet has changed this by making research easier, faster and more cost effective. Here are five ways you can use the power of the internet to understand what customers and potential customers really want:

1.Survey your own customer contacts

Self-service online research tools such as Polldaddy let you create surveys in minutes without the need to invest in specialist help from market research agencies. You can direct customers and partners to the online survey page, and receive the results back for your own analysis. These platforms automate research and are usually very cheap, but they do rely on you providing the details of the people you want to survey. This can work if you’ve already built up a database of customers or targets, but for most businesses, especially any fledgling startups looking for initial feedback, it’s probably not the answer.

2.Survey the general public

If you don’t have a handy database then traditional online research companies rely on paid panels of respondents who complete surveys for cash – which can get quite expensive. Now a new generation of self-service online survey platforms like Usurv are bringing down costs by getting people to complete short surveys while they are surfing on popular websites (in return for free access to the web sites’ content). Surveys are inexpensive, starting from £10. They can be completed by respondents, who don’t have to leave the web page they are on, in around 30 seconds, so response rates are high. You can target specific demographic groups and the high response rates means it is very fast – it can take as little as an hour for 1,000 responses. So for entrepreneurs who want valuable consumer insights quickly, easily and at a very low cost, this is a ‘no brainer’.

3.Ask and listen on social networks

Social networks provide an opportunity to find out what customers think by posting specific questions or monitoring conversations related to you, your competitors or specific areas of interest. Posing questions on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn allows you to get direct feedback from your target audiences, although it does rely on your having a large enough and relevant enough base of followers or fans. To identify and monitor what people are saying you can search on specific key phrases or use one the new generation of third party ‘listening tools’ such as NetBase to identify trends in social conversations that spark ideas for developing and enhancing products or services.

4.Get detailed feedback with an online focus group

Focus groups are great for getting in-depth qualitative feedback and exploring specific product or service ideas in detail, but they can be very expensive. Online audio or video conferencing software like Skype has helped to bring down the cost by cutting out travel and venue expenses and making the whole process easier for participants who can log in wherever they are. And sometimes participants open up even more when they are in familiar surroundings and are not meeting others face to face. Bring together a small group of 8-10 target customers and lead an online discussion about the specific product enhancement or idea you want to test. A real-time conversation in which individuals in the group share their insights can spark new ideas and promotes deeper and more meaningful feedback. And you can make for a richer discussion by sharing images and product demos.

5.Create a concept site or blog to invite online feedback(and funding)

The internet allows you to test your idea with potential customers – and even get them to fund it. At a basic level, entrepreneurs can create a blog or website that describes the hypothetical product/company and invite feedback – provided you can attract people to the site. If enough people register their interest, it indicates that there is sufficient potential demand to progress to the next stage. And the rise of crowdfunding sites such as KickStarter also allow entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas without having to create a prototype. If people like your pitch they’ll sign up to invest and potentially buy your product.

So the good news for entrepreneurs is that the internet is making it a lot easier and cheaper to get under the skin of your potential customers. While it doesn’t guarantee that your idea or company will make you a millionaire, these techniques provide cost-effective ways of testing your plans without breaking the bank.