Astute business people are constantly keeping a watchful eye on what is happening in their business environment.

If you want to keep up with the play, stay ahead of your competitors, and plan for potential fluctuations in the marketplace, you simply cannot hunker down within your own business and forget about the outside world.

You've got to be out there researching the market. But market research doesn't have to be an expensive exercise. In her book Marketing for Small Business Success, Angela Nitchov suggests using the following sources of information in the first instance:

- direct observation
- surveys
- sale tests
- small group discussions
- personal interviews
- the internet. 

If you want to take your research further, look to professional associations, trade journals, government departments and so on, which have potentially already done some of the information gathering for you.

What you're looking for are the potential opportunities and the impact of possible threats upon your industry. Think about the:

- capital available to invest in new plant or equipment
- major trends that have affected or will affect the industry
- changes to government policy limiting, or opening up entry to new markets
- possibility to forge alliances with other operators to gain more buying power
- future changes to demographics in the industry eg, an ageing population will have greater reliance on the health industry in the long-term
- new competitors setting up or current competitors changing what they do
- new technologies posing a threat to your business.

The list of potential questions can be endless and no business needs to answer absolutely everything. Look at the research as a means to help your decision-making and target your questioning as appropriate.

This information forms your SWOT Analysis – what you've identified as your business' Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – and can be used to support your decision-making process.

Probably you did a SWOT Analysis as part of your business and marketing planning. If so pull it out and review – don't let it sit around gathering dust. The SWOT, as with all aspects of your business and marketing plan, needs to be constantly updated and modified. The business environment is forever shifting and you've got to keep abreast of what is going on if you want to realise opportunities and plan for potential threats.