Too many software business owners shy away from taking the time to do the thorough software market research that is needed to build a compelling business strategy. Developing and launching a simple software product is not capital intensive, so too often software is introduced without properly researching the market.
It is not too difficult to do some fairly detailed research of your potential market and competitors online. Here are my recommendations for sites you can use for effective software marketing research. These are all freely available. Of course, if you have access to paid resources like Hoovers.com that is even better.
Google: yes, of course you already know Google! Any online market research should start here – search for your market subsegment, or product/solution description, and see what comes up.
Put yourself in the shoes of your potential target customer – what would they type into Google to try to find a solution like yours? The listings that come up on the first page or two of results are your competitors or complementors (look at both the organic results as well as the paid sponsors).
If you are going to be successful with your potential product idea, you need to be able to make it to the first couple of pages on Google (preferably without having to pay for it)… how is the competition? Will you be able to get on the first 1-3 pages?
Software Download Sites (eg, download.com) – by searching for software like yours, you can identify competitors. Best for consumer or SMB software.
Business Software Directories like Capterra.com and TheSoftwareNetwork.com – good for identifying competitors in the business software space. Or do a search for “<your market segment> software directory.”
Alexa.com/siteinfo. Alexa often provides basic information about the business/owner of a particular site, with some company profile data also included sometimes (revenue, etc). Can be used for competitive research, although sometimes the Alexa company profile data, revenues, etc is of questionable quality (may not be very current).
Hoovers.com. You can get more out of Hoovers if you have a subscription, but even without one they have quite a bit of information available for free. You can get industry segment reports, company directories, and company profiles.
Allbusiness.com. You can find company profiles (mostly US), press releases and articles related to a particular market/industry segment or a particular company. Useful for competitive and niche research.
Web 2.0 research: You can use Web 2.0 to your advantage to find recent articles and data about your market subsegment.
Do a search for blogs and forums related to your market subsegment (type in “<market subsegment name> forum” in Google, for example).
Search in Twitter to see what people are currently talking about related to your market subsegment.
Ask potential customers what they are looking for, how they solve their problem today, what they would like to have, etc.
Reports and Surveys: search for free market research reports, free survey sites, or conduct a customer survey on your website or blog.
Beta testing feedback. Any early feedback on your software is, of course, valuable market research and should be included. Also any direct verbal feedback from potential customers or clients.