Skip to Main Content

Business Reference 101

Business Reference

Business research is a bit different than research in other disciplines, and that means that business reference is also different than 'regular' reference. Whereas many disciplines value the peer-reviewed journal article above all other sources of information, business students and faculty are interested in a wider variety of sources. Among these sources are:

  • industry profiles
  • company reports
  • stock market information
  • trade publications
  • market research
  • demographics

Many questions will require multiple sources to answer completely, but many will fall into one of three broad types:

  • Company Research, in which the question is about a specific company, e.g. 3M or Target
  • Industry Research, in which the question is about an entire industry, e.g. consumer electronics or hotels
  • Consumer/Marketing Research, in which the question is about who buys what, e.g. How many people have smart phones or Which restaurants appeal to millennials?

When a patron asks a question, see if it fits into one of these three categories.


Try these guides on business reference:

In addition to deciding if the question is focused on company, industry or marketing information, The following questions are also useful in figuring out where to look:

  • Would a company want its competitors to know this? (See Is This Information Available, below.)
  • Who tracks this information? (see below for hints)
  • What is the purpose of this information?
  • Is this a cross-discipline question? 
    • e.g. consumer choice might involve psychology research
    • e.g. learning about regulations may require government documents
  • Is this information available at all?

Realize that the requested information is often either too general or too specific. For example:

  • I need to know about the food industry (too broad).
  • I need to know how many muffins were sold in the US last year (too specific).

Asking questions to clarify exactly what is needed is good, but finding out what the patron is trying to do can be even more useful in understanding what kinds of information may be helpful, especially when the requested information is not available.

   Who Tracks this Information?

Analysts: Business analysts provide strategic business intelligence to other business clients. These analysts typically specialize and generate a particular type of information like company or industry reports, market research, credit ratings, or investment research reports.

Associations: This category includes trade and professional associations.

A trade association generally serves a single, specific industry and keeps its members informed by providing news, market research, and practical guides for operating in that industry.

Professional associations are for individuals working in a particular field and generally strive to educate their members and advocate for the profession by offering news and best practices.

Companies: Companies generate a variety of information about themselves through marketing efforts, websites, press releases, and annual reports.

Government: The United States government collects large quantities of pertinent business data—industry statistics, demographics, economic indicators—through agencies like the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Department of Commerce. In addition, state and local governments provide local statistics and data, small business resources, and legal information.

Press: Numerous news publications, like the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Forbes, provide information to the business community. Furthermore, almost every newspaper contains a business section, which is a good source of information on small, local companies and local business issues.

Public: This category includes information produced by bloggers and social media users and can yield market and company intelligence, competitor and product analysis, and career information.

Organizations: This category is dominated by non-governmental organizations, like the OECD, United Nations, and World Bank. These organizations collect large amounts of economic data—demographics, economic indicators, industry statistics, and country analyses—from all over the world and disseminate it freely.

   Is this information available?

Some kinds of information are proprietary and are not generally available. These include:

  • Specific Financial Information (production and overhead costs, profit margins, budgets, quotas and targets, information on a particular product’s sales).
  • Research & Development (technical and performance specifications and product plans).
  • Manufacturing Information (vendor names/relationships, production and inventory levels, material costs, and manufacturing processes).

When researching a company, first determine whether it is public or private, a parent or a subsidiary and whether it is U.S. based or international.

Publicly traded companies are required to file certain financial information with the Government, which makes that data available to the public. Private companies are not required to disclose financial information and so it is harder to obtain information on these companies.
 _________PARENT__________                 SUBSIDIARY
A parent can own any number of subsidiaries. Revenue is usually reported at the parent level. Subsidiaries are owned by other companies and, while they are often operated as a completely separate business, it may be hard to get financial information on a subsidiary.
Domestic companies are located or headquartered in the U.S. International companies may operate in various countries, which may affect the kinds, amount and quality of data you can obtain.

For a quick answer to these questions, try searching Mergent Intellect:

Go-to Databases for Company Information:

Private/Small Company Information:

Locating detailed information, particularly financial, about a private company can be difficult because they do not have to continually disclose details about the company to current or potential shareholders, to the SEC, or to analysts. In addition, private companies tend to be smaller and not frequently written about in the press.

The following IUB Library databases typically include private company information. The only financial information available is the current year's revenue or sales volume:

News and/or the business literature can also provide small details about private companies. The following IUB Library databases can be useful.

"Industry" can refer to a very general category, like telecommunications or restaurants, or to a more specific category, like fiber-optic cable manufacturing or sushi restaurants. In other words, the boundaries of an industry are arbitrary.

Industry-level information can include information like total revenue, annual/projected growth, major competitors, supply chain information and emerging trends.

In order to focus your search and make sure you are getting the right information, you might also get the following information.

Should the information focus on global, U.S. or local markets? Some databases, like IBISWorld, produce reports at the global, U.S. and state levels, while other sources allow you to screen by geographical location.
Is this an established industry or a niche industry? Established industries are more like to be covered by major sources, whereas for niche or emerging industries, information may be harder to find and may be covered more in newspapers and popular press outlets than in databases like Passport and IBISWorld.
Brick and mortar or online? (Or both?) This is a distinction that might matter, depending on the type of information needed and the purpose behind finding the information.


Go-to Databases for Industry Information:

Companies market their products and services to consumers. In order to do that effectively, they collect data on those consumers. Marketing research can involve research on ad campaigns themselves, consumer responses to advertising, consumer behaviors and preferences and even pure demographic information from the US Census Bureau. This research is helpful in understanding

  • who we can expect to be interested in a certain product
  • how to market to certain groups of people
  • current trends in consumer preferences and behaviors
  • the size of potential target markets
  • and more
Should the information focus on global, U.S. or local markets? In some databases, like Passport GMID, geographical location is a major factor in the search process.
What type of company or industry? Consumers respond differently in different market contexts. Marketing that is working for healthy foods may not be the same as what works for snack foods and the demographics of the sports car market are probably different that the demographics of those who buy compact hybrid cars.
Which marketing channels? (Traditional, internet/mobile, social media?) Behaviors and numbers can vary dramatically across channels and products, so what's true of traditional marketing may not be relevant for questions about social media marketing.


Go-to Sources for Marketing and Demographics Information:

I need to find out how much revenue Walmart brought in last year.

How many people in Indiana are Latina/o?

I need to know about food truck trends.

I need to know about the eco-friendly products market.

I need to know the market size for allergen-free foods.