Guest post from Maria Ross, founder and chief strategist of Red Slice (www.red-slice) a branding and marketing consultancy based in the US.

Why do businesses spend tons of money, time and effort on compiling market data, analysing trends, conducting expensive focus groups with people who have never bought from them, or spend hours combing through research data, when they ignore a prime source right in front of them: their own customers?

Your customers, especially repeat ones, like you. They want you to succeed. They have found that your product or service fills a need for them, or your message has resonated with them. So when it comes to figuring out what will work for 2010, just ASK them. And as a small business, you have an advantage here, in that you are much closer to your customers than an enterprise company with tons of money to burn.

This can be as easy as sending an inexpensive (or sometimes free) online survey via Surveymonkey or Emma. If you have a shop, offer an incentive to all customers who come in to fill out a quick questionnaire. Invite your customers to an informal focus group with some drinks and snacks and offer them a coupon as an incentive. If you’re an online or service business, offer a discount code, or 50% off their next service; always offer some type of incentive for their valuable time and participation.

Stop guessing about what you are doing right or wrong and ask them. People love to give their opinion, especially if you can give them something in return, no matter how small. Keep your questions unbiased, don’t ask leading questions. Try to keep any surveys to less than 5 minutes for a small incentive or 10 minutes if you’re offering a larger incentive. Even 5-8 questions can do the trick sometimes.

One client simply emails direct to a select group of customers with an incentive to respond. Or you can use social media as a great way to gather feedback. But you have to ask.

Focus groups or surveys with your customers (past or present) can be super easy to implement. Working with one client on her brand strategy, she was not sure of the primary reasons (of the many reasons she promotes in her marketing) people came to her, so I advised her to send a survey and ask, “What caused you to seek out my services?” and offer 5 possible answers. She found some pretty surprising results that caused her to rethink her marketing messaging.

I don’t recommend testing actual ad creative with focus groups or surveys, as people will be consuming them in an unnatural way and the results will be skewed. No one dissects an ad in real life the way they would in a focus group session. But you can test ideas and messages and ask them what they think of your brand, why they bought from you, what you could offer or do better, or what incentives would draw them in more. Customers are a wealth of information for making brand improvements so don’t fear them – embrace them.

MAria has advised start-ups, solopreneurs, non-profits and even large enterprises on how to craft their brand story to engage, inform and delight customers. Her book, Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget, will be available summer 2010.