Traditional vs. Digital Market Research Methods. Does ‘New’ Mean Better?

Traditional vs. digital research methods

The advent of digital media has inspired many new forms of customer research, which businesses are embracing with a passion.  We have witnessed marketers foregoing more traditional approaches of gaining customer insights.  Primarily to generate cheaper and quicker results but also to be seen as trend-setting, being the first, and generally jumping on the bandwagon just because it is new.

Whether it is just because online is new or that it provides something that more traditional forms can’t deliver, what is clear is that there are lots of myths, perceptions and misconceptions surrounding it.

Social media services : You Tube, Twitter. Instagram, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Facebook
Some social media services

So what are the facts and considerations that need to be taken when choosing a research methodology?  New doesn’t necessarily mean better …. or does it?

Main traditional research approaches

More traditional forms of research involve either face-to-face contact or verbal conversations in real-time such as;

  • Qualitative focus groups or group discussions; enable topic discussion, exploration and idea generation, sharing, building and challenging. For example, by recruiting respondents with differing views to ‘conflict groups’ it is possible to both challenge beliefs and understand and uncover ways to overcome possible prejudices.
  • Depth interviews – face-to-face or telephone; enable in-depth understanding of topics and people; who they are, their attitudes, beliefs and motivations. Also suited to more confidential and sensitive topics e.g. healthcare, business-to-business.
  • Accompanied shops in a real-life shopping environment; help reveal real-life shopping motivations and behaviour.
  • Ethnography – observing people in specific settings/environments to understand unconscious and unreported behavioural influences. For example, a builder in his/her work environment, to see what helps or hinders getting a job done.
  • Intercepts – stopping people in the street or other locations; useful to gain fast and high-level insights. For example, to assess motivations, quantify preferences, such as reaction to products or brands in out-of-home eating situations.
Face-to-face customer research
Face-to-face customer research

Traditional research pros and cons

Traditional face-to-face or telephone methods enable the moderator to follow the natural flow of the discussion and understand what’s really important to interviewees. Also to flex the discussion, intervene, probe and challenge at any point in the proceedings.

Face-to-face methods allow observation of non-verbal indicators, such as facial expressions, body language, general behaviour and voice intonation. What’s not said is sometimes as important as what’s said. Albert H. Mehrabian found that body language accounts for 55% of received communication, while tone of voice accounts for 38% and words only account for 7% (1). Non-verbal communication provides extra richness and texture to information and gives deeper insight.

Costs not only include research moderation and analysis but travel and respondent recruitment and research incentives. Research incentives typically cover undertaking pre-tasks, travel as well as time for attending research.

Online research approaches, pros and cons

The massive growth in general Internet use, both at home and on-the-go and specifically social media networking sites, provides more direct consumer research options and ways to better understand the digital world. New digital functionality such as wikis, video filming and uploading and messaging provides researchers with a new means of capturing information too. All helps researchers and customers work together to explore and develop ideas.

Main online or digital research methods

  • Skype, Whats App and Facetime – provide new remote video interviewing possibilities, allowing the moderator to hear and see the interviewee.
  • Wearables – like Google glasses provide real-time or recorded/edited insights through the eyes of consumers.
  • Online surveys – respondents are posed a series of questions online. Typically following an emailed link. With high and growing Internet penetration, and faster broadband and mobile Internet speeds, this enables rapid, cost-effective, multi-country, multi-media quantitative research. There are many well established and proven methods able to reach various niche demographics. Also to gain vox-pop type feedback.
  • Online focus groups – real-time online discussions over a set period e.g. 2 hours (so-called synchronous research); useful to reach remote/difficult to find respondents.
  • Online communities – respondents join a community and answer/discuss questions, interacting with each other and the moderator.  Useful to gauge reactions to communications and products, ‘pressure-test’ plans and build ideas.
  • Bulletin boards – password protected forum, accessed via a browser, where respondents login at any time and respond to moderator led discussion. These usually last 3 to 6 days (so-called asynchronous research);  useful for product placement, assessing first and later impressions/experiences, engaging the digitally savvy and exploring the digital world, and developing ideas. There is a growing range of digital software and functionality allowing for more sophisticated and customised research solutions.
  • Social media sites e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram – useful for online and offline recruitment, dipstick research, gain anecdotes, perhaps at the start of a new product development process.
  • Social media analytics – such as to assess national sentiments, for example, via ‘big data’ analysis of tweets etc. It also possible to analyse emotional response from emojis. In November 2016, social media analytics correctly predicted the outcome of the US Presidential election in contrast to the national polls.
  • Facial recognition – uses software that’s more discerning than the human eye to determine emotional engagement (such as happiness, fear, surprise) with tv advertising, TV programmes or films. Enables better film editing and story-telling.
Online customer research
Online customer research

Online research pros and cons

Some groups have particular affinity with the digital world and are easier to engage e.g. kids/youth market. The anonymity of the online world encourages participation and openness.  Early technology adopters are useful to pressure-test new ideas and anticipate the future.

Some digital media offer an almost ‘instant’ sample. For example, polls on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. A high-number of engaged followers are needed to generate fast and cost-effective insights.

The growing range and extent of online communication, for example via smartphones, make it easier to reach a wide geographic target. Thus avoiding travel and sometimes communication costs. In-built cameras make it easier to collect visual or audio insights.

More complex technology, such as that involved in online qualitative research is a little more difficult to master. So allow time for set-up, to help respondents as well as moderate and analyse research. This means it is sometimes more expensive than face-to-face discussions.

Online moderation is more difficult. The process is often more linear and mechanical limiting ability to pursue all avenues of exploration. There are also visual limitations. Zoomed in head shots or screen size room views, make it difficult to see the big picture, and see non-verbal responses. Qualitative responses vary between the superficial and detailed. Initial superficial responses require more probing. In contrast, unduly verbose responses, especially if written, are time-consuming to follow and interpret.

Summary of traditional vs. digital research pros and cons

A summary of each approach is outlined below.

Traditional vs. Digital Research Pros and Cons
Traditional vs. Digital Research Pros and Cons

Marketing inspiration

  1. Digital research methods are welcome additions to the market research tool box.  They provide new ways to recruit for and conduct research, complementing more traditional forms. Online is a fast and cost-effective way to recruit and survey respondents. It broadens reach, helps identify specific ‘interest groups’ and mitigates against ‘serial groupies’. Skype et al are a boon to interview those in remote locations.
  2. The choice of research method should follow from your aims and needs. Analyse the pros and cons of each option to decide which is best for purpose.
  3. Technology needs selecting, setting-up and managing. It doesn’t automate every task and can fail. Pre-planning needs to be more precise to make sure respondents can access and use the systems. As a result, some online qualitative approaches advise running research with two people. One to manage the IT systems, and a second to run the discussion. All has a time-cost.
  4. Humans are important. There will always be a need for a moderator to ease the journey of discovery and dig into the detail.
  5. The nature of the social media, means there is more and more data available for analysis. Revealing insights from findings involves understanding what is unsaid, what’s missing, as well as what is said and available. Again this will remain a human task.
  6. Combining digital and traditional methods helps provide the benefits of both. For example, using online recruitment methods, or sharing stimuli via email or online.
  7. Don’t fear experimentation. If you don’t try and learn, you won’t.
  8. There are a growing number of communication platforms with functions suited to research, for example, forums and mini polls. For a bespoke solution, get in touch with our market research agency.


(1)  Mehrabian Albert H, Silent Messages; Implicit Communication of  Emotions and Attitudes 2nd edition 1981.

New research technology?

If you have some market research technology we’ve not covered let us know

2 Replies to “Traditional vs. Digital Market Research Methods. Does ‘New’ Mean Better?”

  1. Pingback: Response to Bush | answerseekers

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