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Traditional vs. Digital Research Methods ; Does ‘New’ mean Better?

Online customer research

The advent of digital media has inspired many new forms of customer research which businesses are embracing with a passion.  We have also witnessed marketers foregoing more traditional approaches of gaining customer insights, primarily to generate cheaper and quicker results. However, there are lots of myths and misconceptions surrounding digital methods. As one mobile phone marketer commented ‘let’s say we don’t wholly buy into the claims being made about online’. So what are the facts and considerations when choosing between traditional vs. digital market research methods? New doesn’t necessarily mean better …. or does it?

Some social media websites
Some social media websites

Traditional research methods

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, building and challenging. For example, recruiting respondents with differing views to ‘conflict groups’ in order to challenge beliefs and also understand and uncover ways to overcome possible prejudices.
  • Depth interviews – face-to-face or telephone; enable in-depth understanding of people, who they are, their attitudes, beliefs and also motivations. Also suited to more confidential and sensitive topics e.g. healthcare, business-to-business.
  • Accompanied shops – in a real-life shopping environment to understand real-life shopping motivations and behaviour.
  • Ethnography – observing people in specific settings/environments. For example, a professional in their work environment; useful to see true context, influences and behaviour, that may be unconscious and not reported.
  • Intercepts – stopping people in the street or other locations; useful for gaining high-level/fast insights, to understand motivations and quantify preferences, such as, assessing reaction to products or brands in ‘out-of-home’ eating experiences.
Face-to-face qualitative research
Face-to face qualitative research

Traditional research pros and cons

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

In addtion, findings or interpretations are based on respondent comments and non-verbal indicators such as facial expressions, body language, behaviour and voice intonation. Albert H. Mehrabian specifically found that body language accounts for 55%, tone of voice (38%) and words only just 7% of received communication (1). This non verbal communication therefore provides extra richness and texture to information and gives deeper insight. What is not said is often as revealing as what is said.

Conversely, traditional research approaches consume more time and cost. They sometimes need more time to set up. For example recruiting a very specific sample, such as frequent rail and air travellers with experience of mobile applications could easily take a couple of weeks.

New digital research methods

The massive growth in general internet and social media, enables marketers and researchers to communicate with their consumers digitally, and also better understand the changing digital world.  New digital functionality such as wikis, video filming and uploading and messaging also provides researchers with a new means of customer communication, and new means of capturing information. This therefore helps researchers and customers collaborate and co-create ideas.

New digital technology allows new digital research encounters

  • Skype, Microsoft Teams, Whats App, Facetime, Google Meet and now Zoom – provide new remote video interviewing possibilities. Thus allowing the moderator to hear and see the interviewee, while ‘social distancing’.
  • Wearables – like Google glasses provide real-time or recorded/edited insights through the eyes of consumers.

New online research methods

  • Online surveys – respondents are posed a series of questions online. Typically having followed or been emailed a link. These are now well established in high internet penetration Western markets. This therefore enables rapid, cost-effective, multi-country research.
  • 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 are set topics to discuss and questions to answer, interacting with each other and the moderator.  Useful for gauging reactions to communications and products, building ideas, and also ‘pressure testing’ plans.
  • 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. Also engaging the digitally savvy and exploring the digital world, and developing ideas.
  • Insight platforms – there are a growing range of multi-function platforms; at our last count, over 700. Some include focus group hosting with inbuilt transcription functions, plus software to ask questions, and upload and assess images, video and other files. With several websites dedicated to listing such software provides a glimpse into the burgeoning nature of the industry.

New social media functions

  • Social media sites e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram – useful for online and offline recruitment, dipstick research. Also to gain anecdotes, perhaps at the start of a new product development process.
  • Social media analytics or social media listening software – 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.

Digital technology also spurs new analysis methods

  • 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 qualitative or quantitative research
Online customer research

Digital research pros and cons

Some groups have particular affinity with the digital world and are thus easier to engage e.g. kids/youth market. The anonymity of the online world also encourages participation and openness.  Early technology adopters are particularly 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. However, 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 also 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. Thus it is sometimes more expensive than face-to-face discussions.

Online moderation is also 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 thus non-verbal responses. Qualitative responses also vary between the superficial and detailed. Initial superficial responses require more probing. Conversely, unduly verbose responses, especially if written, take time to follow and interpret.

Summary of traditional vs. digital research pros and cons

Traditional vs. digital market research methods
Traditional vs. digital market research pros and cons


Digital methods complement traditional methods and vice versa. Digital tools also help automate research activities, for example, making some activities, such as recruitment, and quantitative fieldwork, cheaper and quicker.  In particular, online is a fast and cost-effective way to recruit respondents for traditional qualitative research. It ensures broader reach, and helps mitigate against serial groupies.

However, there will always be a need for a moderator, to ease the journey of discovery and dig into the detail. Online moderation is just more difficult. Witness any radio let alone text discussion.

Online pre-planning also needs to be more exacting to make sure respondents are capable of accessing and using systems. And this has a time-cost.

Technology can also fail. As a result, some online qualitative approaches advocate running research with two people. One to manage the IT systems, and another to moderate the discussion.

Whichever method is used there is a need for human management and analysis. Particularly for qualitative, where online costs can be higher than face-to-face.

The nature of the social media, also means there is more and more data available for analysis.  Analysis of social media big data has shown more accurate insights than conventional polls, such as on the outcomes of election results.

New hybrids that cross the lines of traditional and digital media offer the advantages of both worlds. For example, Skype and Zoom are a boon for conducting remote face-to-face interviews and thus see and hear respondents.

Marketing Inspiration

  1. Digital media is a welcome addition to the market research tool box.  It creates new ways to conduct research. So rather than see traditional vs. digital research methods as competitive view them as complementary. However, the merits of face-to-face research must be remembered. Those with long memories may recall the hype surrounding internet businesses in the late 1990s, and belief that these required a new way of thinking. However, many failed by forgetting basic marketing principles. As Simon Carter said recently, “Marketers are becoming lazy by over-using social media and ignoring the skills and disciplines traditionally learned by marketers” (2).
  2. The start-point for determining any research method is to start with objectives and requirements. Then shop around and fully assess the pros and cons of each method, to decide which is best.
  3. Best practice marketing requires a true understanding of customers and not technology. As Daryl Fielding, European Marketing Chief , Kraft Foods said recently,  “Marketers must remember they are talking to people”(3). There is a danger of technology getting in the way of understanding. Also, perhaps ironically to digital advocates, ethnography is essential to understand how consumers use digital media!
  4. Yet, try experimenting. If you don’t test new things out, you won’t learn. So just make sure it is not at the cost of, or detriment to, achieving your aims.

If you have or are aware of any new digital research methods that merit inclusion in our article please let us know.


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

(2)      Carter Simon, Managing Director, Fujitsu ‘Back to basics’ Marketing Week & Research Live April 2011

(3)      O’Reilly Lara ‘A blinkered digital vision makes marketers forget the customer’ Marketing Week 21 Oct 2011

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research; The Great Debate? The Result is In!

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research | Food Tasting Research

The quantitative vs. qualitative research debate has been going on since the 1970s.  Apparently it’s all about epistemology, a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. Quantitative research is defined as positivism i.e. scientific and objective.  Conversely, qualitative research is interpretivism i.e. non-scientific and subjective.

Summary of quantitative vs. qualitative research pros and cons

quantitative vs. qualitative research

But there is an academic argument that the two methods cannot and should not work together.

The chief worry is that the capitulation to “what works” ignores the incompatibility of the competing positivistic and interpretivist epistemological paradigms that purportedly undergird quantitative and qualitative methods, respectively”(1).  Blah, blah, blah…


Haven’t quantitative and qualitative research started to overlap already?

The blurring of lines between quantitative and qualitative research has gone on for some time.  How many times have you attended research groups and a done a quick ‘tally’ of responses to gain some quantitative guidance?  Or, within a quantitative omnibus, included a few open-ended questions to give a little more colour? Superficial instances admittedly, but evidence of ‘blurring’ nonetheless.

Perhaps the reason overlap has not been fully acknowledged is because many believe the disciplines still run separately?  Or perhaps it is because as a ‘quali’ or a ‘quanti’ researcher you are defined or compartmentalised at birth?!  So never the twain shall meet? There is some truth in this as many researchers tend to train under a single discipline. In addition, most large research organisations run separate quantitative and qualitative departments.

However, from someone “on the ground”, as a qualitative researcher (and perhaps somewhat fearsome of quantitative research) it is possible to marry these two approaches together and get extra benefits. Thus, there is room for a new model, a better hybrid of qualitative and quantitative research.  Here are some examples:

Qualitative with added quantitative

Qualitative research discussions often include a few ‘wishy-washy’ answers to questions. Thus it can be difficult to discern differences in meaning. For example, in what one person says they ‘like’ versus another, as well as in overall shades of ’like’, ‘love’ etc. Using simple quantitative measures, such as a rating out of 10, provides much more clarity and decision-making substance.

For example, used within a new product development (NPD) process it offers a more useful ‘gate’ enables better short-listing and prioritisation. It also helps make sure you are not wasting thousands of hours and pounds barking up the wrong tree!

Quantitative with added qualitative research

Quantitative data uses open-ended questions to explain the numbers. But in many cases it doesn’t explain anything because respondents failed to fill in the boxes or the responses were insufficiently detailed. The data can also be costly to collect and cumbersome to analyse.

However, combined qualitative-quantitative research can both assess and improve products. From food and drink to media and beyond. In a recent project, respondents tasted and critiqued a number of competitive food products. Research was undertaken in a high traffic places in order to recruit people off the street into a hall. Then after gathering consumers’ responses on a questionnaire, we understood their reasoning as well as revealed brand fit and new product development opportunities.

This work was hugely beneficial in providing clear guidance and recommendations for both brand and product development. It was also very cost-effective.

quantitative vs. qualitative research
Taste testing Cornish Pasties
Quantitative vs. qualitative research

Retail applications

These techniques also apply to other categories, and challenges. For example, to assess packaging, or merchandising. When refining packaging, a clear read on issues such as stand-out, and reasoning is required. By co-opting a minimum of 100 consumers to review a mocked-up retail fixture rotated with current and proposed new packs and complete a short questionnaire. By identifying the appealing packs and critiquing them within the visual noise of a fixture, a numerical assessment of stand-out is obtainable. Subsequent qualitative discussion then allows deconstruction and analysis of the pack elements. Also reconstruction of the ideal pack design.

Marketing Inspiration

Concluding the quantitative vs. qualitative research debate, there will always be a role for ‘pure’ quantitative and qualitative research approaches. However, research doesn’t need pigeon-holing into either quantitative or qualitative methods.

It is possible to design quantitative-qualitative research to offer the benefits of both. In so doing you gain face-to-face consumer contact and understanding as well as meaningful numbers. Within this it is possible to set quotas for consumer types while also realising time and cost savings. Marketers just need to decide what they really need. So do you need understanding or numbers, or both? A creative research agency should guide and inspire you, even if it goes against what’s specified in the brief.

Get in touch for a bespoke qualitative-quantitative research proposal to meet your needs.


(1)   Against the quantitative–qualitative incompatibility thesis (or dogmas die-hard) by Kenneth R. Howe, Ph.D – Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder Published in the Educational Researcher 17(8) 10-16 1988

Using Consumer Research to Gain Competitive Advantage

Qualitative research discussion or focus group

‘Focus groups’ are often the default consumer research method yet in today’s highly competitive environment relying on groups alone is blinkered, if not blind. If everyone is just using the same technique how can anyone possibly gain an advantage over a competitor? So how can you gain new insights and an edge?

First, as insights can come from anywhere, it is vital to look in different places, and view and explore consumers in different ways. Use mixed methods to push the boundaries, dig deeper, and look into the future.  We advocate using three consumer research strategies to gain an edge; we call them the three Cs: Context, Challenge and Collaboration.

Get up close to understand the consumer context

Who consumers are, their needs, behaviour and influences are seldom what they seem. Sometimes consumer preferences and reasoning is beyond imagination.  So we need to understand who consumers are, how they live their lives, what’s important and why.  So by getting close up, and though observation, it is possible to truly understanding the decision making context.

Provide challenging experiences

Consumer  thoughts and feelings come from their own frame of reference i.e. experiences, prejudices and memory.  By provoking consumers, it is possible to reveal what is unconsidered, hidden or perhaps forgotten. So take them out of their comfort zones and provide new experiences. For example, giving consumers a new or different product to try can reveal insights on current product deficiencies,  on new or unmet needs, and also on barriers to overcome. Conversely, combining loyal and lapsed consumers in a ‘conflict group’ can reveal drivers and barriers to usage. Also to cast new light on the strength of attitudes, and whether, and how, to change attitudes.

Involve consumers as collaborators

Today we live in an increasingly connected and savvy society with greater free-flow of information and collaboration. In IT collaboration and ‘open-source’ software is common-place. Consumers are also very familiar with advertising and brands. able to discourse in ‘technical’ terms. This is a boon for researchers and marketers.  It therefore means that consumers able to discourse in ‘technical’ terms and also create as well as assess communication and product ideas and solutions. The concept of collaboration applies all aspects of research. The only limiting factor is our imagination! For example, by including specific technical experts in research, brings leading-edge insights and ideas, and potential glimpses into the future.

Marketing Inspiration

For market research to probe for new insights and give you an edge consider the 3 Cs : Context, Challenge and Collaboration.