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

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

Traditional research methods

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

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

New online research methods

New social media functions

Digital technology also spurs new analysis methods

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 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

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