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Digital vs Traditional Research Methods; Booming Options are a Boon for Researchers

Completing an online quantitative survey

Digital media continues to inspire lots of new customer research methods. However, there are lots of myths and misconceptions surrounding digital vs traditional research methods. So what’s available and what factors affect the choice between digital vs traditional research methods? For sure, the booming range of options are a boon for market researchers everywhere.

Traditional research methods

More traditional research methods involve either face-to-face 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 challenge beliefs and also 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 such as healthcare and 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 or environments to understand unconscious influences. For example, a builder at his or her work place, 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.
  • Mostly these are all forms of so-called qualitative research.

Traditional research pros and cons

Traditional face-to-face or telephone research 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 also travel and respondent recruitment and research incentives. Research incentives typically cover undertaking pre-tasks, travel as well as time for attending research.

Conducting in-home qualitative research
Digital vs. traditional research pros and cons. Conducting in-home qualitative research

Digital research methods

The massive growth in Internet use, both at home and on-the-go and specifically via social media, 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 also gives researchers new ways to capture information. All helps researchers and customers work together to explore and develop ideas.

New digital communication technology

  • Skype, Microsoft Teams, Whats App, Google Meet, Zoom and Facetime – allow the moderator to hear and see the interviewee in remote locations.  Also to stay safe!
  • Wearables – like Google glasses provide real-time or recorded/edited insights through the eyes of consumers.

New online survey methods

digital vs. traditional research methods. Completing online quantitative research
Completing online quantitative research
  • Online surveys – many well established and proven methods to reach various niches. With high and growing Internet penetration, and faster broadband and mobile Internet speeds, this enables rapid, cost-effective, multi-country, multi-media quantitative research. Some methods also integrate social media data, and video responses (which is useful for vox pops).
  • Online focus groups – real-time online discussions over a set period e.g. 2 hours (so-called synchronous research); useful to reach remote or difficult to find respondents.
  • Online communities – respondents join a community and answer 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, engaging the digitally savvy, exploring the digital world, and developing ideas. There is a growing range of digital software and functionality enabling more advanced research.
  • Insight platforms; there are also a growing range of multi-functional research platforms. Most recently we counted 700. Functionality includes the ability to run online focus groups (with automated transcription) plus to ask survey questions, complete online diaries (and upload images, videos and other files). Also to review product literature, designs and adverts.

New social media

  • Social media sites e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram – useful for online and offline recruitment, dipstick research, at the start of a new product development process.
  • Social media listening tools and social media analytics – allow ‘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.

New digital analysis methods

  • Facial recognition – uses software that’s more discerning than the human eye to determine true emotions (such as happiness, fear, surprise) with tv advertising, programmes or films. Improves editing and story-telling.

Digital research pros and cons

Some groups love the digital world and are easier to engage e.g. the youth market. Groups such as early technology adopters also help pressure-test new ideas and anticipate the future. And allowing anonymous responses encourages participation and openness too.

Some digital media offer an almost ‘instant’ sample. For example, polls on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Though lots of followers are needed to generate useful insights.

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

However, some technology, for example, as used in online qualitative research, is more difficult to master. So allow time for set-up, to help respondents, as well as to moderate and analyse research. All adds to costs making online discussions more expensive than face-to-face.

Online moderation is more difficult too. The process is often more linear and mechanical, thus 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 non-verbal responses. Qualitative responses vary between the superficial and detailed. Thus, superficial responses require probing. Conversely, verbose responses, take time to follow and interpret.

Summary of digital vs. traditional research pros and cons

Digital vs. traditional research pros and cons
Digital vs. traditional research pros and cons

Research Inspiration

  1. Digital research methods are welcome additions to the market research tool box.  Online is a fast and good value way to recruit and survey respondents. It broadens reach, helps identify specific ‘interest groups’ and mitigates against ‘serial groupies’. Skype etc. also help us interview those in very remote locations.
  2. There are lots of modern takes on traditional research so critically assess and choose which market research services best meets your aims and needs.
  3. Technology needs selecting, setting-up and managing. It doesn’t automate every task and can fail. So pre-plan research and brief respondents to access and use the systems. Some online qualitative approaches also require two people to run research. One to manage the IT systems, and a second to run the discussion. So budget accordingly.
  4. Humans are important. Thus 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 data available for analysis. However, what is unsaid and missing, is often as insightful as what is said or written. Again this remains a human task.
  6. Combining digital and traditional research methods provides the benefits of both. For example, to simplify recruitment, and uncover new insights by using creative stimuli.
  7. Do experiment. If you don’t try and learn, you won’t.
  8. The growing range of research tools means there is bound to be something to help you. Just get in touch for help.


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

New research technology?

If you have some new or digital research methods we’ve not covered then please let us know!

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