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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

These 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 sharing, generation, 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 subjects such as healthcare and business-to-business.
  • Accompanied shops in a real-life shopping environment; help reveal real-life shopping motivations and behaviour.
  • Ethnography; involves observing people in particular settings or environments to understand their unconscious influences. For example, a builder at his or her work place, to see what helps or hinders getting a job done.
  • Intercepts; involve stopping people in the street or other locations. These are useful to gain fast, medium volume and high-level insights. For example, to assess motivations, quantify preferences, such as reaction to products or brands in out-of-home eating situations.
  • These methods 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 also 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 is 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 thus gives deeper insight.
Costs not only include research moderation and analysis but also travel and respondent recruitment and research incentives. Research incentives are typically paid to respondents to undertake pre-tasks, travel to, as well attend 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, and increases in broadband or wireless speed, both at home and on-the-go, and specifically via social media, provides more and more direct consumer research options. In particular to 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 better 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 digital methods

digital vs. traditional research methods. Completing online quantitative research
Completing online quantitative research
  • Online surveys; there are many well established and proven methods to reach various niches. High, and still growing Internet penetration, and faster access speeds enable 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; allow 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.
  • Bulletin boards; password protected online forum, where respondents login at any time and respond to moderator-led discussions. 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 also developing ideas. There is a growing range of digital software and functionality.
  • Online communities; here 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.
  • Insight platforms; there are also a growing range of multi-functional research platforms. Most recently we counted over 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. Various costs.
  • AI – there are a growing range of AI tools to help researchers to devise questions, summarise information and use Internet know-how to postulate lists of needs, and potential customer segments. However, AI also does not have innate contextual knowledge like researchers do and is unable to design research that is fair, objective and empowering. Further, the nature of the underlying data limits the revelation of quantitative substance and ‘new’ insights.

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. Some also include simple poll functions.
  • 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. There is a growing number of providers.

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). Useful to assess tv advertising, programmes or films and aids content optimisation.
  • AI tools are increasingly able to compile or aggregate and usefully summarise research findings.

Digital research pros and cons

Some people love the digital world and are easier to engage; for example, the young, and early adopters. Early technology adopters also help pressure-test new technologies and anticipate the future.

The wide range of panels helps ‘procure’ respondents for surveys. The growing range of communications, for example via smartphones, also make it easier to research people in far-flung places. Allowing anonymous responses encourages participation, openness and helps avoid bias. In-built cameras also make it easier to collect audio-visual and ‘on-the-go’ insights.

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

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 thus understand the context in which someone is responding. It is also difficult to observe non-verbal responses.

Qualitative responses also 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 remote locations.
  2. There are lots of modern takes on traditional research so assess and combine market research services to best meets your aims and needs.
  3. Technology needs selecting, setting-up and managing. It doesn’t automate every task and can fail. So 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. Moderators ease the journey of discovery, dig into the detail, as well as analyse and interpret findings.
  5. The nature of the social media, and ‘big’ data’ means there is more data available for analysis. However, it needs to be useful and fit for purpose. Again this is where humans are important.
  6. Do experiment and use creative stimuli. If you push boundaries, you’ll learn more.
  7. The growing range of research tools means there is bound to be something to help you. Combine digital and traditional research methods to provide the benefits of both.


(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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