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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. There are lots of myths, perceptions and misconceptions surrounding digital vs. traditional research methods. So what’s available and what are the issues and opportunities when choosing between digital vs. traditional research methods? Booming 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 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.

Traditional research pros and cons

Conducting in-home qualitative research

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

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 travel and respondent recruitment and research incentives. Research incentives typically cover undertaking pre-tasks, travel as well as time for attending research.

Digital research methods

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.

Growing range of digital research methods

digital vs traditional research methods. Completing online quantitative research

Completing online quantitative research

  • Skype, Whats App and Facetime – allow the moderator to hear and see the interviewee in remote locations.
  • Wearables – like Google glasses provide real-time or recorded/edited insights through the eyes of consumers.
  • Online surveys – many well established and proven methods to reach various niches. Also to gain vox-pop type feedback. With high and growing Internet penetration, and faster broadband and mobile Internet speeds, this enables rapid, cost-effective, multi-country, multi-media quantitative research.
  • 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.
  • 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 analytics – 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 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. kids/youth market. Groups such as early technology adopters help pressure-test new ideas and anticipate the future. Remaining anonymous also encourages participation and openness.

Some digital media offer an almost ‘instant’ sample. For example, polls on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Though very many followers are needed to generate fast and cost-effective 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 a little more difficult to master. So allow time for set-up, to help respondents as well as moderate and analyse research. This adds to costs  making online discussions more expensive than face-to-face.

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 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 cost-effective way to recruit and survey respondents. It broadens reach, helps identify specific ‘interest groups’ and mitigates against ‘serial groupies’. Skype et al help us interview even those in very 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 provides the benefits of both. For example, to simplify recruitment, and share stimuli via email or online.
  7. Do experiment. 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.


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

New research technology?

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