Understand the Trade-offs to Choose the Right Methodology [Part 1]

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marketing research methodology data collectionModern marketing research began in the late 1920’s and the only ways to reliably gather information from consumers was by asking questions in person, face-to-face or through a mail questionnaire.

However, there are many different methodologies available to today’s marketing researcher to gather the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors of consumers, and each one comes with its advantages and disadvantages. Balancing those pluses and minuses in light of your research objectives and your budget will lead you to choose the optimal methodology. Let’s talk about some commonly used survey research methodologies, and how you can evaluate their usefulness and fit for your needs.

In general, there are three main categories of survey methodologies. First is “self-completed”, where a respondent completes a survey without any assistance or intervention from a live interviewer. The second is when a survey is administered to the respondent by a live interviewer, who can probe the respondent’s answers and assist if the respondent is confused. There is also a hybrid of these first two methods, where a respondent is recruited by a live interviewer, and then left to complete the survey on their own without intervention, using a tablet, laptop computer or paper-and-pencil survey.  The third methodology is observation, where a respondent does not directly answer any questions, but where the research observes their behavior, actions, or results in a controlled situation. In Part One of this blog, we will review the most commonly used self-completed methodologies.

Self-Completed Methodologies

Online Surveys

Online surveys burst on the research scene in the early 2000’s, accounting for 20% of surveys in 2006 and up to nearly 80% today. Online surveys are sent via email to a respondent or encountered by a respondent while on a particular website, and completed on their computer. As broadband penetration has increased, the percentage of the population using computers is close to representing the entire United States population, eliminating one of the earliest concerns about this methodology. Additionally, as companies now routinely communicate with customers and employees via email and the availability of online samples has increased, marketers can now use online surveys with confidence that their samples are representative of the population they are researching. With those two concerns out of the way, the main attraction of online surveys is lower cost. With computer automation, the costs of printing, data entry, and a live interviewer are eliminated. Also, not having a live interview eliminates any bias that can be introduced by the way the questions are asked.  Another advantage of online surveys is speed.  Surveys are delivered and responses can be collected very quickly.

Online surveys do have some weaknesses. Response rates (percent of sample completing the survey) may be lower than for other methodologies, because it is very easy to ignore an email invitation to a survey. Therefore, incentives are often offered to encourage participants to respond. Additionally, respondents may not answer open-end questions as completely as with interviewer-assisted methodologies, because there is no one asking them to further explain their answers.


Mobile phone usage has reached the saturation point: there are 327 million cellphones in USA – more than one for every person in the country (source:  CTIA). This makes mobile phones a very attractive platform for marketing researchers. Similar to an online survey, respondents are reached via their mobile phones and complete the survey using their phone keyboard. While the smaller screen size creates some challenges for survey design, mobile surveys is a quickly growing methodology in the marketing research industry.

Other Self-Administered Methodologies

  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR): IVR allows respondents to complete a survey using a telephone, without intervention from an interviewer. Like mobile surveys, IVR surveys face some limitations simply due to the interface. However, IVR surveys can reach respondents by calling the respondent directly, asking the respondent to call in (usually through a receipt coupon), or by having a customer service representative hand-off the call to the survey directly. Response rates to IVR surveys are very low, but many researchers believe that drawback is offset by the extremely low cost of this methodology.
  • Mail: The original self-completion survey type, mail surveys have seen a decline in popularity with the advance of other methodologies. Respondents are mailed a paper survey with a return envelope enclosed, and then asked to return the survey in a given time frame. Like IVR surveys, mail surveys generate a very low response. Combined with increasing printing and postage costs, and the slowness in receiving response, mail surveys are less attractive when compared with other methodologies.

Next week, we will continue our discussion of methodologies with a review of Interviewer Assisted and observation methodologies.

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Christian Wright

Christian Wright is the VP of Client Services at Infosurv. With a master’s in marketing research, he’s equipped to design actionable research that yields impactful insights and drives change.