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The Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Primary Data Collection Methods

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Primary Data Collection Methods

Gathering primary data for the purposes of market research has many advantages, especially when research teams very deliberately choose their data collection method. The right primary data collection methods could help cement the continued success of the research project, whereas the wrong one could incur unnecessary extra costs without providing any worthwhile trade-off benefits.

Ensure that the primary data collection methods you use can fulfill the marketing objectives of your study by referencing the following cheat sheet, which can help you quickly assess the biggest advantages and disadvantages of each common method.


Direct Observation

  • The Gist
    • Direct observation consists of passively observing research subjects without interacting with them, sometimes from a secluded observational post like behind a one-way mirror
    • Observation can take place in a natural environment (e.g. watching people in line at the bank) or in a created environment (e.g. placing young children in a playroom full of toys)
    • Consent from participants may be needed in certain types of studies
    • Behaviors are recorded both for individuals and for the group as a whole
  • Cost — $ to $$$$
    • Self-staffed observation can be accomplished quite cheaply; hired professional observers are typically costly
  • Common Tools Used
    • Note-taking apparatus (notepad, laptop)
    • Recording device (camcorder, audio recorder)
    • Sensors (motion capture, telemetry technology)
  • Pros
    • Simplistic research designs mean potential for quick set-up and turnaround
    • Barring sophisticated sensing technology, most tools needed are simple and cheap
    • Perfect for gathering preliminary data, assessing scope of your potential subject inquiries
  • Cons
    • Lack of refined set-up can mean unpredictable results
    • Observational notes can be unfocused or incomplete, leaving out critical details
    • Potential for observer bias when recording behaviors


  • The Gist
    • Gathering the opinions and responses of a wide number of people
    • Responses are either self-recorded by the participant or recorded by a facilitator
    • Surveys can either target specific demographics (e.g. college professors or people who live in Ann Arbor) or can be sent to wide range of individuals selected by random
  • Cost — $ to $$
    • Survey design and implementation can typically be done quite cheaply, even with the guidance of professional researchers
  • Commonly Used Tools
    • Questionnaires administered through direct mail, phone calls, in-person solicitations or hosted online
    • Database for compiling and analyzing responses
  • Pros
    • Can gather a lot of disparate information across a wide range of subjects very quickly and at relatively low cost
    • Can reveal preferences or trends based on demographics
    • Less potential for recording bias
    • Self-recording makes participants more comfortable, honest
  • Cons
    • Potential for skewed response rates based on environmental factors (e.g. people with a long commute may not want to respond to mail surveys when they get home)
    • Potential for intentional data skewing or non-completion, especially when self-recording
    • Quality of data depends greatly on high response rates from a representative sample

 Interview/Focus Group

  • The Gist
    • Active interaction between study facilitator and participating subjects, either one-on-one or with one facilitator addressing a group
    • A variety of qualitative and quantitative questions are asked, sometimes adjusting based on the “flow” of conversation
    • Differs from surveys in that question/answer sessions are not always standardized; focus is on deeper, long-form responses
    • Observation is often a component, giving a behavioral dimension to verbal responses
    • Interviews can be fact-gathering from expert opinions or general solicitation of public opinion
  • Cost — $$$ to $$$$
    • The need for direct facilitation and more active, consenting participants often equals higher costs
    • Note that these research methods may also have higher ROI from accomplishing marketing objectives, offsetting costs
  • Common Tools Used
    • A facilitator to address the individual/group and interact with them
    • A private setting without distractions or interruptions
    • Recording equipment (camcorder, audio recorder)
    • Note taking equipment (laptop, notepad)
    • Apparatus for participant self-recording (e.g. reactions to images or a place to jot their own notes)
    • Materials for eliciting reactions (images, commercials, descriptions of scenarios)
  • Pros
    • Can gather deep, textured information on subjects or areas of interest
    • Direct interaction means less chance of non-participation
    • Expert facilitators can enable highly-productive sessions
    • Answer research questions and fulfill marketing objectives with a limited amount of individuals
  • Cons
    • Much more time consuming and resource-intensive than other methods
    • Potential for bias from observers, facilitators
    • Potential for answer skewing (either intentional/unintentional) from participants as a result of the unfamiliar setting; many subjects feel pressured to “tell people what they want to hear”


Aside from these three methods that involve direct observation or response from participants, self-assessment is sometimes considered a fourth primary research method. These assessments are often really “brainstorming” or focused note-taking sessions based on the past observations and experiences of the recording group. They have a high potential for bias or inaccuracy, but they are efficient ways to organize thoughts, plan and determine “big picture” ideas. Examples of assessments include stakeholder analyses and research design planning.

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