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Online market research methods

Methods and approaches for online market research The Internet has become the main method of carrying out market research with customers, via on-line surveys and on-line focus groups by mobile phone or web. It has also transformed intelligence gathering on competitor and market developments, and social networks have completely changed how companies listen to and respond to their customers.

The nature of research has also changed. Research can be fast, light and iterative to test-develop-test, questionnaires have innovated with new question types and video and images, and more realism in understanding choices using e-commerce like conjoint studies while allowing survey data to be blended with behavioural data, or catch people 'in-the-moment' (also see our online research tips).

Quantitative surveys online

Quantitative research follows the general principles of all market research. A method for gathering data - usually a questionnaire - and a representative sample.

However, with increasing numbers of people across the world on devices using the internet, this has opened up a range of new interview and research techniques that go beyond those available on paper or the phone. This includes surveys that respond to customers' choices, and long-term tracking where individuals provide feedback over time, not just in one survey. It has also greatly increased the opportunities for international research and research across a customer base that spreads across a number of countries.

The main elements needed for online quantitative research are

  1. an online questionnaire
  2. a means of accessing the right audience.

Of these, it is the second part - contacting the right people - that is the most difficult part of an online market research project. In contrast, there are many providers of basic online questionnaire tools with simple options starting from Google Forms. However, for more advanced and professional research, specialist tools are required with more control over presentation, routing, pagination and display in addition to more advanced question types.

On-line questionnaires

Much on-line research is still largely a mirror of the types of survey that are found conducted using pen and paper, or via the telephone, and most basic online survey providers work at this simple level. However, internet based surveys open up a pool of additional research methods that change how data can be gathered, from video, audio, mock-ups, games and multi-level techniques.

Our Cxoice Survey Technologies have been developed to offer many new methods for research. For instance there are a swathe of trade-off research techniques and interesting alternative techniques such as non-linear questionnaires where the respondent chooses what to answer - the choice being part of the data to be collected, and examples such as delphi-style surveys where respondents complete their own data, but are then shown the results of other people and given the chance to change their mind.

Web-interviewing also adds a new dimension to telephone interviewing. It allows telephone interviewers to be more widely distributed whilst centralising the data collection, but it also allows complex mixed-mode surveys - known as Web-assisted Telephone Interviewing (WATI). In a web-assisted survey the respondent logs in to the survey to see prompts and information (ideally tailored to the individual) while being interviewed by a professional telephone interviewer allowing more complex types of questioning. (A second option is a telephone recruit to web, but this remains largely self-complete).

On-line samples

The main concern for on-line surveys remains the sample. Potential sources for sample include customer contact lists. However, for many consumer-facing businesses with concern about spam and a requirement for consent and opt-ins to receive emails, the safest source of information is often on-line research panels.

Some market research panels are now very large, with millions of members, and have been shown to be as reliable as telephone and face-to-face techniques for broad-market studies, while having sufficient members to allow for sub-selection into smaller target groups.

The prime focus in selecting a panel is quality. Good panels make strenuous efforts to detect and eliminate non-genuine responses from 'professional' respondents, scammers and bots. Event so, it is important that data is quality checked as questionnaires come in. Secondly, a good panel works hard on recruitment and retention to ensure that their members represent the general population with programmes to recruit more widely than just mass-sign ups.

In business environments where surveys are being conducted among named existing customers and contacts, on-line surveys provide a serious alternative to postal and telephone research and often make it much more cost effective to carry out business-to-business research. However, if customers lists are being used, control is needed over the sample to prevent survey fatigue and consequent declines in response rates.

We would also recommend that the survey itself looks good and meets the design standards of the host company's own website. To customers this is another piece of company communication and so should reflect the brand standards of the business. Declining response rates for B2B surveys is having the effect that businesses are having to revisit telephone-based interviewing or face unacceptable non-response bias.

Where a broader market is being considered and email information is less widely available, some care is needed to ensure that an on-line survey will represent the wider market. However, for "finger in the air" style research, on-line research can be a very effective way of testing the water.

Qualitative online discussion groups online

Like conventional qualitative online research, discussion groups are used to explore issues and ideas with customers to gain insight into what they want and how they think.

Video conferencing and webinar technologies are easily adapted for focus groups, with controls on what can be seen, instant polls, and chats built in. However, specialist focus group software also exists for finer control of the groups.

For business to business, online groups allows individuals to connect from distant geographies allowing the groups themselves to draw on a wider pool of respondents than the traditional face-to-face group. However, face-to-face can still be important - body language, interaction and concentration are typically better with people in the same room, without distractions or background events.

Sometimes live discussion is not required. And more longitudinal groups can be conducted using chat or forum-base discussion groups where a conversation takes place over a period of days between group members via email, and a forum or community-based approach.

Social listening

In some categories, discussions and comments appear spontaneously in blogs, on social networks or in areas such as Twitter allowing the researcher to eavesdrop into on-going conversations or to monitor discussion topics and feedback. This discussion can be monitored and text-analysed to look for trends, hot topics or issues that the business needs to address. As 'free' research it can and does provide a useful pulse of the market, but a balance is needed against controlled market research to check for representativeness, as the loudest voices are not necessarily the same as the voice of the majority.

Market intelligence

An alternative to pure market research is to use market intelligence approaches to finding good background information from a wide variety of sources. Competitors and journals are continually producing information about products and services and tools such as web-scraping, news monitoring and other services can be used for continuous market monitoring.

For help and advice on carrying out on-line research contact

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