8 Common Research Techniques and When to Use Them

Whether you are developing a product launch strategy, a creative campaign, or a customer acquisition plan, the single most important thing you can do to ensure success is begin with the proper research. But which research technique will provide the information you need to make wise strategic decisions? This article will provide tips for when to use each of 8 common research methodologies.

To begin, it is important to know the difference between “qualitative” and “quantitative” research. Qualitative research gathers free-form responses. It is generally conducted with a relatively small sample base and is used for exploratory data gathering. This type of research helps  uncover information and is used to form hypotheses. Quantitative research generally involves measurable information and follows choice modeling, preference scaling, and other quantifiable information from a range of predetermined choices. Quantitative research is most commonly conducted with larger respondent samples and is used to test hypotheses, draw conclusions, and quantify probability ratios.  There are many different data-gathering techniques within both of these types of research, each with their own pros and cons. We will look at the following 8 common techniques:

  1. One-to-one Interviews
  2. Surveys
  3. Focus Groups
  4. Social Response/Polls
  5. Ethnographic Observations
  6. Experience Labs
  7. Market Analysis
  8. Competitive Research

One-to-one Interviews

One-to-one interviews are one of the best ways to gain insight into the minds of your target audience. They are inherently a qualitative research process that allows an interviewer to probe into the rationale behind initial question responses and follow logic threads to their source. This process can often uncover hidden perceptions and biases that significantly affect customer buying decisions and behavior patterns. They are best used to understand your target audience’s:

  • Needs
  • Perceptions
  • Experiences
  • Decision processes


Surveys are best suited to quantitative research. They are typically distributed to a large respondent base and work best when they contain measurable, finite responses that can be categorized into numerical statistics, charts, or graphs. The key to successful surveys rests in the format of the questions. When you are giving respondents a limited number of responses to choose from, it is imperative that they have the appropriate options to select. That is why surveys are an excellent follow-up methodology to validate hypotheses and response patterns generated from one-to-one interviews. Surveys are best suited to:

  • Gather statistical data
  • Validate hypotheses
  • Identify preferences from provided options

Focus Groups

Focus groups are often misused in the research process and must be evaluated carefully as a reliable data-gathering tactic. The challenge in this qualitative data methodology rests in keeping respondents true to their feelings and uninfluenced by others in the group (unless that influence is what you are testing). Often, respondents will not speak their opinion if others have previously provided a contradictory view. Due to this, focus groups are best used for:

  • Watching usage behavior (such as product testing)
  • Gaging quick response and then discussion (such as asking for a show of hands and then allowing participants to explain their choices)
  • Required in-person experience (such as a demonstration or taste-testing)

Social Response/Polls

The prevalence of social networking tools has made this form of quantitative data gathering very popular. Social response research typically uses social tools such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to ask a specific question to the market. On the positive side, social response research has very low costs associated with it and provides immediate information results. On the negative side, it is generally limited to a single question and you often have little control over the respondent demographics. When placed in the right channels, however, this tactic is well suited for:

  • Gaging market pulse or temperature on a specific topic (such as expected political voting patterns or current event perceptions)
  • Broad-based respondent information

Ethnographic Observations

Ethnographic observation is a qualitative data-gathering technique. In this process, a researcher observes social and behavioral actions of people in their natural environment. An example might be to set up product displays at grocery stores in a variety of cities with differing demographic samples. An observer would watch to see which people are attracted to the display, whether they pick up the product, and whether they purchase the product. This methodology is excellent for predicting consumer purchasing behavior, but it can be very expensive and time consuming for broad demographics.

Experience Labs

This methodology, which is also qualitative, is very similar to Ethnographic Observations except the environment and the respondent sample are controlled. In this format, the researcher creates a staged version of the real-life environment and invites specific demographic respondents to the experience. The benefits of this tactic are that you can control the respondent sample, you know the relevant demographics of the respondent sample, and you can control the environment of the study, thus eliminating unexpected distractions such as a bolder display next to your demo display. The limitations to this method rest primarily in the fact that the respondents know they are being evaluated. This simple fact will often influence behavior.

Market Analysis

Market analysis is primarily quantitative, but it can be comprised of both quantitative and qualitative data. It is used to assess the market coverage of key players, industry growth patterns, and trends in order to identify existing gaps and potential areas of future opportunity or future threat. It is an ideal fourth-quarter process to provide directional guidance for the year or years ahead. Market analysis evaluations typically include a variety of influencers such as:

  • Government regulations
  • Economic trends
  • Technological advances
  • The opportunities created by these changes
  • The threats these changes create

Competitive Research

Competitive Research, or Market Intelligence, is both qualitative and quantitative. It entails looking at your current competitors and evaluating where new competitors might arise in the future. The results of competitive research support many major corporate decisions, from brand positioning to product extension. The process can include:

  • Identifying major competitors and their:
    • Market share
    • Key positioning
    • Target audience
    • Primary products and services
    • Key messaging
    • Differentiators
    • Global reach
    • Strengths
    • Weaknesses
    • Brand perception from target audience
  • Identifying tangential competitors
    • Related industry players with potential to enter the market
    • The strengths they might bring to the competitive field
    • The obstacles they would need to overcome to enter the field

Now that you know when to use each research process, the key is to do the research. These processes are crucial to successful strategy, and yet research is one of the most frequently overlooked gems in your toolbox for brand development, product development, and sales growth. It should be used to support strategic decisions and to test the impact of those decisions.

Give us a call when you need critical information to support your strategic decisions, and we can customize a research plan for your business.