Digital Research Vs. Traditional Research: Challenges & Advantages

Any business leader or marketer is familiar with traditional market research; focus groups, street, phone and email surveys. This form of research has been around for decades. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of digital research. A new and important approach to market research that adds a whole new layer of value and insights over traditional research models. Digital research doesn’t negate traditional, it adds to it.

The Challenges of Traditional Research
While still incredibly valuable and helpful, there are some challenges with traditional methodologies that digital can help overcome. Here are what we see as the challenges for traditional research today;

  • Accessing Millennials: They’re almost impossible to reach for phone surveys. They use mobile phones and almost never have a landline. They just don’t see the need. Since mobile phone numbers are hard to get, it makes this demographic harder to reach and that problem extends into the 40-50 age bracket today as well.
  • Same Old Sample Group: Many market research firms face the challenge of not being able to find new survey respondents. They’re often calling the same people they’ve called for the past 20-30 years.
  • Causation and Limited Data Sets: Traditional research methodologies are quantitative in large part. The tools developed for traditional quantitative methods deal with smaller data sets (data that can fit in an Excel spreadsheet for example) and thus focus more on causation. Which is fine and good, but has limitations.
  • Survey Fatigue: There are so many market research firms and so many companies pushing out all kinds of surveys, consumers and citizens have become fatigued.
  • Fixed Questions: With traditional survey methods, the questions a company wants to ask have to be developed and fixed ahead of survey implementation. Thus the questions can’t change once they’re in the field.
  • Lagging Data: It takes time to develop a traditional research plan, from several weeks to several months by the time the data is collected, analysed and a report issued.

The Differences of Digital Research
Digital research is a Big Data approach, pulling data sources from social and news media and thousands of other data sources. Then using a suite of advanced analytics tools and humans to conduct the analysis to gain the insights. Digital Research is qualitative in nature and uses a heuristic approach. It is an excellent accompaniment to traditional research and should not replace traditional, but compliment it. Digital research is Big Data which means it is correlative instead of causative. Some key advantages to digital research are;

  • Accessing Millennials: Since millennials are very active in social media and other digital channels, it is easier to access their views, sentiments and opinions.
  • Fresher Data: As a digital research report can be done in a few days or 1-2 weeks, the insights are closer to real-time.
  • No Fatigue: The people being researched don’t know this is happening. It’s all publicly available data, but taken from an observational stance. This makes it more interesting.
  • Questions are Adaptable: With digital research, there is more data and more flexibility to change the questions and adapt the research as it evolves.
  • Lower Cost: Always a nice thing! Since projects are ramped up faster and delivered faster, the costs are lower by between 25% to 50%.
  • Correlation not Causation: The aim of traditional research is to identify causes, whereas digital research (Big Data analytics) is about correlations. Sometimes there is greater insight from correlations than causations.
  • Historical & Geographical: There are far less restrictions on geography for digital research and you can get hyperlocal as well. In some cases you can go back to the early 1980's for digital research.

Digital research doesn’t solve every research problem and shouldn’t replace traditional methods because there are times and places where traditional is more fitting. If you’re thinking “ah, well, I just do a Google search and we have social media monitoring tools…” that’s not digital research. But that’s a whole other blog post!

Since 2009 I've completed (either leading or participating) in over 300 digital research projects. These have included consumer market research for clients like Black & Decker, Clearwater Seafoods, Tim Horton's, SportChek and others. Others have been public policy and civil society related for clients like the United Nations, Medecins Sans Frontier, Conference Board of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia government departments, Global Affairs Canada, UK Trade & Investment among others. So there is a solid track record of the value of digital research. Ask us some questions, we're happy to discuss!