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The ultimate guide to market research survey methodologies

By Laura Ojeda Melchor |7 min read|Updated Apr 25, 2024

A clipboard of information being analyzed after a market research completes a survey.

Running a market research survey is one of the best ways to understand your customers. But there's more to it than entering questions into a survey template and sending it out to the world. 

You need to know two things before you start: what type of insights you need, and which market research survey methodology will help you get them. 

If you need to ask a broad audience whether they like a product idea, for example, an online survey might be the best methodology. If you want to dig deep into consumer attitudes and behaviors, a focus group survey could generate the right insights.

By the end of this article, you'll know the main survey methodologies and how to deploy them to gain insights and drive growth.

What is a market research survey?

Market research surveys help companies gather valuable insights directly from their target audience. They shed light on customer preferences, buying behaviors, and market trends.

This information acts as a roadmap to show businesses how to tailor their products and services to meet their customers' needs. 

Market research surveys aren’t a one-and-done effort. Companies run them from the beginning of a product or service’s journey through to the end.

In the early idea validation stage, businesses use them to see if there’s a product-market fit. 

Gathering market data from surveys can help you realize what the right product should be before it’s too late. This will help prevent your team from spending time and money on things that customers might not really want. (Looking at you, Touch of Yogurt shampoo.)

Surveys can also help your company create pitch-perfect ads to spread the word about the product. They can help you analyze how your customers feel about the product and spot areas that need improvement. When it’s time to improve and innovate on a successful product, surveys can guide that evolution.

The majority of market research surveys share some or all of these core goals: 

  • Understanding customer preferences: Gather insights on what customers like, need, and expect from products or services.

  • Informing strategic decisions: Use survey data to guide product development, marketing campaigns, and customer service improvements.

  • Identifying market demand: Find out if people actually want that new product you've dreamed up or updates to existing products and services.

  • Gauging customer satisfaction: Measure how satisfied customers are with the products, services, and overall brand experience.

  • Understanding brand perception: Learn how customers perceive your brand and its values.

  • Segmenting the audience: Group customers based on demographics, behaviors, or preferences, which helps you target the right people.

Why are market research surveys important? 

Market research surveys let businesses know exactly what their customers are thinking. 

Some people might think surveys are becoming less relevant as Big Data gets even bigger. Companies can now use cookies to track the way customers browse the web and interact with different sites. They can also record which ads they click on, and see which language settings, themes, or layout choices customers like.

With this type of up-close-and-personal data in our hands, are surveys even relevant? 

According to authors Mario Callegaro and Yongwei Yang in their 2017 chapter of the Palgrave 

Handbook of Survey Research, the answer is ‘yes’. 

The chapter, titled “The Role of Surveys in the Era of ‘Big Data,’” outlines the cons of relying only on Big Data to understand customers. 

“Surveys have the advantage of being designed for the researchers to answer the question at hand,” write Callegaro and Yang in a subsection called “Strengths and Challenges of Surveys and Big Data.” “They also collect attitudes and opinion data which cannot be readily covered by Big Data.”

In other words, data has its place. But it can’t adequately replace qualitative insights.

A guide to different survey methodologies

Each survey type serves a different purpose. Some types are great at helping you do market research. Others are ideal for product research. Still others shed light on the customer experience.

Online surveys 

Online surveys are a quick and convenient way for companies to assess what people think and want. Since they're online, these questionnaires can be filled out on the respondent's preferred device. Their digital nature makes it easy for market researchers to import the data into a secure database.

Some survey software even includes tools for survey creation, distribution, storage, and analysis.

  • How it works: Companies send a set of questions to a targeted group of people, allowing them to respond at their convenience. These questions can vary in format. You might include multiple-choice, rating scales, or open-ended responses on the online survey. After people respond, researchers can analyze the answers to spot trends and make important decisions. 

  • Benefits: Online surveys offer a fast, affordable, and hassle-free way to gather data from a big audience. They also give respondents plenty of flexibility. Not only is it easy to participate, but they can fill out the survey at their leisure. This increases the likelihood of high response rates.

  • Where to start: There are all sorts of online survey tools to pick from. SurveyMonkey is easy to use, which is great for beginners. Qualtrics is renowned for its plethora of tools—perfect for detailed, large-scale research.

Telephone surveys

A telephone survey is when researchers call people to ask them questions about a certain topic. 

  • How it works: Researchers create a list of phone numbers for the people they want to reach. They (or an interviewer) then call these people and use a prepared set of questions to learn about their opinions or behaviors on a specific topic.

  • Benefits: Telephone surveys let you chat directly with people to get clear answers and ask more questions if you need to. These surveys also let you include folks who might not be tech-savvy enough to complete an online survey autonomously.  

  • Where to start: Create a questionnaire that addresses your research objectives. Next, compile a list of contacts who fit your target demographic. Make sure you source numbers in a way that follows laws like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR)

Face-to-face interviews 

In face-to-face interviews, researchers meet with respondents in person or via video chat. These surveys are formatted more like an intimate one-on-one conversation.

Face-to-face interviews can be expensive and time-consuming, though. Especially if you're hosting them in person. That said, they can yield some of the most high-quality insights, because the conversation feels more organic and free-flowing. That's why they're such a valuable tool for qualitative research

  • How it works: Researchers meet with respondents in person (usually). This could happen in a focus group facility. Or, it could happen in a more natural setting, like the respondent's home. The interviewer asks a series of pre-written questions that explore specific topics. 

  • Benefits: Face-to-face interviews let you talk in person, which helps you understand what someone really means by watching their body language. You can also ask more questions right away if you need more information. This helps you get detailed answers you might not have received otherwise. 

  • Where to start: Design a set of questions that align with your research goals. Make sure they're open-ended — this will help you get those rich, detailed answers. 

Focus groups 

A focus group brings together a small group of different people to talk about and share their thoughts on a certain subject, product, or idea. A moderator usually guides the discussion. People from the company may or may not be there to watch. 

Studying how participants in a focus group react and talk to each other gives researchers unique insights. 

  • How it works: To run a focus group, you'll first choose a small group of individuals who represent a larger population of interest. For example, a chip company could bring together a group of people who love to Netflix and chill with snacks in hand. A trained moderator steers the conversation through a set of questions. Researchers observe the session, often from behind one-way mirrors or via video recordings.

  • Benefits: Focus groups let market researchers see what people think and feel by letting them share their ideas with each other. They catch details that simple surveys can't. 

  • Where to start: First, identify and recruit a diverse group of people who match the characteristics of your target audience. Then, prepare questions that you hope will spark a lively discussion. Hire a skilled moderator to lead the session—and maybe a videographer, too. Our guide to focus groups can help you get going. 

Observational research

Observational research is when researchers observe how people behave in real-life settings. They don't get involved or manipulate the participant’s environment or reactions. They observe how people naturally respond to different products and ideas, which helps them understand real behaviors and preferences. 

Observational surveys can be done openly, where people know they're being watched. Or they can be done without the participant’s knowledge. 

It's important to take laws and ethics into account when conducting observational research. 

  • How it works: In an observational research survey, the team must define their research goals. What specific behaviors or interactions do they want to observe? This could range from consumer purchasing decisions in a store to social interactions in a public space. Once in the field, researchers record the behaviors of interest. 

  • Benefits: Observational research offers a look into natural behaviors and interactions. This method can reveal behaviors participants might not be aware of or might not report accurately in a regular survey or an interview. 

  • Where to start: As with any other survey, you'll start by defining your objectives and the behaviors you want to observe. Then, decide where to observe them and whether you'll let the subjects know they're participating. 

Panel survey 

A panel survey involves collecting data from the same group of respondents over a period of time. This allows researchers to track changes in their opinions, behaviors, or conditions. A longitudinal approach like this lets researchers see how responses evolve due to life changes. 

Panel surveys are popular in social science, market research, and public health. They're used to study trends, measure the impact of policies, and understand consumer preferences.

  • How it works: A panel survey works by selecting a group of respondents who represent a larger population you're interested in studying. These selected individuals agree to provide information at multiple points in time. This could mean answering the same set of questions periodically—monthly or annually, for instance. 

  • Benefits: Panel surveys provide the types of insights only time can give. If you wanted to create retro toys for children of the 2020s to give their kids, you could start a longitudinal panel survey in 2025. With their parents' permission, ask the kids what type of toys they like. Ask them similar questions in 2030, 2035, 2040, 2050. You'll gain all sorts of interesting insights as you watch these kids grow up.

  • Where to start: To kick off panel surveys, first clearly define what you hope to learn and then select a group that represents your target audience. Create and schedule your surveys to regularly gather data. Keep your panel engaged with updates and incentives to encourage them to keep participating.

Which survey method makes sense for you?

The right survey method depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • Time: If you’re short on time, online surveys are quick to set up and allow you to collect responses rapidly. More in-depth methods like face-to-face interviews require scheduling. Panel surveys need extensive planning. 

  • Cost: Online surveys tend to be more budget-friendly. There aren't any travel or venue costs to think about. Face-to-face and telephone surveys can be more expensive, especially if you have to hire interviewers. The tradeoffs can be worth it, though, if you need a more personal survey method to get the job done. And don’t forget incentives, which can make participation worth it for your respondents. 

  • Research expertise: Your team’s expertise in research methodologies can also guide your choice. Online surveys can be straightforward to design and analyze. Focus groups might require a little more knowledge and experience to set up.

  • Audience: Consider where your target audience is most accessible. Younger, tech-savvy groups might be easier to reach online. Older demographics might respond better to telephone or face-to-face surveys.

Key takeaways

Ready to start your own adventure into market research surveys? 

Take these key points with you: 

  • Market research surveys matter:  Despite the rise of Big Data, market research surveys are still incredibly valuable. They capture the thoughts, opinions, and attitudes of customers directly, providing insights that behavioral data alone can’t.

  • There’s a survey methodology for everyone: There are many ways to do a survey. From quick online surveys to focus groups to meeting face-to-face, there’s something for every type of study.

  • Choose the best methodology for you: To choose the right method, ask yourself a few questions. What’s your research budget? What do you know about doing research? What's the best place to reach your audience? If something isn't working, it's okay to try something different until you find what does.

No matter what survey methodology you choose, people want to receive an incentive in exchange for their participation. Incentives boost response rates and lead to higher-quality responses. 

With Tremendous, you can send your survey participants the rewards they want so you can get the answers you need. We offer 2,000+ redemption options in more than 200 countries. Talk to our sales team for a demo or sign up now to send your first reward in minutes.

Published April 25, 2024

Updated April 25, 2024

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