The use of the internet for
quantitative research emerged and grew in the 1990s. In the early days there
were doubts about its efficacy — Was it representative? Yet, as confidence in
its use grew, online research experienced explosive growth.
Online — Advantages
Today, according to the ESOMAR industry reports,
online is the most widely used method worldwide for quantitative
research. Its benefits, many of which are listed below, give it a distinct
advantage over other methods.
- Online research improves respondents’ level of interaction and
engagement through use of multimedia content — image, video, sound, animation
and text. User friendly, engaging features include elements such as sliding
scales with smiley faces, 3-dimensional images and interactive exercises. For
instance, in some concept clinics or pack tests, respondents are able to see
how the choices they make change the visual image of the product or packaging.
The richness and depth of participants’ responses improves through interactions
of this nature that trigger higher levels of involvement.
- The depth and quality of responses also improves as respondents
have more time to think and react to open-ended questions. Compared to
face-to-face or telephone interviews, in an online setting, respondents feel
less pressure to respond quickly or in a manner that is politically, socially
or intellectually correct.
- Online is better suited for obtaining sensitive information since
respondents may remain anonymous.
- Being computer-assisted, online research supports better
questionnaire controls. It employs software to control the sequencing logic and
flow of the questionnaire, check sample quotas, and so on.
- Faster turnaround is achieved as online research is not
constrained by the limitation of a physical field force. Respondents can
respond concurrently in real time. And as they click their submit buttons, the
data is acquired and, in some instances, auto-processed. The resulting
improvement in turnaround is a key advantage considering the pace of
developments in markets. (The speed-to-market especially for technology
products and consumer durables has shrunk from years to months. Marketers of
these products, can no longer afford delays in execution due to time consuming
market research programmes.)
- Automation and consistency in delivery eliminates interviewing
bias in online surveys. (Though this is not likely to be as big an issue since
we use more close-ended questions in quant, interviewers can sometimes subtly
bias research through their personality, appearance, body language or tone of
- Respondents’ interaction with the specific question pages and
stimuli can be tracked in terms of time spent and click-through rates. This may
be used for optimization of questionnaire designs. It reveals the more
interesting or engaging aspects of the questionnaire. It also helps identify "professional
- Online research is not constrained by geographical boundaries or
barriers. Whereas certain residential areas may be inaccessible for DTD
interviews, this is not an issue with online.
- The participation of respondents such as specialists,
professionals or new mothers who would otherwise be hard to get, can be
facilitated through specialized access panels.
- Cost savings arise from multiple areas — no fieldwork, savings in
data entry and coding. Where applicable there are also savings on the
construction of physical stimuli or prototypes, which are substituted by
visually appealing graphic images.
- The reduction in costs also affords greater flexibility. It is
feasible and affordable to test different variations of questionnaires, stimuli
and concepts. It is possible too to change or add questions on the fly.
- In terms of logistics and costs, multi-country studies benefit
greatly from the borderless nature of the internet. They are easier to
coordinate and execute simultaneously across countries. Online also eliminates
the need for the physical presence of teams in each country.
Online — Limitations
For the above reasons,
online research is the preferred method that market researchers adopt, when
feasible. There are however limitations; and the one that is top of mind is representativeness.
In quantitative research theory, the notion that samples should be random and
representative has prevailed for a long time. Considering that online samples
are neither random nor representative, raises a number of questions both from a
theoretical as well as a practical standpoint. For instance, it is also debateable whether conventional methods of
data collection are random or representative.
The response rates for conventional offline
surveys are low and are getting lower as people’s hectic lifestyles undermine
their willingness to answer questionnaires on doorsteps or over the telephone. DTD
surveys also exclude people who dwell in restricted areas. Moreover surveys
often need to be compensated by boosters or quotas. So in reality there are no
purely representative samples. Considering that some compromise must be made,
decisions ought to be based on a clear understanding of what is required to
meet the study objectives.
The vast majority of research studies tend to be
broad-based and relative in nature. For instance — Which products do people
like more? What attributes are associated with my brand? What are the factors
driving customer satisfaction? The biases inherent in online are unlikely to
affect the outcome of these studies, provided the research topic has no direct
bearing on the internet.
Online samples tend to over-represent high
internet usage segments (young, upper/middle class) at the expense of others. Research
firms attempt to compensate for this to some extent by recruiting panellists in
their access panels that better represent the population as a whole.
Besides representativeness, there are few more
limitations of online that need to be taken into consideration:
- Like other self-administered questionnaires, online depends upon
respondents being able to comprehend, on their own, what is required. Similarly
if the respondent’s answer is ambiguous, there is no interviewer present to
seek clarification. It is important therefore that questions are clear and to
the point. If the topic of discussion is complex, in-person methods may work
- The internet has led to the rise of “professional survey takers”
— respondents who actively seek online surveys offering paid incentives, and go
quickly through the survey without devoting adequate attention to the questions
that they answer. Web analytics makes
it relatively easy for market research companies to spot these respondents. Most
of them have procedures in place to identify the “professionals”, and remove
their responses from the study.
In summary, online methodology works best for research
studies where the target respondents are available online, and representing the
entire population (online and offline) is not a necessity from the standpoint
of data interpretation. It is important that the questions are clear, concise
and easy to answer. The over-representation of internet users will affect the
results, particularly for topics that have some bearing on the internet.
Online — Methods
The most common online
approach with established research houses is access panel based
research. These are fully managed online panels comprising pre-screened
individuals who have agreed to participate in research studies. Participants
are usually incentivized by means of reward point schemes, sweepstakes or cash.
Online research may also be executed via a banner
or a link that takes respondents to the questionnaire. While this approach is
easy and inexpensive to implement, it offers limited controls on the sample,
and representativeness is therefore a bigger issue. It should however work well
where target respondents are visitors to a particular site.
Whereas banner-based research is open to all, a client
list based research method is limited by invitation only to a targeted list
of respondents. It is appropriate where the research requires purposive
Interviewer Administered Methods — Advantages
In-person methods are expensive
compared to self-completion, yet they do offer a number of advantages, some of
which are listed here:
- In-person interviews are recommended for complicated
questionnaires because the interviewer can help with clarifications.
Interviewers may also probe respondents in order to seek clarifications, or to
overcome unwillingness to answer specific questions. Probing also helps enrich
responses to open-ended questions.
- Skilled interviewers are capable of building interpersonal
rapport thereby sustaining the respondent’s interest.
- In-person methods are required in surveying illiterate
- Interviewer administered questionnaires are also conducive for
generating spontaneous “top-of-mind” responses, and would therefore be
recommended where this is needed.
In general face-to-face interviewing has some advantages
over telephone interviewing, but it is also more expensive. It is recommended
for long and complex questionnaires, and is required for research where the
consumer is required to respond to sensorial stimuli. In addition a controlled
setting, as in CLTs, allows for a better managed environment, which is
beneficial for some studies.
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