The Marketing Directors marketing consultancy logo

Traditional vs Digital Research Methods ; Does ‘New’ Mean Better?

Traditional vs digital research methods

The advent of digital media continues to inspire many new forms of customer research, which some businesses embrace with a passion.  We have witnessed marketers foregoing more traditional approaches of gaining customer insights.  Primarily to get cheaper and quicker results but also to be seen as trend-setting, be the first or jump on the bandwagon just because it is new. However, what is clear is that there are lots of myths, and misconceptions regarding traditional vs digital research methods. So what facts should you consider when choosing between traditional and digital research methods? New doesn’t necessarily mean better …. or does it?

Main traditional research approaches

More traditional forms of research involve real-time face-to-face contact or verbal conversation. These include:

  • Qualitative focus groups or group discussions; enable topic discussion, exploration and idea generation, sharing, building and challenging. For example, by recruiting respondents with differing views to ‘conflict groups’ it is possible to both challenge beliefs and also uncover ways to overcome possible prejudices.
  • Depth interviews – face-to-face or telephone; enable in-depth understanding of topics and people; who they are, their attitudes, beliefs and motivations. This is also suited to more confidential and sensitive topics such as healthcare, business-to-business.
  • Accompanied shops in a real-life retail or online environment; help reveal shopping motivations and behaviour.
  • Ethnography – observing people in specific settings or environments to understand unconscious and unreported behavioural influences. For example, a builder in his or her work environment, to see what helps or hinders work.
  • Intercepts – stopping people in the street or other locations; useful to gain fast and high-level insights. In particular to assess motivations or quantify preferences, such as reaction to products or brands eaten out-of-home.

Traditional research pros and cons

Traditional face-to-face or telephone methods enable the moderator to follow the natural flow of the discussion and thus understand what’s really important to interviewees. Also to flex the discussion, intervene, probe and challenge at any point in the proceedings.

Face-to-face methods also allow observation of non-verbal indicators, such as facial expressions, body language, behaviour and voice intonation. What’s not said is sometimes as important as what’s said. Specifically, Albert H. Mehrabian found that body language accounts for 55% of received communication, while tone of voice accounts for 38% and words for just 7% (1). Non-verbal communication therefore provides extra richness and texture to information.

Costs not only include research moderation and analysis but also travel and respondent recruitment and research incentives. Research incentives also typically cover undertaking pre-tasks as well as travel and research time.

Face-to-face customer research | The Marketing Directors
Face-to-face customer research

Online research approaches, pros and cons

The massive growth in Internet use, and social media activity, both at home and on-the-go, provides more direct consumer research options. And thus more ways to better understand the digital world. New digital functionality such as wikis, video filming and uploading and messaging also provides researchers with a new means of capturing information. Therefore all helps researchers and customers work together to explore and develop ideas.

‘New’ digital technology inspires new digital research methods

Skype, Microsoft Teams, Whats App, Facetime, Google Meet and Zoom; provide new remote video interviewing possibilities. Thus allowing the moderator to hear and see the interviewee.

Mobile phones and wearables; like Google glasses provide real-time or recorded/edited insights through the eyes of consumers. These are particularly useful for shopping studies.

New online survey methods

Online surveys; respondents follow an emailed link and response to a series of questions online. With high and growing Internet penetration, and faster broadband and mobile Internet speeds, this enables rapid, cost-effective, multi-media quantitative research. There are also many well established panels able to reach various niche and multi-country demographics. In addition, ‘easy’ language translation enables surveys to run at the same around the world.

Digital market research
Completing an online survey

Online focus groups; real-time online discussions over a set period e.g. 2 hours (so-called synchronous research); useful to reach remote/difficult to find respondents.

Online communities; respondents join a community and answer/discuss questions, interacting with each other and the moderator.  Useful to gauge reactions to communications and products. Also to ‘pressure-test’ plans and build ideas.

Bulletin boards; password protected forum, accessed via a browser, where respondents login at any time and respond to moderator led discussion. These usually last 3 to 6 days (so-called asynchronous research);  useful for product placement, assessing first and later impressions/experiences, engaging the digitally savvy, exploring the digital world, and also developing ideas. There is a growing range of digital software and functionality allowing for more sophisticated and customised research solutions.

Insight platforms: there are also a growing range of multi-function research platforms. Most recently we counted 700. Functionality includes ability to run online focus groups (with automated transcription) plus facilities to ask survey questions, complete online diaries (and upload images, videos and other files). Also to review product literature, designs and adverts.

New social media functions

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram; useful for online and offline recruitment, dipstick research, and also to gain anecdotes, perhaps at the start of a new product development process.

Social media services : You Tube, Twitter. Instagram, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Facebook
Social media services

Social media analytics and social media listening tools; useful to assess national sentiments, for example, via ‘big data’ analysis of tweets etc. It also possible to analyse emotional response from emojis. In November 2016, social media analytics correctly predicted the outcome of the US Presidential election in contrast to the national polls.

Facial recognition; using software that’s more discerning than the human eye to determine emotional engagement (such as happiness, fear, surprise) with TV advertising, TV programmes or films. Also enables better film editing and story-telling.

Digital research pros and cons

Some groups have particular affinity with the digital world and are easier to engage e.g. kids/youth market. The anonymity of the online world also encourages participation and openness.  Early technology adopters are useful to pressure-test new ideas and anticipate the future.

Some digital media offer an almost ‘instant’ sample. For example, polls on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. A high-number of engaged followers are needed to generate fast and cost-effective insights.

The growing range and extent of online communication, for example via smartphones, make it easier to reach a wide geographic target. Thus avoiding travel and sometimes communication costs. In-built cameras make it easier to collect visual or audio insights.

More complex technology, such as that involved in online qualitative research is a little more difficult to master. So allow time for set-up, to help respondents as well as moderate and analyse research. In particular, this means it is sometimes more expensive than face-to-face discussions.

Online moderation is more difficult. The process is often more linear and mechanical thus limiting ability to pursue all avenues of exploration. There are also visual limitations. Zoomed in head shots or screen size room views, make it difficult to see the big picture, and thus see non-verbal responses. Qualitative responses also vary between the superficial and detailed. Initial superficial responses require more probing. Conversely, unduly verbose responses, especially if written, are time-consuming to follow and interpret.

Summary of traditional vs digital research pros and cons

A summary of each approach is outlined below:

Traditional vs. Digital Research Pros and Cons
Traditional vs Digital Research Pros and Cons

Marketing Inspiration

  1. Digital research methods are welcome additions to the market research tool box.  In particular they provide new ways to recruit for, and conduct research. Thus complementing more traditional forms. In addition, online is a fast and cost-effective way to recruit and survey respondents. It broadens reach, helps identify specific ‘interest groups’ and also mitigates against ‘serial groupies’. Skype, Zoom et al are also a boon to interview those in remote locations.
  2. The choice of research method should follow from your aims and needs. So analyse the pros and cons of each traditional vs digital research method to decide which is best for purpose.
  3. Technology needs selecting, setting-up and managing. It doesn’t automate every task and can fail. Pre-planning therefore needs to be more precise to make sure respondents are able to access and use the systems. As a result, some online qualitative approaches advise running research with two people. One to manage the IT systems, and also a second to run the discussion. All has a time-cost.
  4. Humans are important. There will always be a need for a moderator to ease the journey of discovery and also dig into the detail.
  5. The nature of the social media, means there is more and more data available for analysis. Revealing insights from findings involves understanding what is unsaid, what’s missing, as well as what is said and available. Again this remains a human task.
  6. Combining digital and traditional methods helps provide the benefits of both. For example, using online recruitment methods, or sharing stimuli via email or online.
  7. Don’t fear experimentation. If you don’t try and learn, you won’t.
  8. With a growing range of tools there will be one to help you. So for a bespoke research solution, get in touch with our market research agency.


(1)  Mehrabian Albert H, Silent Messages; Implicit Communication of  Emotions and Attitudes 2nd edition 1981.

New digital research technology?

If you have or know of some new digital market research technology we’ve not covered then please let us know!

Guy is a leading UK marketing consultant with a background at major brands and in the media. He is Founder of The Marketing Directors, a successful research and marketing consultancy working with aspiring and global brands in the UK and beyond. He is co-author of The Marketing Director's Handbook with Tim Arnold.
  1. Pingback: Response to Bush | answerseekers

  2. Guy Tomlinson Reply

    The human brain has been processing data using multiple paths since time began. This is how value is added; though computers can and should help.

Leave a Reply