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.
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.
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:
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.
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 sampling.
In-person methods are expensive compared to self-completion, yet they do offer a number of advantages, some of which are listed here:
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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