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Choosing the Method of Collecting Data

13 May, 2016 - 16:19

There are various methods of collecting data, both secondary and primary. Secondary sources of information, listed earlier, can be gathered through a number of means. A company may establish a data-gathering/storage system as part of their computer system. Sales, expenses, inventory, returns, and customer complaints are then gathered automatically. Or a company can subscribe to one or more public research companies that gather relevant information. Finally, a company can obtain information on a problem-by-problem basis.

There are three common methods used to collect primary information: observation, questionnaire, and self-report. Observational data collection may be the oldest method. Since the beginning of commerce, merchants have been watching their customers and noncustomers engage in a variety of behaviors. Examples include shopping, purchase, return, complaint behavior, and so forth. A local fast food manager might simply observe the expression on customers' faces as they eat a new sandwich. More formal observation techniques are also employed. Video cameras or audio systems can be targeted at customers. Researchers can also be hired to do license plate surveys in parking lots or simply record observations in a prescribed manner. There are even observational techniques that are quite intrusive. For instance, in the case of a pantry (cabinet) audit, the researcher comes to the consumer's home and actually takes an inventory of products found. Ethnography requires that the researcher practically move in with the consumer and observe various relevant behaviors. This technique is illustrated in the Newsline box that follows.

Newsline: Where's the beef?

A woman in suburban Baltimore is shopping for her family's meals for the week. She cruises past the poultry section, stopping only momentarily to drop a couple of packages of boneless chicken breasts into her cart. Then, the dreaded sea of red looms before her. Tentatively, she picks up a package of beef. "This cut looks good, not too fatty," she says, juggling her two-year-old on her hip. "But I do not know what it is. I do not know how to cook it," she confesses, and trades it for a small package of sirloin and her regular order of ground beef.

Scenes like these are replayed daily in supermarkets across the country. But this time, it is being captured on videotape by New York City-based PortiCo Research, part of a recent ethnographic study of beef consumers for the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) and major grocery retailers. And due in part to the trepidation of this one mother in Baltimore, many grocers' meat cases are now being rearranged to display beef by cooking method, rather than by cuts of meat. Simple, three-step cooking instructions will soon be printed on the packages.

Ethnographic research, which combines intense observation with customer interviews, shows companies how people live with products—how they purchase and use them in their everyday lives. Knowing what consumers do with beef is vital to the NCBA. The study cost the NCBA approximately USD 60,000 (studies might range from USD 5,000 to USD 800,000). PortiCo videotaped consumer's purchasing behavior as well as their preparation habits at home. The researchers interviewed them each step of the way what they thought about beef, why they did (or did not) select particular cuts, and how they prepared the family meal. The retailers could not believe how little consumers knew about something that seemed as familiar to them as sliced bread or soft drinks. 1

The observation technique can provide important research insights, especially if consistent patterns are noted. This method is relatively inexpensive and can be implemented and completed quickly. Unfortunately, interpreting an observation is still very subjective and mistakes are made.

Gathering information through a questionnaire format reflects the most popular research technique. There are two interrelated issues: the design of the questionnaire and the administration of the questionnaire.

There are several rules of thumb that should be followed when designing a questionnaire. For example, a good questionnaire should be like a well-written story: it should be logical, relevant, easy to follow, and interesting to the reader/respondent. There are also a host of techniques and related guidelines. For example, Figure 3.3 illustrates the forms questions can take. A yes/no question is considered a closed-ended dichotomous question; i.e. respondent must check one of two possible answers. Questions 4 and 5 are two types of scaled questions. Questions 6-8 are open-ended, in that respondent can provide any answer desired. Closed-ended questions are best used when the researcher desires a particular set of answers or feels the respondent is unlikely to come up with an original answer. Open-ended questions allow the respondent to come up with personal answers. Of course, there is a risk that the respondent will have no answer.

Figure 3.3 Examples of questions used in marketing research. 

Other considerations are whether to place the easier questions at the beginning of the questionnaire, group similar questions, or place demographic questions at the end of the questionnaire. Again, the goal is to enable the respondent to answer the questionnaire easily and accurately.

The design of a questionnaire is a function of how the questionnaire is administered, and vice versa. Four techniques for administering a questionnaire are currently used: mail, telephone, personal interview, and online. In the mail technique, the questionnaire is distributed and returned through the mail. A typical packet might contain a cover letter explaining the purpose of the research, a copy of the questionnaire, a stamped self-addressed return envelope, and an incentive for compliance (cash, merchandise, contribution to charity, or copy of report). Mail questionnaires allow the researcher to ask a large number of questions over a broad range of topics. They also allow the respondent to answer the questionnaire at their leisure. Finally, the standardized format does not allow for subjective bias. Unfortunately, these advantages can become limitations. The longer the questionnaire, the less likely the individual will respond. In fact, a response rate of 10-20 per cent is common without an incentive. Control is lost through the mail process. Did the targeted person answer the questionnaire? Did the respondent understand the questions? Did she/he complete the questionnaire? Was the questionnaire returned on time? The loss of control also means that the interviewer cannot probe further into an interesting or controversial answer.

A more convenient and faster way of gathering marketing information is to conduct a telephone survey. Names and related telephone numbers can be obtained directly from a telephone directory or from an internally or externally generated database. Telephone surveys are limited in several important ways, such as the difficulty of reaching the correct respondent, the problem of completing the interview if the respondent decides to hang up, and the inability to eliminate the bias introduced by not interviewing those without phones or individuals with unlisted numbers. Also, 10-15 questions are likely to be the maximum number to be asked. Therefore, only a limited number of topics can be addressed. In spite of these limitations the telephone survey method has grown in popularity. The costs are relatively low, research companies can provide well-trained and technically supported interviewers, and the technique works if the research questions are limited and require a quick answer. Still, it would be better if they did not call while you were eating dinner.

Although often very costly and time-consuming, personal interviews may constitute the best way of collecting survey information. Once compliance is gained, the well-trained interviewer can make sure the right person is answering, ask as many questions as necessary, make sure questions are understood, probe in order to address new issues, and encourage the respondent to complete the questionnaire. With freedom comes bias. It is sometimes difficult for an interviewer to maintain objectivity. Asking questions with a certain intonation, changing the wording, or changing the ordering of questions can all modify responses.

There are several online information-gathering techniques that allow the respondent more freedom in providing answers. As one would expect, there has been a recent rapid technological evolution in this area. Online questionnaires can help website sponsors to gauge customer satisfaction, profile visitors, and provide a way to measure traffic for advertisers beyond banner click-throughs. By using research tools such as exit surveys, e-tailers can find out why people are leaving their sites—and why they might not come back.

There are four popular types of online research. Pop-up surveys occur when visitors are intercepted when they leave certain pages of the website. A questionnaire then appears in a box on top of their main browser screens asking for responses. With e-mail/web surveys, a company sends an e-mail message asking the recipient to complete a survey. Sometimes the survey is embedded in the e-mail itself. Other times the e-mail lists either a passworded location to visit or a unique location that only the addressee can access to fill out the survey. Online groups are much like traditional focus groups, but are conducted in a web-based chat room where select individuals are invited by the company or its research firm. Finally, in the case of moderated e-mail groups, discussions take place over a period of time with a group communicating by e-mail. A moderator compiles the answers and sends the summary back to the group for comments and follow-up.

The third technique used to gather research information is self-reporting. This technique allows the respondent to deliver the information in a somewhat unstructured format. One very popular version of this technique is the focus group. A focus group takes place in a room where approximately 8-10 individuals and a trained moderator gather to discuss a particular business problem or set of problems. Often, the room contains a two-way mirror, which the sponsors of the research sit behind in order to observe the process. The proceedings are audiotaped or videotaped. Focus groups have been an extremely popular type of data collecting for a long time. A great deal of diverse information can be gathered quickly (assuming there is a well-trained moderator). However, there are serious limitations. It is still a subjective process and interpretation is necessary. It is also expensive; often several thousand dollars per focus group. Finally, it is difficult to control the behavior of the participants. Some dominate and some say nothing. Some become the equivalent of professional focus group members and no longer are able to provide the hoped-for spontaneity.

According to a psychologically proven premise, it is possible by impersonalizing questions to obtain information from a respondent that he would not, or could not, otherwise provide. This method involves the use of the projective technique, and represents a second type of self-report technique. The intent of the projective technique is to give respondents an opportunity to answer questions without the embarrassment or confusion created by direct involvement. Several projective techniques are employed:

  • Word association tests. In the word association test, the respondent is asked to say the first word that comes into his mind upon the presentation of another word stimulus. The most obvious applications of this test are in research on brand recognition, company image, and advertising appeals.
  • Sentence completion tests. In a sentence completion test, the respondent is asked to complete a number of sentences with the first words that come to mind. A series of sentence completion questions used by a supermarket chain were: (a) I like to shop in an AG supermarket because . . .; (b) I think that food prices are . . .; (c) The thing that bothers me most about food shopping in an AG store is . . .
The sentence completion test is relatively simple to administer and easy to interpret. It is usually difficult, however, to reduce the finding from a sentence completion test to statistical form.
  • Psychodrama. In the psychodramatic type of question, the respondent is asked to project himself into an artificial marketing situation. The obvious artificiality of the situation makes the psychodrama a "role-playing" experiment in which the respondent provides information based on his personal attitudes through his explanation of the artificial situation.

Perhaps the greatest deficiency of projective techniques is the difficulty of presenting the findings. The identification of attitudes, motives, opinions, and so forth is not difficult; however, it is extremely hard to measure the importance of these factors.