Marketing Research Methods Part II – Primary Research

In my previous blog, I provided an overview of marketing research, which includes secondary research, primary research, and mixed methods. The first of three articles in this marketing research series went into detail about secondary research. This article will describe important aspects of primary research—both qualitative and quantitative methods.

As a reminder, secondary research seeks out and scrutinizes data that was previously collected, analyzed, and organized for use in making decisions. When you go to your favorite Internet browser and enter a search request, you are conducting secondary research as you seek available data on the subject.

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Primary research involves the collection of new data through methods such as online and telephone surveys, conducting face-to-face interviews, observing your target audience, or moderating focus groups or town hall meetings. Before initiating a primary research study, the researcher determines what has already been studied and concluded on the subject. With a good understanding of what is already known from previous studies, we can focus primary research on specific unanswered questions of interest to the current project. 

Research Methods – Quantitative and Qualitative

There are two major types of primary research methods. As the name implies, quantitative methods involve the measurement of something. This could include the number of patients aware of specialty surgical centers or attitudes toward outpatient vs. inpatient surgery. Qualitative methods seek additional insight beyond the numbers. An example of qualitative research could be to understand attitudes about the post-surgery process from both the patients’ and medical providers’ perspectives, and the most important aspects of surgical care to patients and their loved ones. 


A research mentor once said, “Quantitative research is for projecting an incidence of something to a target population. Qualitative research explains what exists and why it exists, but not the numerical extent of what exists.” 

The type of research is determined by what questions need to be answered. Do we need to project an incidence of something to a target population? For instance, do we need to know the percentage of Atlanta residents that plan to use a specialty surgical center in Atlanta in the upcoming year? Quantitative measures include asking survey participants to indicate awareness, rate agreement or satisfaction, likelihood to use services, and other attitude or behavioral topics using a numeric scale. For example, we can anchor responses to numeric options in agreement questions by assigning a “5” for Completely Agree, “4” for Somewhat Agree, “3” for Neither Agree nor Disagree, “2” for Somewhat Disagree, and “1” for Completely Disagree.

Qualitative research is appropriate when we want to explore a topic or understand a phenomenon better so we can recommend improvements. Questions for qualitative research are usually open-ended such as, “Tell me about your experience in the post-surgical area after your back surgery.” Or, “Tell me about your interactions with the hospital medical staff.”

Sometimes we start with qualitative research to explore a topic in focus groups or in-depth interviews, and then with findings from that research, we form hypotheses and follow up with quantitative surveys to test one or more hypotheses. Other times we conduct quantitative research, and then follow up with qualitative research to gain a better understanding of why survey respondents answered the way they did. The proper design depends on what is already known on the topic, what you must know to make decisions on future programs, as well as your budget and time frame. 

Three Major Steps 

We can divide research projects into three major steps: design, administration, and report writing. Let’s explore each of these steps.

  1. Research Design - What do we want to know? Who can provide answers?

Businessteam working together on project.jpegResearch design begins with the research objective, which can usually be summarized in one to three high-level research questions. These are the questions program managers or other key stakeholders must have answers to so they can make key decisions about program or process changes. Research questions are different from the survey questions we ask of our participants. The research objective frames the entire research study and provides guidance for the design phase. Research questions may include:

  • What are the top features of group health insurance policies that create customer loyalty among the small business market?
  • How do we compare with top competitors from the perspective of our key target audience?

Research design includes a plan to collect and analyze data to provide us with answers to the research questions. It includes a decision about methodology—the plan to measure and analyze certain data, and a sampling design—the plan to speak with or observe people with specific characteristics who can supply the necessary insights. Research design also includes questionnaire design or the outline of discussion topics for in-depth interviews and focus groups.

Research design is constrained by the size of our budget and timeline within which we must have results from the study. For example, using the research questions above, we might want to start with focus groups to form hypotheses and questions that relate to HR managers who are responsible for health insurance recommendations; then, we could follow up with a quantitative survey to a larger sample of HR managers. If budget and/or time constraints do not allow for both qualitative and quantitative research, the program manager along with his or her research partner(s) must determine what is the most critical input for the decision-making process.

business documents on office table with smart phone and laptop computer and graph financial with social network diagram and three colleagues discussing data in the background.jpegAll research methods have pros and cons. Online surveys can be relatively inexpensive, but can be less reliable due to low participation rates and possible misinterpretation of questions. Focus groups can provide a deep dive into a topic area, but can be dominated by one or two strong personalities. We can minimize these potential negative aspects by anticipating them and taking remedial actions. 

For instance, to boost participation rates for online surveys, we may recruit research participants through a telephone or email process, send reminders to research participants, offer a copy of the survey results to those who participate, and “promote” the importance of the research and how findings may help the participant and others. To minimize misinterpretation of questions, we pre-test with a small group of people with the same characteristics as the research participants. If we see questions that appear to be difficult, we re-work them and possibly pre-test again.

Likewise, with focus group moderation guides, town hall discussion guides, or in-depth question topics, we draft the research instrument and test with those who have the same characteristics as our research participants. Review and editing by members of the research team is not sufficient unless they share the characteristics of target research participants. During focus groups, an experienced moderator tactfully calls on those who don’t readily speak up, and asks others with no shortage of opinions to allow other participants to have a chance to speak. Focus groups can include confidential paper and pencil responses to further ensure that issues are identified and discussed. 

We design a sample for the research study based on the target audience from whom we can best gain answers to our research questions. If we seek to understand the top criteria of HR Managers when deciding upon a group insurance company, we need to speak to or send surveys to HR Managers with responsibility for reviewing and recommending group insurance companies. 

If we are conducting a quantitative survey and want to test for significance between segments or perform other statistical analyses, we need a sufficient number of study participants to make those statistical analyses valid. If we are conducting qualitative research, we need sufficient sample to explore the topic and provide data to support findings. Sometimes the sample size grows in a qualitative study as we uncover new topics, or we feel the need to speak to additional participants to see if their feedback is similar or different.

  1. Research Administration – Collecting and Analyzing Data

The output of the research design phase is an overall research plan. The research manager administers and carefully monitors the research plan for quality control purposes. Research administration includes obtaining the sample, recruiting participants if necessary, and distributing surveys. It may also include scheduling focus groups, in-depth interviews, or town hall meetings, and collecting, storing, and summarizing the data for analysis purposes.

Business man holding smartphone with chart symbols concept.jpeg

Research analysis includes tasks such as key entry, scanning, coding and editing, and checking answers for consistency and validity. Quantitative research usually includes a basic frequency distribution of all questions and their responses along with additional cross-tabulations of responses to certain questions compared with other question responses. Cross-tabulations include analysis of responses by demographic data such as male vs. female or employees with 2 or less years tenure vs. employees with 3+ years tenure.

The research manager must review all data, summarize findings, and make inferences regarding possible recommendations supported by data. The research manager often collaborates with other researchers and key stakeholders to review findings and discuss possible conclusions prior to writing the final report.

  1. Report Writing

The final step in the research process is to write the report, summarizing what was done, the research findings, and making recommendations based on the findings. Final reports usually contain an executive summary and sections based on key findings. Final report structure is determined by the needs of the client as well as the findings of the research. A final report is often presented to the client and key stakeholders as part of an interactive discussion.

Quality control is built into each phase of a research study. In the final report, we summarize the steps we took during the design, administration, and report writing phases to create a quality, reliable study. We also point out any limitations in the use of the data. For instance, qualitative data cannot be used to project or predict results across an entire population. Quantitative data have limitations as well such as potential differences between those participating in the research and those not participating.

Stay tuned for the discussion of the best of both worlds—Mixed Methods, to be discussed in Part III of this Marketing Research Methods series.

What are some of the challenges you face in marketing research? Share below.


CATMEDIA is an award-winning Inc. 500 company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1997, the company specializes in advertising, creative services, media production, program management, training, and human resource management. As a Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), CATMEDIA provides world-class customer service and innovative solutions to government and commercial clients. Current CATMEDIA clients include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

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Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

About Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Gloria Pobst helps organizations and work groups drive performance through change management, leadership development, and action learning. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research, including ethnographic methods. You can connect with Gloria via Twitter @GloriaPobst or LinkedIn.

View all posts by Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

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