Data Collection: Primary Research Methods Tutorial

In this tutorial we continue our discussion of how marketers collect research data by examining the methods used for collecting primary data. Unlike secondary research, where data is initially obtained by someone other than the marketer, the responsibility for collecting data under primary research falls to the marketer. 

In general marketers can select from two basic approaches to data collections using primary methods:

  • Qualitative Data Collection
  • Quantitative Data Collection

Both methods offer advantages and disadvantages which are discussed in detail in this tutorial.

When marketers conduct research to collect original data for their own needs it is called primary research. This process has the marketer or someone working for the marketer designing and then carrying out a research plan. As we noted earlier, primary research is often undertaken after the researcher has gained some insight into the issue by collecting secondary data.

While not as frequently used as secondary research, primary research still represents a significant part of overall marketing research. For many organizations, especially large consumer products firms, spending on primary research far exceeds spending on secondary research.

The primary research market consists of marketers carrying out their own research and an extensive group of companies offering their services to marketers. These companies include:

  • Full-Service Market Research Firms – These companies develop and carryout the full research plan for their clients.
  • Partial-Service Market Research Firms – These companies offer expertise that address a specific part of the research plan, such as developing methods to collect data (e.g., design surveys), locating research participants or undertaking data analysis.
  • Research Tools Suppliers – These firms provide tools used by researchers and include data collection tools (e.g., online surveys), data analysis software and report presentation products.

Primary research is collected in a research “instrument” designed to record information for later analysis. Marketing researchers use many types of instruments from basic methods that record participant responses to highly advanced electronic measurement where research participants are connected to sophisticated equipment.

As we see in the next sections primary data collection offers advantages and disadvantages for the marketer.

While primary data collection is a powerful method for acquiring information, it does pose several significant problems including:


Compared to secondary research, primary data may be very expensive since there is a great deal of marketer involvement and the expense in preparing and carrying out research can be high.

Time Consuming

To be done correctly primary data collection requires the development and execution of a research plan. Going from the start-point of deciding to undertake a research project to the end-point to having results is often much longer than the time it takes to acquire secondary data.

Not Always Feasible

Some research projects, while potentially offering information that could prove quite valuable, are not within the reach of a marketer. Many are just too large to be carried out by all but the largest companies and some are not feasible at all. For instance, it would not be practical for McDonalds to attempt to interview every customer who visits their stores on a certain day since doing so would require hiring a huge number of researchers, an unrealistic expense. Fortunately, as we will see in a later tutorial there are ways for McDonalds to use other methods (e.g., sampling) to meet their needs without the need to talk with all customers.

Marketers often turn to primary data collection because of the benefits it offers including:

Addresses Specific Research Issues

Carrying out their own research allows the marketing organization to address issues specific to their own situation. Primary research is designed to collect the information the marketer wants to know (Step 2) and report it in ways that benefit the marketer. For example, while information reported with secondary research may not fit the marketer’s needs (e.g., different age groupings) no such problem exists with primary research since the marketer controls the research design.

Greater Control

Not only does primary research enable the marketer to focus on specific issues, it also enables the marketer to have a higher level of control over how the information is collected. In this way the marketer can decide on such issues as size of project (e.g., how many responses), location of research (e.g., geographic area) and time frame for completing the project.

Efficient Spending for Information

Unlike secondary research where the marketer may spend for information that is not needed, primary data collections’ focus on issues specific to the researcher improves the chances that research funds will be spent efficiently.

Proprietary Information

Information collected by the marketer using primary research is their own and is generally not shared with others. Thus, information can be kept hidden from competitors and potentially offer an “information advantage” to the company that undertook the primary research.

Sometimes referred to as “touchy-feely” research, qualitative data collection requires researchers to interpret the information gathered, most often without the benefit of statistical support. If the researcher is well trained in interpreting respondents’ comments and activities, this form of research can offer very good information. However, it may not hold the same level of relevancy as quantitative research due to the lack of scientific controls with this data collection method. For example, a researcher may want to know more about how customers make purchase decisions. One way to do this is to sit and talk with customers using one-on-one interviews. However, if the interview process allows the researcher to vary what questions are asked (i.e., not all respondents are asked the same questions), then this type of research may lack controls needed to follow a scientific approach.

An additional drawback of qualitative research is that it can be time consuming and expensive and, consequently, only a very small portion of the marketer’s desired market can participate in qualitative research. Due to the lack of strong controls in the research design (i.e., not as well structured, fewer participants), using results to estimate characteristics of a larger group is more difficult. Thus, qualitative data collection is generally not used for hypothesis testing. This is not to say qualitative research is not useful, it is very useful if its limitations are understood. It is widely employed for marketing research especially for research for the purpose of discovery, and to a lesser extent, explanation.

Qualitative data collection options include personal interviews, focus groups and observational research which are discussed next.