Last week, UGA/MRII updated its Principles of Market Research (PoMR) online course with a revised module on data-collection methods, authored by Pete Cape, the global knowledge director of SSI. In support of the course, yesterday ESOMAR sponsored a 1-hour webinar presented by Pete.

Pete began by revisiting the origin of an old quote, from Abraham Maslow, the psychologist best known for creating his eponymous hierarchy of needs: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Pete followed up by saying, “We tend to lean towards one data collection method that is our hammer, and therefore every client problem is a nail. But is it a case of caveat emptor, if they come to me, they should expect me to propose an online survey? What if I insist on an online survey because it cheapest or quickest? Well, who am I to prejudge? … Researchers are monodataists – not a real word, I made it up for those of us researchers with one data-collection hammer.”

When Pete was reviewing the textbook that accompanies PoMR, Marketing Research: An Applied Orientation (6th Edition), he was pleasantly surprised to find out that its author, Naresh Malhotra, was anything but a monodataist. Pete had feared that the author would prefer traditional direct-mail collection to newer methods. In fact, Malhotra wrote, “No survey method is superior in all situations.” Pete, in the past, might have argued for the superiority of phone surveys, but “the total superiority of telephone research back in the day was based on my ignorance and swagger. The expert researcher will be aware of methods that are not necessarily their personal or company specialization. This knowledge enables you to advise your clients objectively on the best approach to the research problem.”

Rather than “examine every hammer and its pros or cons,” Pete said that we must ask ourselves the following “three golden questions” to determine the most appropriate tool for a particular job.

  1. How much of this data already exists?
    • None
    • Some
    • All
  2. Do I fully understand how this “thing” works?
    • Yes
    • No
  3. Do I need to ask any questions here or will I get better data from a meter?
    • None
    • Some
    • All

The answers to these golden questions help suggest the data collection methods that will be most “fit for purpose”.

Data Already Exists Fully Understand Problem Need Questions Method(s)
None / Some No None Ethnography, Observation
None / Some No Some Communities (MROCs)
None / Some No All In-Depth Interviews, Focus Groups
None / Some Yes None Audits, Passive, Observation
None / Some Yes Some Communities (MROCs)
None / Some Yes All Online, Mail, Telephone, Face-to-Face, Kiosks
All Secondary research

[The above table is my own shorthand interpretation of tree diagrams presented by Pete. Any errors are my own.]

Sometimes you might need to answer the golden questions differently for different parts of the problem, which might lead you to a mixed-mode solution. This can allow you to optimize the methods, but at the added cost of complexity and paying for more than one method.

“The key is to approach this objectively,” Pete said, “consulting with the client, not simply trying to sell them a hammer. Of the 14 modes, I am not ashamed to admit I have personal experience with only 5 of them and can only call myself an expert in 2 of them. I value the others, but at SSI we only have online or telephone methods. Yet I want to build a deep or valuable relationship with my clients. When I’m honest with them, if that means passing on this project, then so be it. They’ll think of us for the next project.”

Jeffrey Henning (@jhenning) is president of Researchscape International. He is a carpenter ready to strike your survey-research nails.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.