Marketing Research Techniques

June, 2014

Marketing research methods are diverse and can be categorized in various ways. One classification distinguishes between quantitative and qualitative methods based on the type of data analysis. Another approach to classification focuses on the mode of eliciting data: observation or communication. Within each of these approaches there are many specific marketing research techniques. The most common marketing research methods are surveys and focus groups. Given that businesses conducting or commissioning market research operate under time and budget constraints, virtually all marketing research can aptly be described as applied rather than basic research—the purist form that prevails in academia. Furthermore, marketing researchers take considerable latitude to experiment with new techniques (Maclaran, Catterall, & Hogg, 2011).

Information technology has been used in the execution of marketing research for several decades. Technology-based systems have increasingly automated various aspects of the research process, including data collection, analysis, and reporting tasks. As access to the World Wide Web has become more pervasive, research techniques have increasingly shifted toward the collection of data born in digital form. The emergence of social media sites and applications (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) over the past decade or so has led to the production of massive amounts of data that hold value to marketing researchers. The remainder of this post will focus specifically on marketing research techniques that are applied in the realm of social media.

Digital data are advantageous in that they convey consumer opinion more immediately to the organizations that are interested in understanding it. Computerization certainly speeds up research processes, but in the realm of social media, there is more at stake. According to Patino, Pitta, and Quinones (2012), analysis of social media allows marketers to connect with consumers who express themselves with an unprecedented degree of candor. The novelty of accessing public opinion via social media raises significant business opportunities. Furthermore, social media have shifted the balance of power in marketing communication: “Consumers now want to be partners in marketing rather than be marketed at” (p. 234).

The new media also present challenges, both ethical and methodological. Social media research raises concerns about consumer privacy (especially where children are concerned) as well as about corporate integrity in the collection, use, and storage of data. Furthermore, social media have some inherent weaknesses pertaining to the identity of the persons generating the research data. Many social media fail to convey important demographic information; furthermore, they do little, if anything, to verify users’ identity, creating the potential for misinterpretation of opinion (Patino, Pitta, & Quinones, 2012).

Social media marketing research has a relatively short history. Malhotra (2011) cited a research effort conducted by Del Monte no later than 2007, which involved the analysis of consumer “sentiment and engagement levels” based on analysis of “relevant content from over 50 million blogs, message boards, and media sites” (p. 203). National-level political campaigns in the United States and Canada employed social media research at least as early as 2008 (Elmer, Langlois, & McKelvey, 2012; Towner & Dulio, 2013). Nevertheless, social media tools remain in their infancy, and marketers’ understanding of how to use them for research is necessarily primitive, drawing parallels with the state of “television advertising and survey research in the mid-1900s” (Towner & Dulio, 2013, p. 109).

Consumers around the world have adopted social media at surprising rates since the turn of the millennium. Social media sites and applications amass an ever-growing array of data about individual consumers and segments of society. While these aggregations of data hold great potential for marketing researchers, leveraging them for business purposes is not a simple task. One firm that has done so profitably is Lolly Wolly Doodle, a children’s clothing company that continuously develops new designs, gauges consumer interest via social media, and promptly adjusts its product offerings (Foster, 2014).

There can be little doubt that social media will continue to engage the time and attention of many members of society. In an effort to discern the evolving needs and desires of potential customers, marketing researchers must grow in their capacity to analyze social media data. In short, they must develop new research techniques. Nevertheless, social media research will not fully displace more conventional forms of marketing research. Older media have survived even as new media have become prominent, and new research techniques will not easily edge out conventional ones. Marketing researchers will thus need to master the best of the old and the new.

The data amassed by social media will likely lend themselves to textured, qualitative analysis, thus requiring a shift away from the dominance of quantitative methods. Whereas marketing research has in the past relied heavily on direct communication with consumers, the analysis of social media data will at times lean more in the direction of ethnography—that is, observation of people in their natural environment. To some extent, harvesting marketing insights from social media will come at the cost of consumer privacy. The tension between these factors will surely be the subject of ongoing legislation, and scrupulous ethical conduct may be called for even in the absence of legislation. Finally, it is critical for marketers to recognize that the emergence of online communication makes for a more organic relationship between company and customer. Perhaps more than ever before, savvy managers need to engage actual and prospective customers in the development of valued goods and services; in this process, they cannot afford to avoid the social media environments where so many consumers choose to spend time and voice their opinions.


Elmer, G., Langlois, G., & McKelvey, F. (2012). The permanent campaign: New media, new politics. New York: Peter Lang.

Foster, T. (2014, June). Along came Lolly. Inc., 36(5), 24–36.

Maclaran, P., Catterall, M., & Hogg, M. K. (2011). Methods of market research. In D. Southerton (Ed.), Encyclopedia of consumer culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference. Retrieved from

Malhotra, N. K. (2011). Marketing research (custom). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Patino, A., Pitta, D. A., & Quinones, R. (2012). Social media’s emerging importance in market research. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 29(3), 233–237. doi:10.1108/07363761211221800

Towner, T. L., & Dulio, D. A. (2013). New media and political marketing in the United States: 2012 and beyond. In C. B. Williams & B. I. Newman (Eds.), Political marketing in retrospective and prospective (pp. 103–127). New York: Routledge.

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