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Learn about the three main types of survey research and how SurveyMonkey can help you on your next research project.

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Survey research allows you to gather critical insights from a target audience. This guide will walk you through the three main types of surveys—exploratory, descriptive, and causal—to help you determine the right approach and application to meet your research goals. 

To help you develop a survey-based research plan, we'll explore:

Surveys are primary research tools that provide data as part of overall research strategies. Survey research is critical to getting the answers you need, yielding valuable primary research data to make informed decisions about everything from product development to marketing campaigns.

Regardless of how you conduct survey research, it should have the following characteristics:

  • Usage: surveys are used to gather information about human behavior
  • Systematic: survey research follows proven procedures to collect evidence 
  • Replicable: applying the same methods more than once should achieve similar results
  • Types: surveys can be exploratory, descriptive, or casual used in both online and offline forms 
  • Data: survey research can generate both quantitative and qualitative data
  • Impartial: sampling is randomized to avoid bias
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Depending on the type of information you’re looking for and the types of survey research methods you employ, you’ll find that there are several benefits, including:

Surveys are generally easy to conduct, especially online. If you use SurveyMonkey, you can access hundreds of customizable templates that make it easy to personalize your survey research. Our data dashboard transforms your data into charts and graphs that make data easy to understand and use.

Conducting your survey research online is likely the most cost-effective way to gather data. In-person surveys and interviews require trained staff to gather, calculate, and analyze data. 

With surveys, you can collect data from a large population in a short time, providing even more cost savings. Don’t have a list of participants from your target market? A global survey panel such as SurveyMonkey Audience can help you reach the respondents you need.

A key advantage to survey research methods is that they can  collect both quantitative and qualitative data to provide a complete picture of your target audience. Use a variety of question types, such as multiple choice, Likert scale, dropdowns, ranking, and more to obtain quantitative insights. You can also ask open-ended questions to gain the anecdotal information you need to bring individual perspectives to life.

Like any type of research, there are some disadvantages to using surveys, including:

Survey participants may feel that they don’t have to provide honest answers because of the anonymity of taking surveys online.

Respondents may choose not to respond to some questions, which can lead to bias in your results.

If questions and answers are not specific enough, respondents may have difficulty interpreting and answering. For example, a "yes" or "no" question may be difficult for someone who wants to answer “only one time.”

There are several types of research methods. Exploratory, descriptive, and causal are the three main types that we'll walk you through. It helps to familiarize yourself with these types before designing your survey research.

Exploratory research is an important part of any marketing or business strategy. Its focus is on the discovery of ideas and insights as opposed to collecting statistically accurate data. That is why exploratory research is best suited as the beginning of your total research plan. It is most commonly used for further defining company issues, areas for potential growth, alternative courses of action, and prioritizing areas that require statistical research.

When it comes to online surveys, the most common example of exploratory research takes place in the form of open-ended questions for qualitative data. Think of exploratory questions as means of expanding your understanding of your survey respondents. While text-based responses may not be statistically measurable, they will give you richer quality information that can lead to the discovery of new initiatives or problems that should be addressed.

The following are key traits of exploratory research:

  • Contains probing questions: used to understand more about a topic qualitatively
  • Uncovers new details: answers can uncover unknown issues or new solutions as you learn more about your topic 
  • Doesn’t generate  measurable data: as noted with qualitative surveys, the data is not quantifiable
  • Answers the “why”: unlike quantitative research methods seeks to answer why something happened or the motivation behind a behavior

Descriptive research is the most common and conclusive form of survey research due to its quantitative nature. Unlike exploratory research methods, descriptive research  utilizes pre-planned, structured surveys with closed-ended questions. It’s also deductive, meaning that the survey structure and questions are determined beforehand based on existing theories or areas of inquiry. The data gathered is then used to test hypotheses or assumptions.

The goal of descriptive research is to quantify and categorize opinions, attitudes, or beliefs held by a particular population regarding a given subject. For example, a descriptive survey may use multiple choice questions with predefined response options. While not providing the depth of qualitative insights, these standardized questions yield data that can be statistically analyzed and inferred upon. 

Grouping responses into set categories enables you to measure the prevalence of certain opinions or behaviors of your target audience. It also allows for comparison over time to identify shifts in attitudes and trends.

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The following are the key traits of descriptive research:

  • Focuses on the “what” not “why”: unlike exploratory research, descriptive research seeks to define a target audience’s attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. 
  • Quantitative: resulting data is numerical and can be statistically analyzed to identify patterns, averages, and correlations for quantitative insights. 
  • Conclusive:  utilizes quantitative, closed-ended questions that generate numerical data to draw statistically significant conclusions. 
  • Significant: measures the significance of results to determine patterns and trends.

Causal research is also quantitative, pre-planned, and structured like descriptive research. For this reason, it is also considered conclusive. However, causal research goes beyond observation to determine the cause and effect relationship between variables.

While descriptive research observes and quantifies phenomena, causal research actively manipulates variables through experimentation to test hypotheses about causal effects. For example, a causal survey might compare control and test groups to evaluate the impact of different interventions.
The objectives of causal research are two-fold:

  1. To establish connection between variables through quantitative data analysis.
  2. To determine whether a causal relationship exists by intentionally modifying variables and measuring results.

The following are the key characteristics of causal research:

  • Conclusive: research is structured in design, preplanning, and quantitative in nature, allowing researchers to make definitive statements about causal relationships. 
  • Scientific: the goal of identifying cause and effect relationships make causal research more scientific than exploratory or descriptive research.
  • Controlled: control for confounding factors by holding all other variables constant to isolate the effects of the variable being tested. 
  • Ordered: to establish causation, the cause must be proven to precede the proposed effect.
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  • Exploratory research applications include case studies, field observations, focus groups, and interviews.
  • Descriptive research applications include descriptive surveys, descriptive-normative surveys, descriptive analysis surveys, and correlative surveys.
  • Causal research applications include product testing, advertising improvements, customer retention efforts, and community needs.

There are three main formats that research surveys can take: online, on the phone, and in-person. Let’s look closer at each of these formats to determine which is right for your research.

Online surveys are the most common form of survey used today. This low-cost survey format is the easiest way to reach a group of people—especially larger audiences. A variety of organizations, including educational institutions, businesses, healthcare organizations, marketing agencies, and more use online surveys.

The benefits of using online surveys:

  • Accurate results: Online surveys have a very low margin of error because they are extremely convenient for most people to complete. 
  • Human error is minimized:: When you’re ready to analyze the data, a survey platform can perform complex calculations for you.
  • Respondents are anonymous : Online surveys are generally anonymous, meaning they are more comfortable to say exactly what they want without penalty. 
  • Large audiences are accessible: Online surveys allow you to reach a global audience. For example, with SurveyMonkey Audience, you can reach your target market with up to 5,000 complete responses.
  • Flexibility: Online survey technology allows researchers to use skip logic based on a participant’s answer to a question. With this feature, the survey is tailored to each person as they proceed through the questions.
  • Quickstart templates: SurveyMonkey offers many free, customizable survey templates to help you get your survey ready quickly—add branding such as logos, images, fonts, etc.

Once a very popular method of gathering information, the use of phone surveys has declined with the rise of digital surveys and the fading use of landline phones among most households. 

Phone surveys provide a way to reach a large sample economically compared to in-person methods. However, they do require significant time and staffing to administer.  

Key downsides of phone surveys include the risk of human error, specifically skewed data due to  transcription errors; as well as less candid feedback since respondents speak directly to the interviewer.

Face-to-face interviews can yield rich, detailed insights through direct conversation and observation, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive for large samples. Survey interviewers must be fully trained to obtain high-quality data that takes advantage of this format. For example, they must recognize and note body language cues, ask relevant follow-up questions, and probe for more information when necessary.

In addition, there is also the risk of multiple types of survey bias with in-person interviews—read more about them here.

Research surveys are valuable for gaining insights that inform decisions and strategy. For example, a restaurant owner may survey customers to improve service. A political campaign could poll constituents to sharpen messaging. Or a software company might seek feedback from users to guide product development.

Regardless of the end goals, there are four main reasons for conducting research surveys.

  1. Surveys provide hard numbers: When you administer a survey that yields quantitative data, you can gain hard numbers to back up your decisions. Hard numbers are also useful when bringing research to stakeholders for decision-making—if you can prove that customers prefer one product feature over another through quantifiable data, it’s more powerful.
  2. Surveys provide ongoing benchmarks: Data patterns that point to trends are incredibly powerful when identified in your research, as opposed to data about what your customers want. Consider the Net Promoter Score® (NPS), which gives you an idea of where your company loyalty stands. If you repeat the NPS quarterly and notice that the scores are declining, you can then take action to investigate and fix the problem.
  3. Surveys can reach large audiences: Larger audiences are necessary for research validity and generalizations for a particular population in some cases. Online surveys created and administered with platforms like SurveyMonkey are much more convenient for large groups, as they are mobile responsive. 
  4. Survey anonymity promotes candid feedback: Online surveys allow participants to remain anonymous, encouraging open and honest opinions. Anonymity removes barriers, allowing people to provide more truthful, candid responses without fear of judgment.

Before creating your survey, clearly define your research goals and target audience. Consider timing, length, structure, question wording, and incentives to optimize responses. To gather high-quality, actionable data, here are a few survey design tips to help you start designing your survey. 

Related: Surveys 101

  • Develop research questions that relate to your goals. Remove any unnecessary or redundant questions that don't provide useful insights.
  • Organize the survey logically, starting with easy and non-sensitive questions before moving to more complex or personal ones.
  • Keep language simple, avoiding technical jargon or complicated phrasing that may confuse participants.
  • Limit survey length and fatigue where possible to maintain participant engagement.
  • Entice participation with incentives like discounts, points, or gift cards as a thank-you for responding.
  • Test the survey before launch to refine questions and overall flow based on feedback.

Leveraging the right mix of exploratory, descriptive, and causal research is key to meeting your survey objectives, whether for business, academic, or other needs.Ensuring your research plan includes the right types of surveys will set you up for success. The combination of quantitative and qualitative data gathered through well-designed survey research will provide the level of actionable insights you need to inform smart strategy and decision making. 

Get started today. And if you need help acquiring survey respondents, visit SurveyMonkey Audience or choose the plan that best suits your research needs!

Net Promoter®, NPS®, NPS Prism®, and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld. Net Promoter Score℠ and Net Promoter System℠ are service marks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.

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