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Primary vs. secondary research

Find out what the difference is between primary and secondary research, and why you may need both.

Research is essential to making informed business decisions from branding to strategy to packaging. All types of research methods fall into two categories, primary and secondary. Most studies actually begin with secondary research. Let’s take a closer look at both types of research and how you can use them in your organization. 

What is primary research?

Primary research is a methodology for directly collecting data for your own use. Individuals and teams conduct primary research through surveys, interviews, observations, and focus groups. This type of research generally focuses on a specific question, hypothesis, or business need. Primary research is exclusive and original.

Primary research is the most reliable and accurate because you are collecting the data directly and analyzing it with your own goals in mind. For example, you may conduct primary research to gather feedback about customer satisfaction that will inform product or service improvements.

While it is the most reliable method, primary research does have some limitations. It is time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes requires further primary research studies or secondary research to fully understand the question at hand.

However, the most thorough research usually requires both primary and secondary methods.

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What is secondary research

In secondary research, you use existing research data from reliable sources to help solve your problem or answer your question. Secondary research is usually conducted online or from books, trade journals, library databases, or existing research from within your own company. It may be quantitative or qualitative in nature.

Some of the advantages of secondary research include low financial commitment, ease of obtaining data online, less time consuming than primary research, useful in filling knowledge gaps, and acts as a foundation for primary research. 

Disadvantages or limitations of secondary research include lack of control over data and methodology, data not collected with the current research goal in mind, the study may be out of date, and secondary data needs to be verified.

The main goal of secondary research is to analyze the collected data from the previous studies and apply it to the current research context. 

Primary vs. secondary research

Both primary and secondary research can be useful in meeting your market research objectives. The two methods complement each other and together can provide you with the most comprehensive data to meet your research needs.

While useful jointly, primary and secondary research methods are conducted differently and serve different purposes.

Purpose of each

Some of the purposes of primary research include:

  • Gathering first-hand information about your target market
  • Informing product development
  • Answering specific questions to advance business goals
  • Collecting data that is authentic, accurate, and relevant to your needs
  • Creating research that follows the methodology you have determined
  • Delving deeper into the results of your secondary research

There are several reasons to conduct secondary research. Remember, it is usually performed before you start your primary research. You may use it to:

  • Save time and costs because it is more economical than primary research
  • Provide the foundation for your primary research
  • Identify and fill knowledge gaps in current primary research
  • Identify market trends
  • Augment your primary research
  • Uncover new business insights

Data sources 

In primary research, your data is collected via surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observation. All sources of data are collected directly by the team conducting the research. 

Secondary research sources include database information, government websites, trade body statistics, textbooks, research journals, media stories, and other sources that are not generated by the team conducting the research. These sources are generally available online and are easy to access.

Data analysis 

When you’re conducting primary research, you have full control over how the data is analyzed. The analysis will directly correlate with the question or hypothesis you’ve posed, and your conclusions will be directed toward an answer. 

As for text answers, don’t be intimidated by a large quantity of qualitative data from open-ended questions. Our text analysis tool will quickly turn those responses into actionable insights.

Secondary research data has been analyzed by the researcher who performed the study. The information will be skewed toward their questions and finding the solutions they need. You’ll need to reanalyze the data with your business goals in mind.

Data accuracy 

When conducting primary research, you can rest assured that your data is accurate. You’ve collected it using your own methodology and maintained its authenticity throughout the process.

In secondary research, you cannot always count on accuracy. Only use data from a reputable source and review the methodology for collection. If you can’t find the information you need to verify the data, contact the researcher directly for the methodology details. If you can’t verify the integrity of the data, find another source.

Time 

Primary research is time-intensive. You must carry out the data collection yourself, including creating and conducting surveys, holding focus groups, and interviewing subjects. You then have to analyze the data and apply it to the problem you’re trying to solve. Conduct market research easily and in less time with SurveyMonkey.

Secondary research is fast in comparison to primary research. It is also called “desk research” because most of it is conducted online via computer searches. The data you gather in secondary research has already been collected and analyzed, so it’s just a matter of downloading it and applying it to your needs. 

Cost 

Research can be expensive, but expenses are dependent on the type of research you’re performing. For example, suppose you’re conducting focus groups. In that case, you may need to hire a moderator, pay to train them, rent a space for the group to meet, purchase recording equipment to document the sessions, and buy food and incentives for participants.

Most of what you collect will be free of charge when you do secondary research. You may need to pay small fees to view and use data or access certain websites, but the cost is generally minimal.

Examples of primary and secondary research in marketing

To put primary and secondary research in context, let’s look at some examples of using both research methods together:

Coffee shop example

A new local coffee shop is considering adding a line of organic items to its menu. Before jumping into this new venture, they decide to conduct some research to determine whether this is a good idea for their business.

They begin looking online for studies relating to consumer interest in organic options in restaurants. They discover a recent study online that indicates that using organic ingredients offers advantages regarding perceived food quality, attitudes towards restaurants that use them, and willingness to choose restaurants that offer organic options over restaurants that don’t. The methodology is sound. A second study contains a forecast for continued growth in the organic foods market. 

The shop also finds media articles confirming that organic menu items are on the rise in popularity in restaurants, from tiny delis to large, luxury restaurants.

With that information in mind, the shop owners use a customer feedback survey to ask their current patrons questions about their desire for organic food and coffee. They offer samples of organic dishes in their shop. They post images and information about the introduction of organic items to their menu on social media and monitor the responses.

The result is a new, successful launch of an organic menu.

Primary research methods: Consumer feedback surveys, in-store product testing, social media monitoring

Secondary research methods: Existing data from studies available online, media sources 

New product launch example

Your business is considering introducing a new exercise app for senior citizens. To ensure that this is a sound business decision, you search the internet for information about the topic. 

You find articles encouraging people over 65 years old to engage in moderate aerobic exercise at least two hours a week and strength training two days a week. Several websites contain articles that are aimed at encouraging older adults to exercise. You also find two separate studies about the health benefits of exercise—one about aerobics and one about strength training. What you can’t find is information about motivating older adults to engage in exercise, which is one of the main purposes of your app idea.

To fill that knowledge gap, you send an online survey to your target market and ask them both quantitative and qualitative questions about exercise and lifestyle, including motivating factors. Because your audience may be less tech-savvy, you also conduct a telephone survey with similar questions.

Your data reveals valuable information that can be used to fine-tune your app to meet the needs and desires of your target market.

Primary research methods: Online survey, telephone survey

Secondary research methods: Existing data from studies found online, media sources

Use both primary and secondary research

For the most thorough market research, it’s best to use both primary and secondary research methods. SurveyMonkey has the tools to help you refine your data with primary research. Get started today.

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