Most research can be divided into three different categories: exploratory, descriptive and causal. Each serves a different end purpose and can only be used in certain ways.
In the online survey world, mastery of all three can lead to sounder insights and greater quality information. Let’s do a quick overview of all three types of research, and how they fit in a research plan.
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.
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When it comes to online surveys, the most common example of exploratory research takes place in the form of open-ended questions. Think of the exploratory questions in your survey as expanding your understanding of the people you are surveying. Text responses may not be statistically measureable, but they will give you richer quality information that can lead to the discovery of new initiatives or problems that should be addressed.
Descriptive research takes up the bulk of online surveying and is considered conclusive in nature due to its quantitative nature. Unlike exploratory research, descriptive research is preplanned and structured in design so the information collected can be statistically inferred on a population.
The main idea behind using this type of research is to better define an opinion, attitude, or behaviour held by a group of people on a given subject. Consider your everyday multiple choice question. Since there are predefined categories a respondent must choose from, it is considered descriptive research. These questions will not give the unique insights on the issues like exploratory research would. Instead, grouping the responses into predetermined choices will provide statistically inferable data. This allows you to measure the significance of your results on the overall population you are studying, as well as the changes of your respondent’s opinions, attitudes, and behaviours over time.
Like descriptive research, causal research is quantitative in nature as well as preplanned and structured in design. For this reason, it is also considered conclusive research. Causal research differs in its attempt to explain the cause and effect relationship between variables. This is opposed to the observational style of descriptive research, because it attempts to decipher whether a relationship is causal through experimentation. In the end, causal research will have two objectives:
For example, a cereal brand owner wants to learn if they will receive more sales with their new cereal box design. Instead of conducting descriptive research by asking people whether they would be more likely to buy their cereal in its new box, they would set up an experiment in two separate stores. One will sell the cereal in only its original box and the other with the new box. Taking care to avoid any outside sources of bias, they would then measure the difference between sales based on the cereal packaging. Did the new packaging have any effect on the cereal sales? What was that effect?
Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing internal or external research, or whether your project's end goal is to improve a business’s image, increase a product’s sales or kick start an initiative’s on the right foot. Finding the proper balance between exploratory, descriptive, and causal research will be a major factor in your goals’ success.