5 Primary research

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students must be able to:

  • define primary research and identify the different methods for primary data collection
  • explain the pros and cons of different (primary) data collection methods
  • realise the advantages and disadvantages of primary research
  • understand the key differences between primary and secondary research.

What is primary research?

Primary data refers to information that is collected by the researcher specifically for the project at hand. This method is useful when simply relying on secondary data is not sufficient. Some research questions – such as, what do consumers think of our new brand of soft drink? – require first hand collection of primary data. While it can take time and resources to collect good, rigorous primary data, the benefit is that the data belongs to the researcher or his/her organisation.

Given below are some of the key tools used to collect primary data. It should be noted that primary data can be both quantitative as well qualitative information.[1]


Picture of a woman conducting an interview

Interviews involve one-on-one sessions, either on phone or in a face-to-face context between the researcher and the interview participant. As a result of COVID-19, a lot of interviews were moved online and were carried out on different meeting platforms such as Zoom. Interviews are great for exploring a topic more deeply. For example, a researcher may wish to understand people’s motivations behind making a charitable donation to a particular organisation. A one-on-one approach is far more effective in probing and understanding the reasons behind such an action. Interviews are also useful when one talks to experts. An expert in an area, such as a supply chain can provide useful insights into a problem. With their previous experience, such experts can be a useful addition to a researcher’s list of interviewees. A drawback of interviews is the time spent interviewing different people. It can also become expensive and tedious, especially if interviewees are geographically spread out.


Surveys or questionnaires are structured tools to collect quantitative data. Surveys can be conducted either face to face (for example in a supermarket) or these can also be undertaken on phone. Many surveys are disseminated via email. In other cases, specific individuals (such as employees of an organisation) will be invited to participate in a survey hosted on a specific website. Generally speaking, surveys will be completed by a large number of people so the results can be statistically significant. While surveys can be used to collect textual data, many people do not provide detailed information in writing. Thus, surveys should be used for closed-ended questions (e.g., “do you own a car”, “when did you last purchase a fridge” or “on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is not at all likely and 5 is highly likely, what is the  likelihood of you purchasing a new smartphone this year?”). Surveys need to be well-designed so useful information can be collected. They are not flexible, so all relevant questions need to be inserted before the commencement of the research project.


Observational research requires no interaction between the researcher and the subject. Qualitative and quantitative information is collected on the basis of making a systematic observation and documenting it. While such an approach reduces the chance of researcher’s bias, it is also limited in not providing an explanation for actions undertaken by an individual. For instance, while a retail store manager – with the help of in-store cameras – can see how customers shop in the aisles but he or she may not be able to get an explanation for this behaviour. Similarly, mystery shoppers who are disguised as shoppers and are used by supermarkets such as Coles to evaluate their own service also carry out observational research.

Focus groups

Focus groups are effective at generating a significant amount of information in a limited time. Focus groups are particularly useful when a discussion amongst participants may lead to new ideas or solutions. This primary research method requires the expertise of a good facilitator who can skillfully get all group members to participate. While these are a favourite with some practitioners, care needs to be taken while running a focus group. Some people may not participate at all or may respond in a particular way to fit in with the majority.

Smart devices

A consumer in the year 2022 uses a range of smart devices such as a smartphone, wearable technologies, smart appliances such as fridges and televisions.  Since these devices are connected to the internet, not only do they create data but also store, process and transmit this information. While there can be many ethical questions around what kind of data is being accessed by whom, the fact is that this information can be useful to many businesses.

Social media data: secondary or primary?

This is a point often discussed in the research community. Should data from social media be classified as secondary or primary? It depends on how data on social media is being retrieved. If a social media platform such as Twitter is being used to collect all those tweets with a hashtagged brand (e.g., #Nike) then it must be considered as primary data. This primary data is being collected – firsthand – by the researcher for a specific purpose. Some people may argue that the researcher did not actively seek tweets from account holders. Yet, such a dataset is primary in nature as no one else has compiled this information (with #Nike) for a specific research objective. However, if the same researcher makes use of a report on social media analytics or downloads a report posted on Twitter (e.g., an article on the use of Twitter by 20-something-year-olds), such information may be classified as being ‘secondary’.



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