Primary Research Methods Explained

If you’re looking for targeted, relevant data which is optimised for your specific needs, primary research could be the solution.

What is primary research?

Primary research definition

Primary research is data which is obtained first-hand. This means that the researcher conducts the research themselves or commissions the data to be collected on their behalf. Primary research means going directly to the source, rather than relying on pre-existing data samples.

This type of research is particularly relevant where the data collected needs to be specific to the context. For example, a company may perform primary market research to discover customer perceptions of their brand. This could not be collected from any existing data source as it is unique to the business.

Primary research can also help to position a person or company as an authoritative figure in the field. The research may then be quoted by other authors, who reference the original researcher as the source, further increasing their position. However, the researcher retains full control over the data, as the data owner.

You don’t have to be an expert to conduct primary research. It can be done by people at all levels, from students who require data for their university projects to market researchers who want to gauge reactions to a new product.

Primary vs secondary research – the differences

There are two types of research: primary research and secondary research. Every method of conducting market research falls into one of these categories and it is important to understand the difference between the two.

The key difference between these two types of research is that primary research is collected first-hand whilst secondary research is gathered from pre-existing studies.

Primary research is also referred to as field research. It involves original research, which is carried out first-hand, often for a specific purpose. It can be conducted through a range of methods including questionnaires or surveys.

Questionnaires vs surveys – what’s the difference?

One describes the set of questions you ask an individual, the other the process of collecting and interpreting data from many individuals. Know the difference?

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Secondary research is also known as desk research. This type of research relies on pre-existing data sources such as company websites, articles and market research reports. It is generally carried out at a desk, either offline (via books, research documents, etc) or online (via websites, pdf reports, etc).

Most market research will typically begin with secondary market research. This is usually initiated by typing a query into a search engine and is used as a knowledge basis from which to conduct further investigations. Once it is established what data already exists, the researcher can then decide whether to proceed with primary research or to delve deeper into secondary research.

Primary research is often seen as being more valuable than secondary research as it answers a specific question rather than relying on second-hand data which was originally collected for another purpose. This means that primary research is generally more conclusive than secondary research. However, it takes more time to conduct this type of research and is therefore more costly.

Types of primary research

There are many ways of gathering primary research. The most suitable method will depend on the questions you want to answer and the problem you’re trying to solve. The most common primary market research methods are interviews, surveys, focus groups and observations.


Interviews take the form of a one-to-one or small group question and answer session, which can be conducted over the phone or in a face-to-face environment. Interviews are most useful where a large amount of information needs to be collected from a small sample of subjects. Interviews are often used to obtain information from an expert about a specialist topic. This type of research is highly personal, so follow-on questions can be asked to ensure clarity.


Surveys are most frequently conducted online using paid or free survey tools and offer a convenient and cost-effective solution where a response is required from a larger population. Questions are pre-written, offering the respondent little flexibility if their answer doesn’t fit (making functionality such as skip logic essential) and response rates can be variable. The length of a survey is a delicate balance: if a survey is too long, participants may get bored and leave the survey incomplete. However, if the survey is short, not enough data will be collected to form a full picture.

Focus groups

Focus groups are used to collect data from a small group of people who are often subject matter experts in the topic of research. Discussion is initiated between the group members to discover their thoughts. This method is commonly used by businesses to gain insight into niche markets and learn about their customers.


Observations are carried out impartially, by simply observing an event and taking organised notes. In this method, there is no direct interaction between the researcher and the subject. This method removes the potential bias which could be encountered during an interview or survey as the encounters observed are genuine reactions. Observations can be carried out by camera or by a trained observer. This method is commonly used by toy manufacturers when testing their products on children.

Advantages and disadvantages of primary research

Primary research has many advantages, although it is not the most appropriate type of research for every situation. It is important to consider the individual requirements before deciding on the most appropriate research method for the situation.

Advantages of primary research

Primary research methods offer a targeted approach to market research. This allows specific issues to be addressed, keeping the research completely relevant to the objectives and scope of the project. This means that the research is specific to the individual market, rather than the mass market.

This type of research also allows the marketer to have complete control over the methodology used, along with the representative sample size and the sample selection process. This helps to further improve the relevancy of the research to the person or organisation.

Secondary research is often outdated and may no longer be accurate for the market the researcher is trying to target. Primary research guarantees that the information collected is up-to-date and relevant, enabling accurate trends to be revealed.

Primary research also allows the person or organisation to control ownership of the data. They may choose to release the information to enhance their position as an authority in the field, or they may choose to keep the data private to avoid giving competitors an advantage.

Disadvantages of primary research

The main disadvantage of conducting primary research is the cost involved in the process. Secondary research can often be collected without cost, whilst primary research is more involved, increasing the cost of obtaining it.

Primary research can also be time consuming to carry out, especially if a large sample size is required. The time required to effectively plan primary research, carry it out and analyse the data is much greater than the time taken to conduct secondary research.

Inaccuracy must also be accounted for. Respondents may be biased based on their previous experiences with an organisation or may not fully understand a question on a survey, leading to misleading or inaccurate responses.

Using surveys as a primary research method

Surveys are a cost-effective method of sampling a large group of people. They involve a series of easy to answer questions which are generally multiple choice. This allows quantitative data to be collected and analysed by the researcher.

The multiple-choice questions can also be supplemented with open-ended questions to gather more detailed information and allow thematic analysis to be undertaken.

To sum up, primary research is a great option for individuals and organisations who need original data to meet a specific need or to answer a particular question. It may be more costly and time-consuming than using secondary data, but in many instances the benefits outweigh the associated costs.

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