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Primary Research Tips and Techniques: Going Beyond Online Searching
Volume 41, Number 1 - January/February 2017

Ever confronted what I call the researcher’s dilemma? That moment when you numbly realize the answer to your reference question, or the complete response to a research project, just isn’t online.

What happens when your online research does not provide the data you need? Do you keep searching while the hours go by? Assume the answer is “out there” if only you used the “right” search strategy? Log on to the next fee-based service in hopes of getting a different result? Deal with a pounding heart and dry mouth by leaving the office, taking a walk, cleaning a closet, taking a nap, or freaking out? Or do you decide on the alternative approach of primary research?

By relying solely on what others have written, you limit yourself to their objectives, their methodology, and their point of view. Because that information is accessible to everyone, you lose competitive advantage. Furthermore, it might be anecdotal, incomplete, unfocused, or outdated for your needs. One way to verify data retrieved online is through primary research.

By designing your own primary data collection plan, you tailor specific questions to be answered by sources of your choosing. The findings, analysis, and recommendations are your own. The deliverable is unique and tailor-made to address the specific needs of your client.

The best of all worlds? Use online secondary information to form essential background insights that will optimize your primary research findings. You can leverage your secondary research to develop a list of primary sources to interview. While you might not be as comfortable picking up the phone as using a search engine, you can develop the skills needed to elicit answers from the “source.”

Plumbing the Depths of a Research Project

To put this in perspective, here’s an example of an actual research project, from the plumbing industry, that required primary research.

Client: Marketing director of one of the largest privately held companies in the U.S.

Objective: The client is seeking to understand more about the nonresidential plumbing market. While the company plays in both the residential and nonresidential space, e.g., commercial, education, government, transportation, hospitality, senior management believes more ground can be gained on nonresidential opportunities.

Key intelligence topics specific to the nonresidential market: Where to compete? How to compete? How to win?

The project focused on a combination of market intelligence (market size/share perspective), competitive intelligence (how competitors are gaining share and creating success), and VOC (voice of the customer—the unmet needs and the factors that drive ultimate purchasing decisions).


To be successful at primary research, you need to start with a clear idea of what you need to know, how you will go about eliciting that information, and what your deliverable will look like. An accurate and well-thought-out plan, designed with the client’s requirements in mind, will serve as your data collection and analysis road map.

Here are some points to consider:

Determine your client‘s requirements for data collection and analysis. Decide on the method of collection (online research with telephone interviews).

Estimate time to complete the assignment by thinking in terms of three phases: pre-interview phase, the interview phase, and post-interview phase. 

Agree on the number of interviews with a mutual understanding of time involved (time to reach the subject, dealing with gatekeepers who can help—or block—access to your subject, conducting the interview, information capture, analysis of interview findings, delivering findings). If a client wants 20 interviews of 20 minutes each, use the three-phase approach to explain how the actual time is more than 400 minutes (6-plus hours) than a simple mathematical calculation would imply. 

Agree on the best sources to interview: key opinion leaders, subject matter experts, Wall Street analysts, competitors, current and potential customers, internal (company) sources.

Create a method of information capture based on what the client wants (summaries of calls with key takeaways, detailed transcripts).

Write an interview script based on the scope questions. Reorder the questions to motivate information sharing.

You want to make sure you and the client are on the same page throughout the project so there are no surprises. An iterative process works best for me. This means regularly scheduled client calls to discuss interim findings, any roadblocks or setbacks, possible changes within the original project scope, any questions, and, of course, feedback.

Here’s a suggestion: It’s unlikely you’ll know the exact number of interviews needed to fill in online gaps. Put a range of numbers in the proposal, or segment the project into phases. Recognize that interviews take time. Don’t be afraid to discuss why with your client.

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Judith Binder is a primary researcher who owns RBSC Corp.


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