Companies invest in market research because it gives them hard data upon which to base their important decisions [source: Business Week Buyer Zone]. That data can come in the form of objective numbers (how many times the average consumer buys popcorn each year) or subjective opinions (what each consumer's ideal popcorn flavor would taste like). Once collected, the data is analyzed for buying trends and other patterns of consumer behavior that can help the company make informed decisions about how to design and market its product.
There are two basic stages when conducting market research: primary and secondary. Oddly, secondary research comes first. Secondary research uses existing sources to find information about the type of product a company wants to sell and the current market for that product [source: Business Week Buyer Zone]. Those existing sources could be newspaper and magazine articles, white papers by industry experts or government statistics.
After a company has gathered all of the existing market research available, it's ready to do primary, or original, research. Primary research yields data that the company generates through its own focus groups, interviews and surveys.
There are two kinds of primary research: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research is more in-depth and focuses on getting answers to particular questions and concerns. Examples of qualitative research are focus groups and one-on-one interviews. Quantitative research uses surveys to collect large amounts of data that can be analyzed statistically. Statistical analysis is useful for identifying trends and predicting future buying habits [source: Business Week Buyer Zone].
Surveys, therefore, are an example of quantitative primary research. A survey uses a list of set questions to generate and capture consumer responses. Those responses can either be recorded by the consumer himself or by a researcher asking the questions [source: KnowThis.com]. Surveys are either conducted in-person, over the phone, by mail, e-mail or through a Web site [source: KnowThis.com].
Consumers who respond to a survey are called the survey panel. In statistical terms, the larger and more targeted the survey panel, the more accurate the results are going to be. If you know that your target customer demographic is women between the ages of 25 and 50, you want to survey as many women in that demographic as possible and rule out everybody else. Only then will you get an accurate assessment of what women in that age group generally think about your product.
There are many ways to find survey panels. Phone calls are a popular method ("Is there a man in the house between the ages of 18 and 25?"), as is something called the "mall intercept," where people walking through a mall are stopped and asked if they would participate in a survey [source: American Marketing Association]. Postal mail is another way to distribute surveys. In this article, we'll focusing on surveys taken online.