Marketing Research

Are In-Person Surveys Better Than Online Surveys?

Arm and Hammer

Online surveys have become the default mode of data collection in the market research industry. They can be completed quickly and cheaply, and they allow researchers to display images, videos, and audio stimuli. However, online surveys may not always be the right data collection method for every survey. For some projects, an in-person survey is a better methodological choice. This article discusses the capabilities of in-person surveys, the limitations of in-person surveys, and how to combine online and in-person surveys to get the best of both worlds.

The Capabilities of In-Person Surveys

In-person surveys have several capabilities that online surveys may not be able to provide. In-person surveys:  
  • Can be conducted anywhere: In-person surveys can be conducted anywhere qualified respondents may be found. This might include interviewing passersby in shopping malls with dedicated research facilities. Or, it could mean interviewing players on public basketball courts, or consumers in a downtown shopping or business district. If the research needs to be conducted in a retail store where products are purchased, in-person surveys can make that happen. Or, if interviews need to be conducted in consumers’ homes where products are consumed, in-person interviewing can make that work.
  • Use trained, professional interviewers: Conducting in-person surveys allows a trained interviewer to provide assistance, answer questions, and ensure respondents remain focused and engaged while completing the survey. And, if privacy is needed for the respondent to self-administer the survey, the interviewer can step away to provide privacy, but remain close by in case the respondent needs assistance.
  • Can stimulate all 5 senses: Other survey modes might be able to display audio and video stimuli, but in-person surveys can let respondents touch, taste, and smell products, too. If the survey needs to allow respondents to touch a soft fabric, taste a new food, or smell a new perfume, in-person surveys might be a better option than online.
  • Allow researchers to control the interviewing environment: In-person surveys can be conducted in mall facilities where simulated store shelves and signage can be displayed for respondents to respond to or interact with. And, if it is important for respondents to answer based on their own knowledge, Internet usage can be restricted to ensure that respondents can’t search for ideas or information online.
  • Can sample hard-to-reach respondents: In-person surveys can reach respondent groups with low Internet penetration. Senior citizens, non-English-speakers, and low-income respondents might be less likely to have Internet access or less likely to join online research panels. But, they might be found in malls, shopping districts, and other public places where in-person surveys can be conducted.

The Limitations of In-Person Surveys

Despite all of these potential advantages, in-person surveys are not a perfect research methodology for all projects. Depending on the researcher’s needs, it might be better to use a different survey mode. In-person surveys:
  • Can take longer: In contrast to some online surveys that can be completed in a matter of hours, in-person surveys can last for days or even weeks, depending on the incidence of the respondent qualifications and the sample size needed. Given the same incidence and desired sample size, in-person surveys may be a more time-consuming survey method than online or other survey methods.
  • Can cost more: In-person surveys require an interviewer to recruit, screen, and interview each respondent. And, they get turned down – a lot! Just paying for one interviewer’s time increases the cost per interview compared to an online survey. Multiply that by the number of interviewers in a given location, times the number of locations, times the number of days or interviewing shifts, and it’s easy to see why in-person surveys can be more expensive than online surveys. If you need to ship heavy, bulky items to interviewing locations, that adds to the cost. Finally, respondents might demand a higher incentive for in-person surveys than they do online, all of which can add to research costs.
  • Can be complex to manage: In-person surveys can require greater logistical coordination and supervision than online surveys. In-person surveys are often conducted by multiple interviewers in multiple locations. That means the research project manager needs to brief each interviewer on the respondent qualifications, recruiting and screening methods, and interviewing procedures. None of that is required for an online survey, because those are simply coded into the online program. And, if the interview requires respondents to react to physical stimuli (to touch, taste, or smell), then those stimulus items need to be shipped to each interviewer or interviewing team or location. All of this requires logistical coordination that you won’t find discussed in most marketing research courses.
  • Allow for interviewer error: No one is perfect, and there will always be room for interviewers to make mistakes. No matter how clear you make the instructions, some interviewers just aren’t going to understand what they need to do. And even those interviewers who understand perfectly may forget some instructions every now and then. As a result, in-person surveys should be validated to verify that they were completed properly. That means some of those expensive, time-consuming interviews might need to be discarded, if the interviewer didn’t properly following instructions.

Combining Online and In-Person Surveys

Of course, the market research world is not black-or-white, and researchers don’t need to choose between exclusively online or exclusively in-person surveys. These methodologies can be combined to offer the best advantages that both have to offer. Surveys can begin in person, with an interviewer handling recruiting and screening responsibilities. Then, respondents can be placed in front of a computer, or given a tablet or laptop, to complete the remainder of the survey online. This incorporates many of the benefits of in-person surveys, but reduces the potential for interviewer errors in survey administration. So, the next time you start writing that online survey questionnaire, give some thought to the needs of the project. It just might be the case that an in-person survey would be a better way to go.

Conducting Your Next Survey

For help with your next market research survey (in-person or online), contact the survey experts at MMR Strategy Group.

Dr. Justing Anderson, Vice President Dr. Justin Anderson
Vice President
MMR Strategy Group

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