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Primary Research vs Secondary Research: Pros & Cons | Types

Updated: Feb 27


Weighing scales of primary research vs secondary research.

In this post you will gain an understanding of the key differences between primary research vs secondary research, the pros and cons and how both primary research and secondary research can be applied.


There are a variety of market research methods available but they fall under two main types – primary research and secondary research.

  • Primary research is evidence collected by self-conducted research methods based on key objectives set, while secondary research are previously sourced pieces of information often used at the beginning of research.

  • Secondary research is also known as desk research and can be sourced for free but you are also likely to pay for these resources as well.


Table of contents:


[Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning we get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links at no additional cost to you.]


What Are The Key Differences Between Primary And Secondary Research?


The key difference between primary and secondary research is primary research is more for exploratory purposes and target specific towards research objectives, while secondary research gives more of a feel and a broader picture at the matter at hand to help guide businesses to establish points to investigate further.


Primary research is more valuable in providing insights to help businesses or organisations decide on what strategies to take and tackling problems for a specific situation but there is a place for secondary research as well. Secondary research should be a starting point to access available information straight away to get some idea of what lies ahead before carrying out primary research to help fill in the gaps.


The table above illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of using primary research and secondary research.


Advantages of primary research


The 4 key advantages of primary research are:


1. Relevant to the set of objectives

Is relevant to the set of objectives and will fill in the gaps from any desk research you have done. It can uncover the attitudes, views and opinions of a brand or website amongst both customers and potential customers.


2. Up to date and more accurate

Is up to date and more accurate to the given situation or place unlike secondary research. However, the research needs to be done properly otherwise the research is redundant.


3. Better interpretation of data

The interpretation of the data collected in primary research is much better as this is with your objectives in mind rather than that of someone else who has no connection to your business, which you get with secondary research.


4. Privacy of data

As primary research is carried out by you or on your behalf, then you don’t need to share this information with other companies, so you have an edge over your competitors who are relying on secondary information.


Disadvantages of primary research


Although primary research is hugely beneficial for your business or website, it does come with some limitations that you need to be mindful of.


1. Time consuming

It can be a time-consuming exercise in comparison to secondary research, where for a duration of time needs to be taken to research accurately.


2. Can be expensive

Can be costly when carrying out large international studies or on a continuous basis as it’s been developed for a customised purpose. However, online surveys are relatively inexpensive especially DIY online surveys.


3. Amount of resources required

More resources maybe required in terms of manpower and material dependent on the size of the research project such as a large multi-country continuous survey that runs every quarter. This is in terms of survey setup and data collection.



Advantages of secondary research


The 3 key advantages of secondary research are:


1. Accessibility

Capability to access things straight away as they are available and are likely to be accessible via the internet.


2. Free sources of information

Many of the secondary sources are free but they tend to be broader, so if you are looking for things that are a lot more specific such as market reports or social media monitoring then you will have to pay for these resources and tools.



3. Guidance for further research

Helps to guide further research that may need to be taken (primary research) without wasting time or money going down the wrong path as secondary research may have covered this as a dead end. So, helps to diagnose the research problem and develop an approach to the issue. This is often used in exploratory research for such purposes.


Disadvantages of secondary research


Although secondary research provides key benefits, it does not come without its limitations, which are:


1. Relevancy to the research

The relevancy of the research to the problem at hand as secondary research was carried out for a different purpose and is limited in the insights it can provide.


2. Lack of accuracy

Lack of accuracy due to the objectives, nature and methods used to collect the data may not be appropriate for your given situation.


3. Out of date information

Research may be out of date, so trends, views, technology and the market climate are likely to have changed since the research was done. Therefore, research carried out in the last year or two is usually taken more into account than something that is over 5 years old.


4. The scale of information available

The sheer size of information available can be overwhelming, so it’s best to keep to the task you set out to do instead of going on a tangent and stick with the sources that are most relevant and up to date.



Examples of Primary and Secondary research


Example of primary research

An example of primary research could be through development of research material such as questionnaires, interviewing or observation of target audience, data analysis and interpretation of results for conclusions and recommendations to be made.


Examples of secondary research

Examples of secondary research could be reports done by research agencies or financial data made available by companies. This is normally treated as an initial step in research and helps to build up your knowledge base of the topic of interest, where secondary sources of information can be a goldmine especially with Google search as information is more freely available.


Usually secondary research is a good starting point to set you on your way using the information that is readily available and sets the parameters for more customised research later on. Primary research will fill in the gaps left behind by secondary research as it’s specific to your goals and will give you more of an end product for any money you may invested in this.


Main primary research methods


Primary research is divided into two forms of research - quantitative and qualitative research.


Qualitative research

Qualitative research is exploring the in-depth behaviour, attitudes and opinions of a small group of individuals in a more open manner instead of strictly following a set of questions. These tend to be face to face in-depth interviews or focus groups, where people can discuss the subject at hand openly with guidance from the interviewer. Also, observational techniques like mystery shopping can be used as well.


The three main tools of qualitative research are:


Ethnography and observation

This is more fly on the wall way of observing and listening to these people in certain situations, where people are examined in a specific environment to understand their behaviour. By doing it this way will allow you to go beyond answers given by individuals through observing their real behaviour. This can be at home or in a special environment, so after a period of time as these people are conscious of prying eyes their true selves will eventually emerge.


Depth interviews

These are likely to be direct face to face interviews, where the interviewer can talk at length with individuals at suitable private locations or at their homes. Alternatively, this can be done online using applications like Skype, Zoom or over the telephone. These environments allow individuals to be comfortable in talking openly especially about sensitive subjects and helps gain further insights this way. To help support these interviews a discussion guide will be needed with a relatively unstructured list of topics to follow.

A green dart board with the words focus group with 3 darts hitting the bulleye. This just an another illustration of primary research vs secondary research.

Focus groups

This is where people have been specifically chosen based on a set of conditions like those who watch scary films at the cinema or who bought a specific brand of smartphone in the last 6 months to take part in group discussions consisting of 5 to 10 people led by a person moderating the group. These discussions take place at a special location with viewing facilities or an online portal.


Quantitative research

Quantitative research is where results can be measured by numbers, which is straight forward to understand and pick up for those making the decisions. These quantified results are collected by interviewing a large group of people (from 50 running into the 1000s) that is a reflection of the whole population. Hence with a larger sample size, statistical analysis can be applied to provide better insights such as key drivers of buyers’ decisions, optimal price levels and predicted behaviour.


The following are 3 main methods of quantitative research:


Online surveys

Online surveys are the main method used for consumer research because of its speed and low cost. This type of research method can be managed swiftly and efficiently within minutes to be received on mobiles, tablets and computers in providing data in real time.


If you are looking to run a survey check out - 5 Best Survey Maker Platforms To Consider Using


Telephone interviews

Telephone interviewing is now primarily used for business to business research but can be conducted in less developed countries for consumer research. Telephone interviews tends to last for 15 to 30 minutes and enables the interviewer to probe fully or clarify their answers in a few open-ended questions that may be included in the survey.


Face to face interviews

Not as popular as the other two quantitative methods due to technology, is more costly, time consuming and more of a security risk for interviewers. However, they are conducted in certain situations such as exhibitions, shopping malls and even on the high street.



Main secondary research methods


The key types of secondary research sources tend to be the following examples that you can use:

  • Online search engines like Google is the most obvious place many people start with, as it’s readily available to answer any search queries.

  • Online reports (free or paid) and articles that cover a wide range of topics from market forecasts to the latest trends on Instagram. Mintel is a good example for paid market reports as it covers research on all industries and sectors.

  • If you have a company that has been up and running for a while then it’s best to first utilise the company records you have. However, this is dependent on the research goals you are looking to achieve. From these company records you can tell how many customers you have, where they are located, how much was purchased, what was bought, the average price they paid, the number of visitors to your website. With a more sophisticated database you will be able to dive deeper into the data you have.

  • Trade and business press are another key source that you could explore. Background material to specialised supplements on industries and markets will be included in the news they cover.

  • Get in touch with industry experts, which is another great source you could try. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience in their area of expertise that you could tap into and will help to answer some of the questions you have.

  • Trade and industry bodies

  • Lists and directories

  • Government sources like the country’s census data are good for solid statistical data. Other government sources you may find useful are the US department of commerce for industry data (www.commerce.gov), UN Comtrade (https://comtrade.un.org/) for imports and exports and Eurostat - European office of statistics.

  • The National Intelligence Survey’s online Factbook is great if you want to research different markets worldwide as it covers business information for over 250 countries in providing individual country summaries of the population, geography, the economy, government, communications etc.

  • Databases containing company information such as www.sec.gov, Hoovers or Companies House for financial data will enable you to benchmark competitors.

  • Using social listening tools you can tap into social media to see people’s views and opinions of brands. These social listening tools will help to identify topics of interest and analyse the related posts such as examining the number of brand mentions and what people are saying about the product. Social media analytics can also track the number of likes, shares, impressions and link clicks.


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