Observation is one of the two major ways of obtaining primary marketing research data. The other is by communication. In communication methods, the researcher and respondent communicate verbally, as in writing or via some graphic form. Focus groups and surveys represent approaches that are mostly communicational in nature.

Observation is an alternative method of collecting data that is used extensively in social research (e.g. participant observation) and is suitable for some types of marketing research applications.  For example, several years ago,  the CCME carried out a distribution audit for Heineken in Barbados. This audit was part of the Heineken’s worldwide trade audit at that time.  The process entailed CCME research assistants collecting data not only by asking questions of shop owners (communication) but also by recording a number of observations on the premises on which beer (including Heineken) was sold.

Collecting marketing research data by observation has several advantages over the communication approach. A key advantage is that it allows the researcher to measure actual rather than reported or intended behaviour which can be a limitation in communication methods such as the questionnaire.   It eliminates respondent bias, i.e. errors introduced because respondents cannot remember, do not understand the question or are simply “stretching the truth”.

A second advantage of observation is that certain types of data can only be collected by observation. These would include behaviours that the respondent would be unaware of or unable to communicate e.g. babies’ toy preferences.

A third advantage is that some forms of observation can be less expensive and time consuming that surveys or even focus groups.

Observation marketing research can be used in several forms e.g. mystery shopping, audits and trace analysis.  They require careful planning with the client as research assistants have to be given very specific guidance as to what to observe in order to eliminate, or at least reduce to a minimum, what is known in the research profession as “interviewer bias”.  Contact the CCME for further information on how your company can exploit observation research.