Data Collection: What it Is & Methods with Examples

The most critical objective of data collection is ensuring that information-rich and reliable data is collected for statistical analysis so that data-driven decisions can be made for research.  

Content Index

  1. What is Data Collection?
  2. Data Collection Methods
  3. Data Collection Examples
  4. Reasons to Conduct Online Research and Data Collection
  5. Conducting Customer Surveys for Data Collection to Multiply Sales
  6. Steps to Effectively Conduct an Online Survey for Data Collection
  7. Survey Design for Data Collection

What is Data Collection?

Data collection is the procedure of collecting, measuring and analyzing accurate insights for research using standard validated techniques.

A researcher can evaluate their hypothesis on the basis of collected data. In most cases, data collection is the primary and most important step for research, irrespective of the field of research. The approach of data collection is different for different fields of study, depending on the required information.

Data Collection Methods

Data Collection Methods

Phone vs. Online vs. In-Person Interviews

Essentially there are four choices for data collection – in-person interviews, mail, phone and online. There are pros and cons to each of these modes.

  • In-Person Interviews

    Pros: In-depth and a high degree of confidence on the data
    Cons: Time-consuming, expensive and can be dismissed as anecdotal

  • Mail Surveys

    Pros: Can reach anyone and everyone – no barrier
    Cons: Expensive, data collection errors, lag time

  • Phone Surveys

    Pros: High degree of confidence in the data collected, reach almost anyone
    Cons: Expensive, cannot self-administer, need to hire an agency

  • Web/Online Surveys

    Pros: Cheap, can self-administer, very low probability of data errors
    Cons: Not all your customers might have an email address/be on the internet, customers may be wary of divulging information online.

In-person interviews always are better, but the big drawback is the trap you might fall into if you don’t do them regularly. It is expensive to regularly conduct interviews and not conducting enough interviews might give you false positives. Validating your research is almost as important as designing and conducting it.

We’ve seen many instances where after the research is conducted – if the results do not match up with the “gut-feel” of upper management, it has been dismissed off as anecdotal and a “one-time” phenomenon. To avoid such traps, we strongly recommend that data-collection be done on an “ongoing and regular” basis.

This will help you compare and analyze the change in perceptions according to marketing for your products/services. The other issue here is sample size. To be confident with your research you have to interview enough people to weed out the fringe elements.

A couple of years ago there was quite a lot of discussion about online surveys and their statistical validity. The fact that not every customer had internet connectivity was one of the main concerns. Although some of the discussions are still valid, the reach of the internet as a means of communication has become vital in the majority of customer interactions. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of households with computers has doubled between 1997 and 2001.

Learn more: Quantitative Market Research

In 2001 nearly 50% of the households had a computer. Nearly 55% of all households with an income of more than 35,000 have internet access, and this jumps to 70% for households with an annual income of 50,000. This data is from the US Census Bureau for 2001.

There are primarily three modes of data collection that can be employed to gather feedback – Mail, Phone, and Online. The method actually used for data-collection is really a cost-benefit analysis. There is no slam-dunk solution but you can use the table below to understand the risks and advantages associated with each of the mediums:

Survey Medium Cost per Response Data Quality/Integrity Reach (ALL US Households)
Paper $20 – $30 Medium 100%
Phone $20 – $35 High 95%
Online / Email $1 – $5 Medium 50-70%

Keep in mind, the reach here is defined as “All U.S. Households.” In most cases, you need to take a look at how many of your customers are online and make a determination. If all your customers have email addresses, you have a 100% reach of your customers.

Another important thing to keep in mind is the ever-increasing dominance of cellular phones over landline phones. United States FCC rules prevent automated dialing and calling cellular phone numbers and there is a noticeable trend towards people having cellular phones as the only voice communication device.

This introduces the inability to reach cellular phone customers who are dropping home phone lines in favor of going entirely wireless. Even if automated dialing is not used, another FCC rule prohibits from phoning anyone who would have to pay for the call.

Learn more: Qualitative Market Research

Multi-Mode Surveys

Surveys, where the data is collected via different modes (online, paper, phone etc.), is also another way of going. It is fairly straightforward and easy to have an online survey and have data-entry operators to enter in data (from the phone as well as paper surveys) into the system. The same system can also be used to collect data directly from the respondents.

Learn more: Survey Research

Data Collection Examples

Data collection is an important aspect of research. Let’s consider an example of a mobile manufacturer, company X, which is launching a new product variant. To conduct research about features, price range, target market, competitor analysis etc. data has to be collected from appropriate sources. The marketing team can conduct various data collection activities such as online surveys or focus groups.

The survey should have all the right questions about features and pricing such as “What are the top 3 features expected from an upcoming product?” or “How much are your likely to spend on this product?” or “Which competitors provide similar products?” etc.

For conducting a focus group, the marketing team should decide the participants as well as the mediator. The topic of discussion and objective behind conducting a focus group should be made clear beforehand to conduct a conclusive discussion.

Data collection methods are chosen depending on the available resources. For example, conducting questionnaires and surveys would require the least resources while focus groups require moderately high resources.

Reasons to Conduct Online Research and Data Collection

Feedback is a vital part of any organization’s growth. Whether you conduct regular focus groups to elicit information from key players or, your account manager calls up all your marquee accounts to find out how things are going – essentially they are all processes to find out from your customers’ eyes – How are we doing? What can we do better?

Online surveys are just another medium to collect feedback from your customers, employees and anyone your business interacts with. With the advent of Do-It-Yourself tools for online surveys, data collection on the internet has become really easy, cheap and effective.

Learn more:  Online Research

Conducting Customer Surveys for Data Collection to Multiply Sales

It is a well-established marketing fact that acquiring a new customer is 10 times more difficult and expensive than retaining an existing one. This is one of the fundamental driving forces behind the extensive adoption and interest in CRM and related customer retention tactics.

In a research study conducted by Rice University Professor Dr. Paul Dholakia and Dr. Vicki Morwitz, published in Harvard Business Review, the experiment inferred that the simple fact of asking customers how an organization was performing by itself to deliver results proved to be an effective customer retention strategy. In the research study, conducted over the course of a year, one set of customers were sent out a satisfaction and opinion survey and the other set was not surveyed. In the next one year, the group that took the survey saw twice the number of people continuing and renewing their loyalty towards the organization.

Learn more: Research Design

The research study provided a couple of interesting reasons on the basis of consumer psychology, behind this phenomenon:

  1. Satisfaction surveys boost the customers’ desire to be coddled and induce positive feelings. This crops from a section of the human psychology that intends to “appreciate” a product or service they already like or prefer. The survey feedback collection method is solely a medium to convey this. The survey is a vehicle to “interact” with the company and reinforces the customer’s commitment to the company.
  2. Surveys may increase awareness of auxiliary products and services. Surveys can be considered modes of both inbound as well as outbound communication. Surveys are generally considered to be a data collection and analysis source. Most people are unaware of the fact that consumer surveys can also serve as a medium for distributing data. It is important to note a few caveats here.
  3. In most countries including the US, “selling under the guise of research” is illegal.
    b. However, we all know that information is distributed while collecting information.
    c. Other disclaimers may be included in the survey to ensure users are aware of this fact. For example: “We will be collecting your opinion and informing you about products and services that have come online in the last year…”
  4. Induced Judgments: The entire procedure of asking people their feedback can prompt them to build an opinion on something they otherwise would not have thought about. This is a very underlying yet powerful argument which can be compared to the “Product Placement” strategy currently used for marketing products in mass-media like movies and television shows. One example is the extensive and exclusive use of the “mini-Cooper” in the blockbuster movie “Italian Job.” This strategy is questionable and should be used with great caution.

Surveys should be considered as a critical tool in the customer journey dialog. The best thing about surveys is its ability to carry “bi-directional” information. The research conducted by Paul Dholakia and Vicki Morwitz shows that surveys not only get you the information that is critical for your business, but also enhances and builds upon the established relationship you have with your customers.

Recent advances in technology have made it incredibly easy to conduct real-time surveys and opinion polls. Online tools make it easy to frame questions and answers and create surveys on the Web. Distributing surveys via email, website links or even integration with online CRM tools like have made online surveying a quick-win solution.

Learn more: Survey Research

Steps to Effectively Conduct an Online Survey for Data Collection

So, you’ve decided to conduct an online survey. There are a few questions in your mind that you would like answered and you are on the lookout for a fast and inexpensive way to find out more about your customers, clients etc. The first and foremost thing you need to decide what the objectives of the study are. Ensure that you can phrase these objectives as questions or measurements. If you can’t, you are better off looking at other means of gathering data like focus groups and other qualitative methods. The data collected via online surveys is dominantly quantitative in nature.

Review the basic objectives of the study. What are you trying to discover? What actions do you want to take as a result of the survey? –  Answers to these questions help in validating collected data. Online surveys are just one way of collecting and quantifying data.

Learn more: Qualitative Data

  • Visualize all of the relevant information items you would like to have. What will the output survey research report look like? What charts and graphs will be prepared? What information do you need to be assured that action is warranted?
  • Assign ranks to each topic (1 and 2) according to their priority, including the most important topics first. Revisit these items again to ensure that the objectives, topics, and information you need are appropriate. Remember, you can’t solve the problem if you ask the wrong questions.
  • How easy or difficult is it for the respondent to provide information on each topic? If it is difficult, is there an alternative medium to gain insights by asking a different question? This is probably the most important step. Online surveys have to be Precise, Clear and Concise. Due to the nature of the internet and the fluctuations involved, if your questions are too difficult to understand, the survey dropout rate will be high.
  • Create a sequence for the topics that are unbiased. Make sure that the questions asked first do not bias the results of the next questions. Sometimes providing too much information, or disclosing purpose of the study can create bias. Once you have a series of decided topics, you can have a basic structure of a survey. It is always advisable to add an “Introductory” paragraph before the survey to explain the project objective and what is expected of the respondent. It is also sensible to have a “Thank You” text as well as information about where to find the results of the survey when they are published.
  • Decide the question type according to the requirement of the answers to meet analysis requirements. Choose from an array of question types such as open-ended text questions, dichotomous, multiple choice, rank order, scaled, or constant sum (ratio scale) questions. You have to consider an important aspect – Usually difficult analysis requirements will lead to an exponentially complicated survey design. However, there are a couple of tools available to make life easier:
    • Page Breaks – The attention span of respondents can be very low when it comes to a long scrolling survey. Add page breaks as wherever possible. Having said that, a single question per page can also hamper response rates as it increases the time to complete the survey as well as increases the chances for dropouts.
    • Branching – Create smart and effective surveys with the implementation of branching wherever required. Eliminate the use of text such as, “If you answered No to Q1 then Answer Q4” – this leads to annoyance amongst respondents which result in increase survey dropout rates. Design online surveys using the branching logic so that appropriate questions are automatically routed based on previous responses.
  • Write the questions. Initially, write a significant number of survey questions out of which you can use the one which is best suited for the survey. Divide the survey into sections so that respondents do not get confused seeing a long list of questions.
  • Sequence the questions so that they are unbiased.
  • Repeat all of the steps above to find any major holes. Are the questions really answered? Have someone review it for you.
  • Time the length of the survey. A survey should take less than five minutes. At three to four research questions per minute, you are limited to about 15 questions. One open end text question counts for three multiple choice questions. Most online software tools will record the time taken for the respondents to answer questions.
  • Pretest the survey to 20 or more people. Obtain their feedback in detail. What were they unsure about? Did they have questions? Did they have trouble understanding what you wanted? Did they take a point of view not covered in your answers or question?
    • Include a few open-ended survey questions that support your survey object. This will be a type of feedback survey.
    • Send an email to the project survey to your test group and then email the feedback survey also after that.
    • This way, you can have your test group provide their opinion about the functionality as well as usability of your project survey by using the feedback survey.
  • Make changes in your questionnaire on the basis of the received feedback.
  • Send the survey out to all your respondents!

Online surveys have over the course of time, evolved into an effective alternative to expensive mail or telephone surveys. There are a few conditions which need to be met to online surveys however that you must be aware of. If you are trying to survey a sample which represents the target population, please keep in mind that not everyone is online.

Moreover, not everyone is receptive to an online survey also. Generally, the demographic segmentation belonging to younger individuals are inclined towards responding to an online survey.

Survey Design for Data Collection

  • Writing Great Questions for data collection

Writing great questions can be considered by an art. Art always requires a significant amount of hard work, practice, and help from others.

  • Avoid loaded or leading words or questions

A small change in content can produce effective results. Words such as could, should, might are all used for almost the same purpose, but may produce a 20% difference in agreement to a question. For example, “The management could.. should.. might.. have shut the factory”.

Intense words such as – prohibit or action, which represent control or action also produce similar results. For example,  “Do you believe that Donald Trump should prohibit insurance companies from raising rates?”.

Sometimes the content is just biased. For instance, “You wouldn’t want to go to Rudolpho’s Restaurant for the organization’s annual party, would you?”

  • Misplaced questions

Questions should always have reference to the intended context, questions placed out of order or without its requirement should be avoided. Generally, a funnel approach should be implemented – generic questions should be included in the initial section of the questionnaire as a warm-up and specific ones should follow and towards the end, demographic or geographic questions should be included.

  • Mutually non-overlapping response categories

Multiple choice answers should be mutually unique in order to provide distinct choices. Overlapping answer options frustrate the respondent and make interpretation difficult at best. Also, the questions should always be precise.

For example: “Do you like water juice?”

This question is vague. In which terms is the liking for orange juice is to be rated? – Sweetness, texture, price, nutrition etc.

  • Avoid the use of confusing/unfamiliar words

Asking about industry related terms such as caloric content, bits, bytes, mbs, and other such terms and acronyms can be confusing for respondents. Ensure that the audience understands your language level, terminology and above all, the question you ask.

  • Non-directed questions give respondents excessive leeway

What suggestions do you have for improving our shoes? The question is about quality in general, but the respondent may offer suggestions about texture, the type of shoes or variants.

  • Never force questions

There will always be certain questions which cross certain privacy rules and since privacy is an important issue for most people, these questions should either be eliminated from the survey or not kept as mandatory. Survey questions about income, family income and status, religious, and political beliefs etc. should always be avoided as they are considered to be intruding and respondents can choose not to answer them.

  • Unbalanced answer options in scales

Unbalanced answer options in scales such as Likert Scale and Semantic Scale may be appropriate for some situations and biased in others. When analyzing a pattern in eating habits, a study used a quantity scale that made obese people appear in the middle of the scale with the polar ends reflecting a state where people starve and an irrational amount to consume. There are cases where we usually would not expect poor service such as hospitals.

  • Questions which cover two points

What is the fastest and most convenient ISP for your location? The fastest ISP would be expensive and the less expensive ones will most likely be slow. To understand both factors, two separate questions should be asked.

  • Dichotomous questions

Dichotomous questions are used in case you want a distinct answer, for example – Yes/No, Male/Female. For example, the question “Do you think Hillary Clinton will win the election?” – The answer can either be Yes or No.

  • Avoid the use of long questions

The use of long questions will definitely increase the time taken for completion which will generally lead to an increase in the survey dropout rate. Multiple choice questions are the longest and most complex and open-ended questions are the shortest and easiest to answer.

Analyze your survey data to gauge in-depth market drivers that include competitive intelligence, purchasing behavior, and price sensitivity.

Obtain accurate insights with a host of techniques including conjoint analysis, MaxDiff analysis, sentiment analysis, TURF analysis, heatmap analysis, etc. Export quality data to external analysis tools such as SPSS and R Software, and integrate your research with external business applications.