How to use quantitative research

You use quantitative research to quantify past, present and future behaviours by your target audience. The results of quantitative research drive the best use of marketing investment.  You should learn key terms and processes like sampling and questionnaire design to be confident in briefing, analysing and making decisions based on quantitative research. 

How to use quantitative research

How this guide raises your game

  1. Identify how quantitive research measures past, current and future behaviour.
  2. Understand sampling and questionnaire terms used by quantitative researchers.
  3. Marketing areas where quantitative research drives decisions and actions.

The ideal way to understand your total audience would be to talk to all of them with every question you have.

This census style study would clearly not be practical.

Censuses take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. This is why they only governments tend to carry them out. And only every five or ten years.

Instead of a census of the total audience, businesses carry out research with a sample of the total audience.

This sample aims to statistically represent the total audience. This approach is called quantitative research. 

When you look at how to use quantitative research for your business, you should have in mind one of these three research goals.

  • Measure past attitudes and behaviours. To understand what consumers did and ask them to rank or prioritise a list of attitudes that drove a particular behaviour.
  • Track current attitudes and behaviours. Usually as part of a brand health style tracking study where an agreed set of measures are tracked at regular intervals.
  • As a predictor of future attitudes and behaviours. To present options to consumers that can be used to test the likelihood a a particular future action.
Quantatitive calculator

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Your research goals

Quantitative research is usually the preferred research approach when your research goals (from your research brief) are to quantify and validate a number of known potential answers to your research questions.

These known answers could be based on historic research, feedback from existing customers, or the result of qualitative research.

So for example, if your new product could be made in ten different colours. But you will only be able to produce three colours for the launch.


Online research

You could use a quantitative study to ask consumers which colours out of the ten available they would most likely buy. You would then produce the most popular three colours. 

Or let’s say you used qualitative research to understand what criteria consumers use to decide which product to buy. And let’s say, the qualitative research identifies price, quality and convenience as options. 

But qualitative research would not tell you which criteria was the most important.

Quantitative research would tell you which of those three factors was most likely to attract the most consumers.

These are examples of future behaviour, but you can also use quantitative research to track past and current behaviours.

For example.

These would be typical quantitative research questions.  

  •  “Which of these websites did you visit before purchase?” would generate a list of the most popular historic websites in your category.
  • “Which of these criteria most drove your decision to buy Product x?” would generate a ranking of the most important historic purchase decision criteria. 
  • “On a scale of 1 to 5 how would you rate Product X, Y and Z for …” (price, quality, convenience etc) would let you evaluate how consumers currently see your product versus competitors.
  • “Which of these ten colours would you be most likely to buy?” would generate you a ranking of the most likely colours to be bought in the future on a new product.

How to use quantitative research – terms

When you commission market research for your business, it’s likely you’ll call in the services of a professional market research company. While you do not need to be a technical expert in statistics and questionnaire design, it is useful to learn some of the key terms that you’ll hear and some of the key questions you should ask to make sure the research is well planned and run to a high standard. This will give you more confidence when it comes to how to use quantitative research.

Closed questions

When the answers are known, and the respondent has to choose from a list of options, these types of question are called “closed” questions. You can spot these types of questions, because they tend to use “what”, “which” or “if” in the way they are phrased. 

So from the example above, the actual research question might look like this. “If you bought product X in the past, which of these three options – price, quality, convenience – was the main influencer of your purchase?”.

Closed questions are best used when you want to ask a large number of questions. Closed questions are easier and faster for respondents to answer. They require less thinking time (to come up with an answer) and only require the time to ‘pick’ the most suitable answer. You can get through more questions in less time.

They are also best used when you need to ask the questions to a large number of people. So that you have a statistically representative sample of the total target audience.

Statistically representative sample 

As mentioned at the start of the guide, census level surveys are expensive and time consuming. Quantitative surveys are less expensive and faster.

But it’s important to understand how the statistical connection between the representative sample and the total population is derived.  

So here are some terms that you should understand and look for when your market research company talks about sample size.

The mean

This is the sum of the values of a question divided by the total number in the population.

Let’s say we ask three people what they would pay for a product, and they respond $10, $12 and $16. The mean is therefore the sum of the values ($38) divided by the total number (3 people) or $38/3 = $12.67.

This is usually called the ‘average’ by most people, but for some reason statistical experts call it the ‘mean’.

Perhaps they do that to be mean, we don’t know. 

The variance

The variance is the sum of the squared deviations about the mean divided by the number in the population.

This is where most non-statistical people start to get confused, so let’s go slowly using the same three $10, $12 and $16 answers above. 

The deviations are the difference between the actual values and the mean.

In this case then, the deviations would be -$2.67 ($10 – $12.67), -$0.67 ($12 – $12.67) and $3.33 ($16 – $12.67). So the sum of the ‘squared’ deviations would be $-2.672 + $-0.672 + $3.332. Or 7.13 + 0.45 + 11.09. Which equals a variance of 18.67. 

The standard deviation

In reality, variance is rarely referred to except in market research. But the square root of the variance is referred to often as this number is called the standard deviation. 

In the above case, the square root of $18.67 is 4.32 so our standard deviation is 4.32.

Confidence intervals

When a sample is taken of the total population the results for that sample can be compared to the total population.

However, every sample taken will be slightly different. Imagine, you have to pick 100 people out of 1,000, there are multiple variations on which 100 people you pick out. 

What confidence intervals do, based on calculations around the standard deviation, is calculate the likelihood of the sample you picked out falling within the standard deviation range you calculated.

You would expect this to be at least 80% and in actual fact, 95% confidence level is the norm in the market research industry. This means that in 95% of cases, the results from your sample would fall within the standard deviation range of the total population.

How these confidence intervals are actually calculated requires a more advanced understanding of statistics. This includes variables such as margin of error and knowledge of different distribution curves.

In general, you don’t need to know the detail of this. But if it is of interest, you can read more on minimum sample sizes and confidence intervals here. 

Sample size recommendation

In practical terms, what all this statistical calculation leads to is a sample size recommendation from the market research agency. How many people they need to interview to be (95%) confident the results represent the total population. 

The tighter your definition of the target audience (which usually reduces the population size) the smaller the sample size you need to get a representative sample. This is rarely less than 100 people though. If your target audience definition is broad (i.e. your population size is large), this normally requires a larger sample size.

Look at the exit polls which take place at elections for example.

The number of people surveyed per constituency may be relatively low. A few hundred people in your sample per constituency. But to calculate the national picture, you need the sample to cover multiple constituencies and so your national sample size may be in the thousands.


Quantitative research questionnaire design

Once the sample size has been determined, it’s an important part of quantitative research that the questions are then asked in a structured and repeatable way to interviewees. This requires the development of a questionnaire. 

Unless you carry out your own market research, we advise you to leave the development of the questionnaire in the hands of the market research company.

However, you should certainly ask to see a copy of it before it is used. And there’s a couple of basic checks you can do to make sure the research company delivers to a high standard.

Check the length of the questionnaire 

There’s no set limit on how long a quantitative questionnaire can be. But most companies aim to make them completable in around 30 minutes. This is because though each question is easier to answer than an open question, it can be tiring on the respondent to answer so many questions. A level of fatigue can set in. With this fatigue can come either failure to complete the questionnaire or a lack of thought / attention in answering questions towards the end of the survey. 

Check how the survey data will be collected

Common techniques used to capture quantitative data include online panel surveys, telephone surveys or street surveys. Online panels have become more and more popular since they remove the need for an actual interviewer (so less cost).

They can also be automated which reduces the likelihood of errors, and can also be done at a time that suits the respondent.

However, if any of the questions is poorly written, the respondent won’t be able to check or clarify the meaning. Telephone and street surveys do still happen and add the benefit of an interviewer being able to clarify and answer questions. However, they are more expensive and can take more time to set up. 

Check the design of the questions themselves

Questionnaire design could be a whole skill guide on it its own. But for the purposes of this guide, we would recommend you keep an eye out for these two common errors which often crop up in questionnaire.

  • Ambiguity – Be very careful of questions which can interpreted in multiple ways. This is often the case where double barrelled questions appear. Check if the word “and” appears in the answer. So for example, if the question was to choose between “high price and more convenient” or “low price and less convenient”, the answers could be ambiguous. You would not know whether price or convenience was the driver.
  • Biased – Avoid questions which use colourful of emotive language to drive a respondent towards a particular answer. “Do you think it’s shameful that companies don’t pay more tax?” for example. Or lead respondents toward a particular answer. “Do you agree with environmental experts that global warming is one of the most challenging situations this country faces?”. By putting in “experts”, respondents are less likely to disagree so you won’t get a true read. 

How to use quantitative research to raise your game

The purpose of quant research is to generate robust numbers which either prove or disprove the ideas and the assumptions that you have about a market.

These ideas could be for example how consumers will respond to your advertising. Or how likely they will be to respond to a sales promotion

In very simple terms, you are looking for positive opportunities when you analyse the results of quantitative research. Or negative issues which you need to respond to. 

Case study example – online shopping

Let’s have a look at an example from some actual research that was carried out into online shopping behaviours. We have changed some of the actual data and questions to hide the category from which this questionnaire was used. 

In this study, the qualitative research had identified a list of 15 different reasons that the target audience might choose to shop online.

As a marketing or e-Commerce team, it would be impossible to pursue 15 different strategies at the same time. So the purpose of this research question was to identify the few key questions which the target audience most agreed with and these would be the biggest area of opportunity.

Quantitative research results example

Find the ‘winning’ answers

In this case, you can see that the top 4 questions scored significantly higher than the other 11. And while there are still some high agreement scores there, the top 4 would be the areas you would prioritise.

There is an overall theme of ‘convenience’ that runs through the top 4 answers – shop anytime, saves time, easier. This would be the theme that you would write in to your marketing communications.

Check the ‘losing’ answers

If you compare that to say the answers at the bottom, booking a delivery slot and Click and Collect, have less appeal to this group of online shoppers. Click and Collect still requires you to visit the store for example, so it doesn’t save so much time.

These would be areas you would choose NOT to highlight in your communications because consumers care less about them.

Where else you can use quantitative research

Outside marketing communications, there are many areas where you could use quantitative market research.

For new products that you develop through marketing innovation, quantitative market research is often used to predict the potential size of the market.

When you create or update your brand identity, you might use quantitative research to validate the impact of the new brand.

And if you are making improvements in your customer experience, you might use quantitative research to validate those changes before you push them live.

One-off vs continuous quantitative market research

In the above sections, we’ve focussed on one-off quantitative research projects since research questions typically focus on a problem or opportunity at a specific period in time. However, quantitative market research can also be used to measure and track performance over an on-going time period.

This type of research is called continuous research. In most cases it happens on a monthly, quarterly or six monthly period. It takes a representative sample of consumers and asks the same questions at regular intervals to track the changes in answers as marketing activity is carried out.

The most common example would be brand health studies.

These would typically have a range of attributes that could describe brands in the market. “Offers good value for money”, “Is high quality”, “Cares about its customers” and so on.

Then marketers can track relative strength versus competitors and improvements and declines in measures.  It forms part of the performance measurement process that brand owners should carry out on a regular basis.

We cover this topic in our guide to brand activation. 

Research quantitative researchers

We cover the topic of finding and working with market research companies in another skill guide. But as a first step  to close off the topic of how to use quantitative research, we recommend a visit to the market research industry association website in your market.

In Australia, this is the Australian Market and Social Research Society. It currently has 202 members offering various types of market research services including quantitative research. The association is particularly good in setting standards so that intrusive or misleading research does not take place. 

Owl on a branch - symbolic of wisdom

It is worth looking at research agency websites as they often publish articles on quantitative research. Here’s a couple of Australian linked websites we’ve used for this purpose in the past.

Three-brains and market research

We coach and consult on market research and often include market research skill development and market research project delivery as part of our services. We help businesses commission, manage and apply market research.

If you’d like to talk about raising your game in market research as part of our coaching and consulting services, click on the button to fill out the contact form.

Use this market research brief template when working with your market research agency to brief them on market research related tasks.

3 pages including a blank template, a guide to completing each section and an example brief from the vegan ice cream case study in our secondary research skill guide.

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Market research brief template
Click to download the pdf

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