Marketing research takes a multitude of forms, from the casual conversation with a customer to surveys and full-blown focus groups. Marketing research seeks to better understand how and why consumers choose certain products, as well as how customers use those products. While surveys and focus groups offer researchers comparatively simple ways to gather data, observational research often provides different and, under the right conditions, more useful data.

Observational Research

Observational research consists of monitoring ongoing behaviors in appropriate environments. For marketing research, this can include observations in buying environments such as retail outlets, in the home, or in public, depending on whether the research concerns buying or use behaviors. The observation may be conducted passively, without the knowledge of consumers, or actively, with their knowledge. Observational research, by nature, provides qualitative, rather than quantitative data.


Observational techniques avoid the self-selection bias that often skews the data gathered by techniques such as surveys. In any group presented with a survey, the people that choose to participate often fail to represent the group adequately. Observation often captures both those that willingly participate in non-observation research approaches and those who do not normally participate. Observational techniques also can provide a depth of information lacking in other techniques, through questions prompted by the observation itself. If, for example, a researcher observes a customer pick out a name-brand detergent and then opt for a less expensive brand, the researcher can ask if the decision was financial or about the intended use.


Even when it employs technology such as cameras and recording devices, observational research represents a larger financial investment than other research methods. A true ethnographic study requires the participation of someone with advanced anthropological training over a period lasting from days to weeks. Data analysis can be time consuming, and observational research often fails to provide insight into attitudes and motives. For example, a recording may show you how long a customer spends reading a package, but it probably can’t provide you any insight into what, if any, portion of the packaging contributed to a buying decision.


The qualitative nature of the data gathered by observational research limits how much the information generalizes. Everything from community norms to aberrant store design can influence the results. Observational results often prove more effective when paired with data gathered from other research methods, such as focus groups and surveys. Multiple sources of data can help to level out skewed results, and can even provide insight into the reasons customers choose to represent their decisions in a particular light.