Primary research vs secondary research: a comparison

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 20 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

An effective way for businesses to solve problems, answer questions and make decisions is to conduct research. Performing primary and secondary research may provide you with the information you need. To determine which method is appropriate for your situation and can provide you with the data you require, it‘s essential to understand the differences between the two. In this article, we examine primary research vs secondary research, describe their differences and list some advantages to help you decide which is right for an organisation.

Primary research vs secondary research

Here are some differences between primary research vs secondary research:

Definition

Primary research refers to the method researchers use when they collect data directly, rather than depending on data obtained from previous studies. It aims to answer questions never asked before or to gain specific information about a current project. Businesses or organisations can conduct primary research or employ a third party to conduct research on their behalf.

Secondary research uses existing data to gather information. In this approach, the researcher uses materials already compiled by other researchers rather than collecting data in the field. Secondary research aims to identify knowledge gaps that may serve as a basis for further systematic investigation.

Related: What is primary research? (A definitive guide with tips)

Sources of data

Primary research uses data collection methods involving interaction with individuals to gain first-hand information. This may include tests, surveys, experiments, observation techniques or direct conversations. For businesses, this often means finding out how their customers feel about the usefulness and quality of their products.

Secondary research involves the analysis of existing data to determine its usefulness. Primary sources include online sources or physical knowledge bases such as market research reports, archives, interviews and documentaries. These are generally easy to access, although there may be some exceptions.

Related: What is data modelling? (Definition, types and skills)

Cost

Primary research can be expensive. There are costs associated with acquiring resources, creating materials, hiring a research company to conduct the tests and travel expenses. To minimise costs, primary researchers usually collect data only after conducting secondary research and discovering that there are gaps in the information available.

The cost of secondary research is typically much lower than that of primary research. This is because there's no need for new material and it requires fewer researchers. The only cost you might incur is if you want to purchase certain published data, but generally, the information is available free of charge.

Time

The primary research process is time-consuming. To collect the relevant information, you typically conduct surveys, arrange focus groups and interview people. It's then necessary to analyse the data and apply it to the issue you're examining. This requires the researcher to totally immerse themselves in the data collection process, also known as field research.

In comparison with primary research, secondary research is much faster. It relies on computer search engines to conduct the research, so some people refer to it as desk research. It usually only takes a few minutes to download and apply this research to your situation, since the data you gather for the secondary research is already online and other researchers have organised, analysed and published it.

Related: Research skills: definition and examples

Accuracy

The most reliable and accurate kind of research is primary research because you're collecting the data directly and analysing it with the purpose of achieving your own goals. For example, a primary research study might involve gathering feedback about customer satisfaction so a business can use this to improve their products or services. In addition, since the researcher is fully involved in the data collection process, they can ensure they only gather data that‘s easy to verify.

In secondary research, researchers rely on the work of other individuals when gathering data. Therefore, it's impossible for them to control the data or verify its validity. Inaccurate information available on the Internet can adversely affect a study, so it's crucial for researchers to not only find reputable studies but also review multiple sources to determine which data might be the most reliable.

Related: Reliability in research (definition, types and examples)

Specificity

Primary research is exclusive and original. It aims to address issues that are unique to a business, organisation or institution rather than simply addressing general issues. For example, when conducting primary research on consumer satisfaction for a product, you focus all aspects of the research on the specific product. As a result, it can provide valuable insight into the attitudes, views and opinions of customers and potential customers regarding a product, brand or business.

Secondary research data might not cater to specific project needs. Researchers may find it necessary to use multiple sources to collect enough relevant data. But secondary research can serve as a foundation for primary research and provide additional information to support it.

Related: What are the different types of research methodology?

Advantages of primary and secondary research

Both primary and secondary research have their respective advantages. Here are some benefits of each research method:

Advantages of primary research

Some of the key benefits of primary research are:

  • Privacy of data: When you conduct primary research, there's no requirement to share the information you gather or discover. This gives you an advantage over competitors, and also means you can use the information you gathered in any way you like.

  • Timing of research: Markets constantly change and trends appear and disappear. When you conduct primary research, you can do so at exactly the time that suits your needs.

  • Improved data interpretation: Since primary research uses your objectives rather than a past researcher with no connection to the organisation, data interpretation is more accurate. This can also help you collect the data the company needs versus reviewing existing data that contains unnecessary information.

  • Greater control: Researchers have much more control over primary research. They determine who the respondents are, their selection, the size of the sample and the sampling strategy.

  • Customisation: Conducting primary research can allow you to customise your research. Using primary research projects, you can collect the specific data needed to achieve your marketing objectives.

Advantages of secondary research

Some of the key benefits of secondary research are:

  • Ideal for exploratory research: Using secondary research in the early stages of your research is an effective way to test assumptions and hypotheses before investing time and resources in primary research. Using existing data, you can fill in knowledge gaps and determine the direction of your research.

  • Plenty of information available: You can do a substantial portion of your research with only publicly available data if you know where to look and what keywords to search.

  • Convenience: Secondary research is usually convenient for researchers because they can conduct their research at home, in libraries or at other similar locations.

  • Further research guidance: Secondary research can provide the basis for further research because you can identify gaps in your knowledge and develop an approach to resolving them. You can also ensure you don't waste time or money researching an issue someone has already investigated.

Related: A guide to secondary research: methods, examples and benefits

Choosing between primary and secondary research

Researchers often combine primary and secondary data collection methods to get the most accurate results. Typically, they begin by conducting secondary research to establish a relevant scope for their primary research. They decide which method to use depending on the purpose of their investigation.

Secondary research is typically appropriate in the following scenarios:

  • You're still determining the goal or scope of your research.

  • Recent and relevant research is available that may serve as a starting point for your own research.

  • You seek low-cost data to support your assumptions.

  • You wish to identify existing knowledge that can provide insight into future research.

  • You wish to determine knowledge gaps.

In contrast to secondary research, primary research focuses purely on your topic and questions. The need for this arises when:

  • You're following up on existing research.

  • Secondary research leads to incomplete, outdated or false information.

  • You're conducting research on a new product or idea in a market that doesn't yet exist.

  • You're gathering recent data to use for a particular research project.

  • A researcher is gathering information on the changing needs of target markets.

Related: What does a social researcher do? (Top duties explained)


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