OPINION1 June 2011

The lost art of taking your time


In an age where clients expect faster results, Gillian Newbold of Healthcare Research Worldwide speaks out in praise of longitudinal research.

Virtually every research brief we receive these days seems to say “quick turnaround required” or “delivery to very tight deadlines”. Are we losing out as a result of this?

Brand awareness and usage tracker studies are the only form of longitudinal research that some companies use. Aside from these, we seem to have let slow-burning research fall by the wayside. When successful, trackers can be used to map market dynamics over time and understand what is driving brand success or failure. However, all too often they are conducted simply “because they are in the brand plan”, and do not lead to action being taken. The ‘whys’ behind awareness and usage figures are not understood or discussed, so the brand team don’t know what to do with the data. It’s not surprising that tracker studies have put us off longitudinal research.

“There’s a lot more we can do with longitudinal research than simply conducting a bi-annual tracker study”

The long view
Longitudinal research, with its roots in the social research field, is really about understanding the nature and process of change over time. Large-scale longitudinal studies, such as the British Household Panel Survey and the UK’s various birth cohort studies, have transformed the way social researchers understand the relationships between economic and social change, family circumstances and social policy over the course of people’s lives.

There’s a lot more we can do with longitudinal research than simply conducting a bi-annual tracker study. We can use these approaches to understand what happens or how people think and feel over time, rather than just looking at a single point in time or asking our respondents to remember something. There are a whole host of ways we can use longitudinal research, whether a qualitative, quantitative or ethnographic study over an extended period of several days, repeat interviews at various points over a six-month period or a diary approach where respondents are asked to write something every few days for a month or more.

All in good time
We’ve been using such longitudinal research approaches to great effect in some of our healthcare research projects and have found they can lead to greater specificity and understanding. They can help to identify links between activities, environmental factors and health outcomes and build rapport with disease sufferers. This allows us to understand the true burden of a medical condition over time – seeing how it affects a sufferer day to day and week to week, or identifying the impact of a specific treatment by looking at what life was like before and after.

There are, of course, drawbacks too, the first one being that it takes more time. And not just the fieldwork – the recruitment and the analysis too. If you want respondents to complete diaries for four weeks, you may well find that project timings are increased by much more than that. It also requires increased respondent participation, so appropriate design is important. Recruiting the right people requires careful screening, especially to ensure that you are not losing any key target markets due to the tougher requirements. When you’ve got your results, longitudinal research can be complex to analyse – not a disadvantage per se, but additional time needs to be taken to analyse the data, which can increase costs.

There are significant merits to using longitudinal approaches appropriately – they are not for every study but they have a significant role to play in our market research toolbox. If you’re commissioning or designing a study with these kinds of objectives, don’t forget to build in time.


11 years ago

Here at the Institute for Social and Economic Research where we design and manage the British Household Panel Survey and its successor Understanding Society, we couldn't agree more! For anyone who is interested to find out more, why not download In Praise of Panel Surveys to find out more about the value of longitudinal surveys and research http://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/publications/iser-reports

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10 years ago

I think we'll see more longtitudinal research happening - from simple respond to other people's comments to full scale periodic questionnaires and 'blip surveys' via mobiles. To do it I think we will see companies building their own customer panels for this (though how that will fit with MRS code remains to be seen). The reason why is that sometimes single surveys only give a snapshot picture. We don't allow respondents to think or participate as much as they would like and we miss useful feedback from individual's post-processing of the questions we ask.

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