Passive Data vs. Observational Research

Passive Data Collection or Observational Research?

There are different ways to measure shopper behavior without using question-based approaches. With the increase in online shopping understanding digital behavior via passive tracking is a way to measure how shoppers are researching a category, search terms used and different sites used. Insights from passive tracking will help optimize digital communications. For in-store behavior, observational research (in-person or video) is a way to measure shopping behavior in-store and the conversion funnel.

Here we discuss the key differences between Passive Data Collection and Observational Research with regards to the participant, researcher, sample size, and research quality.

1. The Participant

Passive Data Collection
As the name suggests, passive data collection happens in the background, as a respondent is going through their day to day activities. The respondent provides permission for their browser history to be captured. The history of spending habits on a retailer’s website, the cookies and the location tracking on smartphones are all examples of gathering passive data. The passive data being tracked can be captured for a period of time.

Observational Research
Here, participants are actively watched while they perform a particular activity in either a real-life environment (in-store in the case of shopper research) or in a dedicated environment (shopper lab). This type of research looks at what people are doing as well as how they are doing it along with their body language and facial expressions. Since the researcher is present, participants might be aware that their behavior is being observed. Video observation can also be used to measure shopper behavior in retail locations. This is ideal for large samples of behavior to understand section conversion and traffic flow.

2. The Researcher

Passive Data Collection
Since the data being captured happens automatically, the researcher’s role in passive data collection has mostly to do with data analysis and pinpointing key information. They are not actively involved during the collection of data.

Observational Research
The research’s job is crucial with observational research. For in-person tracking, they are always present during the research and their expertise is essential to ensure data quality. For video capture of observational research, the backend coding of behavior is critical to ensure quality outputs of the data.

3. The Research Sample

Passive Data Collection
For passive research there is an opt-in, so for an online survey only a portion will elect to opt-in. We find for any large online study, typically about 20% of the sample will qualify. In order to have a big enough base for analysis, sample design needs to take this into consideration.

Observational Research
For observational research, store traffic will influence sample size. Quantitative robust sample sizes can be achieved usually over several days. In order to capture a range of shopper behavior it is ideal to record or observe during different times of the day, and weekend vs. weekday. Shopper behavior will often change based on when they are being observed. Factors such as store traffic will influence behavior such as browsing and time to purchase.

4. The Research Outputs

Passive Data Collection
This method usually results in huge amounts of data being collected. For example, if someone is making a purchase on an app, in the short time it takes to complete the purchase, data about their location where they made their purchase, interests, spending behavior, payment method and much more can be collected. However, the kind of information it can uncover is limited. Although this large amount of data can answer “what?” it’s not as good at answering “why?”

Observational Research
Large amounts of data are also captured from observational research and they can pinpoint different behaviors that are occurring within a category. The interpretation of these behaviors is critical to be able to draw meaningful insight. Comparison to norms helps provide context around what is an opportunity or an issue in a category. Ideally, observational research is also combined with in-depth interviews to understand the “why” behind the behavior.

5. Going Forward

Passive Data Collection
Currently, there is huge demand for passive tracking to understand the digital journey. Given the large amount of data that can be collected it is important to partner with a research company that can interpret and provide meaningful insights to passive data. We typically combine this with part of a customer journey study to help round out the digital and in-store shopper journey.

Observational Research
Instore observational research can help understand the retail conversion funnel and provide insights into category dynamics. We have successfully used this approach for section reinvention and other category work to help our clients win at retail.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like to learn more about passive data or observational research approaches.

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