Real-Time Vs Reflective Consumer Research: Which is Best?

Before answering this question, let’s have a quick look at what consumers are up to these days…

Many of them have smartphones with Apps for social networks, travel, shopping, news even weather updates. Being in the know and having the most up to date information is now part of the course. It is safe to say that consumers and their expectations are more time-sensitive than ever before.

To them real-time data is a must and businesses are responding to this with functionalities such as live: delivery tracking, application progress notifications and customer queries updates — all recognising that time is a sizable consumer asset and its conservation represents undeniable added value.

Time is a sizable consumer asset — conserving it represents added CX value

Behind closed insight department doors the world over, life is not all that different. There is a feeling in the air that in order to keep pace with this real-time consumer, you must be researching them in real-time (via mobile), capturing feedback in the moment that the activity of interest takes place. But is that really the case? Is this the only way a B2C can make competitive effective decisions? Let’s take a look…

Real-Time Consumer Research Defined

This term is often misunderstood or perhaps broadened to encompass other data collection techniques, i.e. social media monitoring, big data analytics, so I think it’s important to define exactly what we mean by real-time consumer research before going forward to debate.

Real-time consumer research includes any proactive market research technique which allows us to collect feedback related to the consumer experience as it happens AND in-situ.

A webcam focus group for example, though happening in real-time, does not tend to capture feedback in-situ in the experiential moment and as such it is not real-time consumer research in the truest sense of the word. Actual real-time consumer research methods include mobile diary tasks, vlogs, geo-fenced surveys, eye-tracking and ethnographic studies.

Real-Time Consumer Research Applied

To put things into content and assist you in deciding whether or not you really need a real-time research element included within your consumer research studies, real-time research techniques are ideally suited (but not limited) to the following insight goals:

  • First product or packaging impressions
  • Time specific location experience
  • Emotional event or stimulus response e.g. restaurant visit or advert viewing
  • Digital browsing behaviour
  • Shopper behaviour including the purchasing decision process
  • Point of purchase influence
  • Ethnographic opportunity spotting

Real-Time Consumer Research Pros and Cons

The major benefit of this type of research is that there is no reliance on a participant’s memory to recall the events they have been a part of or stimulus they have seen. Everything is recorded at the exact time they are experiencing the emotions, doing the activity, seeing the visuals, interacting with the staff, product, packaging, websites, etc.

Participants describe what they see, what they hear, what is missing or confusing to them and more with no time delayed distortion. With some real-time research methods, mobile diary studies for example, the moderator can also have a dialogue with a participant in-situ to delve even deeper into their actions and reasoning as they take place.

Sounds great right? So what’s the downside? Well, the major drawback of real-time consumer research is actually the same as its major benefit, spontaneous response. It’s a double-edged sword! Whilst there is no risk of memory error in real-time research studies, there is also very little, if any time for the participant to think and reflect; the first thought is the final thought.

For some studies, i.e. where any perspective change after the fact is irrelevant to in-situ commercial success, this is exactly what we want. But for some studies this can be a distinct disadvantage. Studies related to collaborative product or service innovation or the beta testing of a new technology for example, requires a participants’ considered opinion, way beyond a first impression.

The real-time consumer research double-edged sword = No memory error but no consideration

A final consideration — bear in mind that real-time consumer research asks the participant to multi-task; to focus on both the experience and the feedback they are providing. This can lead to shorter, less detailed answer submissions. It can also distract and perhaps hinder them from fully immersing themselves in the experience whereby key elements that would otherwise have been observed, can be missed.

So what’s the alternative? If you don’t feel that real-time consumer research techniques are right for your particular insight aims?

Reflective Consumer Research Defined

From my point of view reflective consumer research is almost the opposite of real-time research. Here, participants share feedback on events that have already taken place and stimulus presented or previously seen. They recall what happened, the actions they took and their thought process retrospectively.

Research methods such as bulletin board focus groups, interactive whiteboards, scrapbooks and panel surveys are all primary examples of reflective consumer research techniques.

Reflectice Consumer Research Applied

Reflective techniques are ideally suited (but not limited) to the following insight goals:

  • Concept development studies
  • Product or service development studies
  • Co-creation of any nature
  • Customer satisfaction tracking programmes
  • Competitor benchmarking
  • Evaluating the impact of a marketing campaign including memorability
  • Evaluating brand positioning in terms of overall perception — In general, pre or post a marketing campaign or product/service improvements

Reflective Consumer Research Pros and Cons

The strength of this type of research is time availability. Participants are not time or place bound and therefore have the opportunity to reflect (hence the name), consider and really think about the varying factors that shape/d their opinion.

As participants have more time to voice their thoughts and explain their reasoning, I find they often share a lot more detail that in real-time research studies and offer more examples to illustrate their feedback. They also tend to be more relaxed engaged in the study overall because they can choose to take part at a time that suits them. It’s is the perfect environment for group collaboration, evaluation and development as well as slightly longer surveys.

There are of course disadvantages to this type of research as well. The main one being the reliance on memory that real-time research alleviates. Some facts might escape a participant when feeding back reflectively and if the event/s that the research is focusing on happened too long ago, the insight risks being particularly vague.

A time delay can also soften the emotional response of both positive and negative emotions. It gives participants the opportunity to gain perspective, to process. In these circumstances experiences that would have been very significant to them at the time of the event, often fade away. Now, that’s fine if you are evaluating brand positioning in terms of overall perception, in fact it’s desirable.

Because it’s not specific to one event, neither should it be evaluated as such, but when you come to home in on the events that built that perception, it can pose a problem. Raw emotional response and feedback free from memory error is key here.


Looking at real-time and reflective consumer research methods side-by-side, it’s easy to see that both have their unique advantages (and disadvantages). The key to quality customer intelligence, and the answer to which is best for the insight your business needs, actually lies in their correct application.

For a truly customer-centric business, an exceptional end-to-end customer experience and a cohesive, company-wide, insight culture, you will need both. Some topics will require one, some the other and some warrant the use of both approaches to ensure the consumer experience and their expectations are clearly and fully understood — in real-time, from a recall perspective and in considered detail.

Taking product testing as an example — first impressions in terms of aesthetics, usability, quality, etc. is a perfect fit for real-time research vlogs. Seeing how participants interact with a product proposition first hand is invaluable to product planners / developers.

In order for participants to suggest considered improvements and evaluate overall appeal however, time to reflect is key and co-creative discussion is preferable. Here reflective research techniques such as bulletin board focus groups and interactive whiteboards are ideal.



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