“Survey says!” You remember the catch phrase, right? These words became synonymous with the long-running game show The Family Feud. The premise of the game, as you may recall, was a competition between the members of two families to see which family could more quickly and accurately guess the results of survey questions. The show’s success was no doubt derived from the often outrageous answers. . . by both the contestants and the survey respondents.

Surveys, by their very nature, sometimes yield answers that may neither make sense nor be particularly useful. That’s because surveys are often not well-constructed; they only provide self-report data; and they often are only capturing data from one point in time. In short, they are not always adequate tools for investigating either an intricate/in-depth topic or an ongoing phenomenon.

Conversely, a research study is a process used to answer complex questions or to prove or disprove hypotheses. High quality research usually includes the following elements:

  • A review of the literature in an effort to contextualize the topic being examined;
  • An appropriate methodology for collecting data to assist in answering the research questions or (dis)proving a hypothesis—including the selection of a suitable sample, the tools that will be used to collect the data, the procedures of how the data will be collected, and a description of how the data will be analyzed;
  • The testing of the hypothesis and experimenting with conditions in an attempt to accurately answer the questions;
  • The analysis of data;
  • A presentation of the findings; and
  • The discussion of findings and conclusions drawn from those findings.

Research is a systematic, often scientific process, while surveys are tools that can be used to collect data independently or within that process. So how do you determine whether surveys or a research study is needed to accomplish your goals?

First, you should ask yourself three questions.

  1. What kind of data do you need? The type of problems you are trying to solve and/or the types of questions you are attempting to answer will determine not only the kind of data needed to address those inquiries but also the methodologies that are required to collect that data. Quantitative methods will likely use a survey as the data collection instrument, whereas qualitative methods might necessitate in-depth interviewing. And mixed-methods will, in most cases, require both kinds of data collection tools.
  1. For what purpose(s) will you be using this data? Whether you’re interested in obtaining a quick snapshot or a piece of a larger issue, as opposed to a detailed investigation or multiple aspects of a particular topic, will also establish whether a survey is adequate to capture the needed information or if a research study is warranted.
  1. What is your budget? Unfortunately, available funding is a reality when considering whether to deploy a simple survey or to construct a robust research study. To create and launch a survey is relatively inexpensive in comparison to a multi-phase research study. However, don’t let a thin budget detour you from selecting the appropriate tools. Often times you can negotiate a comfortable price that also provides the services your project requires.

Then, you should ask potential research companies three questions.

  1. In what methodology does the research company specialize? Some companies only provide survey research services, while other companies only offer interviewing services. Others yet are capable of either or both techniques. To ensure the company you select will be able to accomplish your goals, do your research.
  2. In what areas of expertise do the researchers have? Researchers are often more skilled in one type of methodology than another, and you will also want to uncover their field specialty. Are they social scientists? Are they data scientists? Are they fundraising specialists? Choose a company whose researchers are experts in the area you want to examine.
  3. What tools does the research company have available? Companies differ in whether they can provide research services and the technology (or access to the technology) needed to initiate and complete your project. Be sure to ask questions about all the tools at their disposal, so you are certain they are a good fit.

In reality, what a “survey says” is actually quite limited, and the answers research can provide are far more robust. But you need to decide the appropriate approach for your specific project. At Achieve we have the expertise, the resources and the tools needed to help you advance your work. Whether you want to create and disseminate a survey or create an in-depth research study,we can help find your solution.

Make sure you check out some of our latest research for The Millennial Impact Project, including the most recent Millennial Impact Report.