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(Sample) Size Matters. But, maybe not as much as you think

One of the most basic elements of any research is sample size. We were taught (long ago, in a high-school statistics course) that too small of a research sample provides inaccurate results. While this may be true for predicting election outcomes, it isn’t always the case for customer experience or product research.

As an audience insights and Voice of the Customer researcher, people often ask me how large of a sample size is required to get an accurate picture. The answer truly depends on the context and can’t be summed up in a blanket statement. Certainly, not every organization can elicit responses from thousands of customers. On the flip side, can a company make meaningful changes based on just a handful of customer opinions?

Before I answer these questions, let’s start by looking at some of the factors that will determine what sample size you’ll realistically have access to. Ask yourselves these questions and consider these variables:

How large is your “universe” of potential respondents?

For example, will you be looking for insights only from your current customers, or will you be looking to learn from people who have never used your products and services? Will you be asking questions of former customers who have churned? How widespread does your business reach, versus how niche is your market? Will you be limiting your research to a specific geographic region? All of these considerations, and many more, will give you an idea of the upper limits of your potential sample size.

With that ballpark number in mind, remember that depending on the type of research being performed, you may get completed responses from as few as 5% - or as many as 80% - of the people you ask. In much of our experience, we see between a 40 and 60% response rate. Therefore, regardless of your target sample size, you will always need to outreach to a group several times larger.

How much time do you have?

If you find yourself with a desperate need for audience insights and not a lot of time, this will likely impact the reality of your sample size. Getting more people to participate takes more time. However, working within a limited timeframe doesn’t mean the research is not worth doing. You just need to work with an expert who is experienced in research methods used to garner the most useful information in the least amount of time. If you think you might have a research project on a tight timeframe, get in touch with us right away to explore your options!

Are your goals short-term or long-term?

Aside from how much time you have to complete your study, think about the time span surrounding your goals. Are you looking to impact this quarter’s earnings? Or, are you looking to make changes that will be felt five years down the road? Your goals will help determine how many, and what type, of people you need to gather insights from.

Are you looking for narrow insights, or broad?

When we conduct audience and customer research and analysis, we can focus as narrowly as one employee or as broadly as a global organization. The subject of your study factors into what your sample size needs to be, in order to achieve valid results. If you are looking for a very narrow scope of research, it’s even more important to work with someone who is familiar with choosing the right participants. We can help you determine who they are.

How well do you already know your audience?

If you’ve done prior research, or if you have very close relationships with your audience/customers, you may be able to use your existing knowledge to supplement your new research findings. This can influence the sample size needed and help cut down on the time it takes to conduct the new research. Be careful with this one though! There’s a fine line between bringing additional context along and dragging in your pre-existing beliefs and biases. That’s just one of many reasons we recommend using an independent research consultant.

With these considerations in mind, you may feel more confident in your ability to conduct research without being limited by your sample size. While bigger isn’t always better, sample size does matter. The best next step is to speak with an experienced market researcher to examine these factors and more and come up with a plan to reach the right respondents for your needs.

If you’re ready to take that step, contact us today for a no-cost consultation.

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