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Cross-sectional vs. Longitudinal Research: Which is Right for You?

From quantitative to qualitative; in-person intercepts to mobile surveys, insights experts pull from a vast toolkit to answer pressing business questions. Selecting the appropriate methodology requires skill and a thorough understanding of business objectives. Cross-sectional and longitudinal research are two specific tools researchers use to uncover consumer attitudes, sentiments, and behaviors. Each approach comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. Read on to learn more about the use cases, challenges and benefits of both methodologies.

What is cross-sectional research?

Cross-sectional studies collect and analyze data from a target population at one specific point in time. It’s like a snapshot or freeze frame on one slice of the insights at a specific time. A cross-sectional study is appropriate for understanding the prevalence of a particular attitude or behavior when the research is conducted. It is pertinent to validate business decisions or test hypotheses as it looks at the data from a population chosen based on specific variables of interest at one specific point in time. It is also commonly referred to as a transverse research, or a prevalence study.

What are the challenges of cross-sectional research?

When businesses require a snapshot in time, cross-sectional research fits the bill. Yet, for those organizations seeking to link cause-and-effect or understand long-term trends, cross-sectional research can come up lacking since it measures just a single point in time in isolation.

Another limitation of cross-sectional research is the possibility that the data could be affected by non-response bias. Non-response bias occurs when market research participants who agree to take the study differ from those who do not participate. For example, cross-sectional studies rely on panel sampling which may introduce bias by the nature of the survey panel sign-up process. One must consider that only a subset of a target population is willing or able to sign up for an online panel. For example, if respondents are solicited via online mobile ads, the likelihood that someone without a mobile phone would respond is significantly lesser. If that ad is run during the typical working hours, the likelihood of certain professionals applying to participate could be significantly limited. Careful attention to survey design, recruiting methods, including creating a mobile and tablet-friendly version of the survey and avoiding rushed timelines, and more can help mitigate, although not entirely eliminate, non-response bias.

What are the benefits of cross-sectional research?

Cross-sectional research is typically inexpensive as it requires less time and resources to complete as compared to longitudinal research projects. Also, the majority of market research providers have experience with cross-sectional studies, making it easier to source professional help. Another benefit to this one-and-done approach to data collection, is that this methodology does not suffer from respondent attrition that can plague longitudinal studies – the burden of participation is limited to a single interaction with the research program for completion.

To read the current state of the market or gauge conditions at a specific point in time, there is no better choice than a cross-sectional study.

What is longitudinal research?

A longitudinal study involves collecting data from the same group of individuals over an extended period. Longitudinal studies may collect qualitative or quantitative data from the research participants through several “waves” of research. This method of data collection may span weeks, months, or even years.

Longitudinal research is excellent for teams seeking to establish long-term trends and identify cause-and-effect relationships.

What are the challenges of longitudinal research?

A longitudinal research project typically includes a multitude of research objectives and can be a significant undertaking to manage effectively. Planning for this type of project can last months, with fielding lasting a year or more. In simple terms, the team must commit for the long haul for the program to bear fruit. Because of this more extensive commitment, long-term planning and in-field resources, longitudinal studies typically require buy-in from multiple internal stakeholders for significant funding and support.

Similar to cross-sectional research, longitudinal studies may also face the impact of non-response bias. Beyond non-response bias, the audience can easily be less representative of the general population as well. Respondent attrition can exacerbate these other challenges and compound them, putting research outcomes at risk if not managed carefully.

What are the benefits of longitudinal research?

For product teams seeking to apply design-thinking or agile product development models, longitudinal research can be a helpful tool. This method enables teams to iterate and retest among the same audience, whereas repeated ad-hoc recruits can require additional time and drain financial resources. Participants making their way through each wave of the research can provide more in-depth feedback given their experience with previous product iterations.

Also, longitudinal research can illuminate the customer journey in a way that is not possible with cross-sectional research. In agricultural research, it can be especially helpful to understand how complex decisions play out over time. For example, if a farmer is purchasing $500,000 worth of seed or a new tractor, a cross-sectional study may only hit at one point. In contrast, a longitudinal study can reach the farmer at various points during the annual growing cycle, within which several needs arise and diminish. In this way, longitudinal waves can create a map of the buyer’s journey including the initial customer research, the purchase point, and post-purchase reflections.

In short, longitudinal research provides a more complete picture of consumer behavior and attitudes by studying the evolution of these factors over time.

Find the right partner. 

With nearly 90% of market research taking a cross-sectional approach, finding a knowledgeable partner to assist with longitudinal work can be challenging. Experienced research partners provide an invaluable resource for the planning and execution of these complicated projects. At a high level, a logistics road map covers the various touchpoints and audience engagement details required throughout the research process. A comprehensive outline of the roles and responsibilities of each partner can bring clarity to the process and help avoid confusion. Longitudinal research requires more dynamic shared responsibility between the research partner and the client-facing team. Because of this, it is more helpful to consider longitudinal research as not just a single project but a multitude of projects grouped together.

Time, budget, and business objectives all factor into the appropriate research method to reach the desired outcome. A trusted advisor with experience in cross-sectional and longitudinal research can help recommend the proper course of action resulting in rich, meaningful insights no matter the approach.


The experts at Ag Access have over 20 years of experience in agricultural research. Connect with the team today for a free consultation to explore options to meet your business goals.

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