A sample is a subset of potential buyers that are representative of your entire target market, or population being studied. Sometimes market researchers refer to the population as the universe to reflect the fact that it includes the entire target market, whether it consists of a million people, a hundred thousand, a few hundred, or a dozen. “All unmarried people over the age of 18 who purchased Dirt Devil steam cleaners in the United States during 2011” is an example of a population that has been defined.
Obviously, the population has to be defined correctly. Otherwise, you will be studying the wrong group of people. Not defining the population correctly can result in flawed research, or sampling error. A sampling error is any type of marketing research mistake that results because a sample was used. One criticism of internet surveys is that the people who take these surveys don’t really represent the overall population. On average, internet survey takers tend to be more educated and tech-savvy. Consequently, if they solely constitute your population, even if you screen them for certain criteria, the data could be skewed.
The next step is to put together the sampling frame, the list from which the sample is drawn. The sampling frame can be put together using a directory, customer list, or membership roster (Wrenn, Stevens, & Loudon, 2007). Keep in mind that the sampling frame won’t perfectly match the population. Some people will be included who shouldn’t be. Other people who should be included will be inadvertently omitted. It’s no different than if you were to conduct a survey of, say, 25 percent of your friends, using friends’ names you have in your cell phone. Most of your friends’ names are likely to be programmed into your phone, but not all. As a result, a degree of sampling error always occurs.
There are two main categories of samples in terms of how they are drawn: probability samples and nonprobability samples. A probability sample is one in which each would-be participant has a known and equal chance of being selected. The chance is known because the total number of people in the sampling frame is known. For example, if every other person from the sampling frame were chosen, each person would have a 50 percent chance of being selected.
A nonprobability sample is any type of sample that’s not drawn in a systematic way. So the chances of each would-be participant being selected can’t be known. A convenience sample is one type of nonprobability sample. It is a sample a researcher draws because it’s readily available and convenient to do so. Surveying people on the street as they pass is an example of a convenience sample. The question: are these people representative of the target market?
For example, suppose a grocery store needed to quickly conduct research on shoppers to get ready for an upcoming promotion. Now suppose that the researcher came between 10 a.m. and noon on a weekday. The shoppers wouldn’t be representative of the store’s entire target market. What about commuters who stop at the store before and after work? Their views wouldn’t be represented. Neither would people who work the night shift or shop at odd hours. As a result, there would be a lot of room for sampling error. For this reason, studies that use nonprobability samples aren’t considered as accurate. Nonprobability samples are more often used in exploratory research.
Finally, the size of the sample has an effect on the amount of sampling error. Larger samples generally produce more accurate results. The larger the sample, the more data you will have, which will give you a more complete picture. However, the more people surveyed or studied, the more costly the research.
Statistics can be used to determine a sample’s optimal size. If you take a marketing research or statistics class, you will learn more about how to determine the optimal size.
Of course, if you hire a marketing research company, much of this work will be taken care of. Many marketing research companies, such as Research Now, maintain panels of prescreened people they draw upon. In addition, the marketing research firm will be responsible for collecting the data or contracting with a company that specializes in data collection.