“Cross-sectional study” is a complicated name for a simple concept.
Think of it as a snapshot.
Cross-sectional studies capture a single moment in time, collecting information from a study group at just one point. This is usually in the form of a single survey, questionnaire, or observation.
In short, a cross-sectional study makes comparisons between respondents in one moment. Using this type of survey is a fast, easy way for researchers like you to get the info you need quickly, cheaply, and relatively easily, particularly when it comes to analysis.
Contrast this with a longitudinal study, which follows the same group or demographic over multiple touchpoints. In that study type, researchers use multiple sets of data to draw comparisons and conclusions.
It’s important to choose the right type of study for your research goals, so you’re not putting your survey efforts into the wrong areas. A cross-sectional study may be just what you need.
What are the Benefits of Cross-Sectional Studies?
All too often, decision makers will make changes based on a hunch. Even if it’s an educated guess based on observable trends, the only way to make the right choice is to act on real data from your actual audience.
For busy teams or researchers looking to provide insight on a smaller scope, cross-sectional studies are a more realistic and, often, more effective way to get the data they need to make informed decisions.
While the exact benefits vary by project, there are three main reasons why you may choose to run a cross-sectional study. They are:
- Faster: Because a cross-sectional study only happens once, you’ll be able to analyze and act on your data immediately.
- Less Expensive: Again, the strength of cross-sectional studies is that they happen once. You won’t need to go through the time and expense of administering multiple surveys over a long period of time. With this method, it’s one and done.
- Easier to Manage: Are you noticing a theme yet? One survey is much easier to manage than multiple, from design to collecting responses to analyzing your data to acting on the results.
Challenges You May Face with Cross-Sectional Studies
While there are lots of reasons to go cross-sectional, there are reasons why researchers choose longitudinal studies. There are data types and trends that are easier to track and analyze over the course of many weeks or months, and you simply won’t get that kind of insight with a one-off survey.
These are the limitations of cross-sectional studies:
- Observational: With a cross-sectional study, you are only looking at a group once. You are not able to influence survey-taker behavior or monitor changes in behavior over time.
- One Time Only: Sometimes, a strength can be a weakness. Because you are only polling your audience once, you will not be able to track changes over time.
- Correlation, Not Causation: You’ve heard that correlation does not imply causation. In a cross-sectional study, it may be easy to identify answers that correlate with one another, but you will not be able to accurately determine why they seem to go together.
Exploring Market Research Demographics with Cross-Sectional Studies
Don’t be daunted by the challenges. Cross-sectional studies can be hugely valuable, especially for market research.
One of the most common and useful scenarios for a cross-sectional study is to find out more about target demographics.
How to Identify Target Demographics with Cross-Sectional Studies
A mobile game company knows that the most valuable customers are those who regularly use their game for at least two months.
The marketing director for this company wants to know which age group is the most likely to download the game and, most importantly, to keep playing.
To find out, she created a survey to poll 300 individuals from three categories: 15-24 years old, 25-34, and 35-44. All individuals are current players.
The questionnaire collected data on how long a player had been using the game and how often they played.
The information collected gave preliminary data suggesting that while more 15-24 year olds were downloading the game, 25-34 year olds were actually the most likely to still be playing after two months.
Acting on the Results of Cross-Sectional Studies
The marketing director sees this and acts on it, making short-term readjustments to their existing promotions to appeal to the 25-34 age bracket.
To explore the findings more deeply, the team may put together two new surveys: one for 15-24 year olds to see why the game is not keeping their attention, and one for the 25-34 year olds to explore how best to get more people to download the game in the first place.
This example illustrates both the strength of cross-sectional studies in collecting data that can immediately influence business decisions, and shows how researchers can use one study’s findings to inform future surveys that will explore causation more deeply.
Key Takeaways with Cross-Sectional Studies
There are many possible uses for cross-sectional studies, but one of the most valuable is to use them to highlight trends or correlations that you may be missing in the data you are already collecting about your business, product, or audience. This is especially true if you are planning on launching a larger scale survey project or longitudinal study and need preliminary data to get you started.
They can even make the difference for small, busy, bootstrapped teams that have to react quickly to ensure their product’s success.
A little bit of data can help companies pivot toward a better audience with greater ROI.