What is a Pilot Study? [+ Benefits, Examples, & Process]

hand holding paper

A pilot study sets the stage for a long-term successful market research project.

Walk before you run. 

Don't bite off more than you can chew. 

Start small. 

You've heard them all and a pilot market research study employs the same approach. 

In this post, we'll cover everything you need to know about pilot surveys – their importance, examples, and steps to completing a successful study.

Interested in conducting a pilot study? Get a quote from Drive Research. Contact our market research company through a website form to email [email protected]

Pilot Study: Definition

A pilot study is a small-scale market research project to test its effectiveness before investing more time and money into a large-scale project. 

Rather than investing an entire marketing budget into the study without knowing the outcome, a pilot survey allows market research companies to verify the approach, audience, and method all work to reach the client’s goal. 

It is common among organizations looking to conduct several surveys, focus groups, or in–home usage tests across different markets. 

Why Pilot Studies Are Important in Research

There are many benefits to considering a pilot study. In this section, our market research company covers five of the key advantages.

Benefit 1: Test the methodology

Decisions. Decisions. 

When it comes to market research and methodologies you will not be short of choices. 

  • Which type of survey is best? 
  • Do I run a survey on our portal or website? 
  • Do I send email invites? 
  • Do I run a text survey? Phone survey? Mail survey? 

As you can see, understanding which approach is best can be difficult for your market research.

A pilot study helps your organization understand which path is the best suited for unique objectives, timelines, and budgets. 

Through the pilot survey, you will learn if the approach you planned for is effective or if you need to change gears due to unforeseen issues.

For example, let’s say you plan to run the study all online. But, in the pilot study, you discover response rates fall below expectations. 

Therefore, for future interactions, you plan to build in reminder phone calls 24 hours after the email invite is sent.

Thinking about how to choose the right methodology? The video below touches on the most common types of market research.

Benefit 2: Proof of concept

Before completing a full-scale launch, a pilot study can generate some topline and initial insights for your new product or service. 

Let's say you have developed a new product concept and you would like to run a national in-home usage test (IHUT). 

As part of the IHUT, you would work with a market research company to screen, recruit, and ship products to understand how well the concept is received.

Before you send out 1,000 products across the country, a simple pilot study of 50 to 100 households would be very telling. 

You may discover very early that there are issues with shipping or issues with the brand being received negatively.

Running a pilot market research project allows you to gather early insights on proof of concept (POC) before a full study.

Benefit 3: Understand the budget

Undertaking a massive market research project will result in setting aside a large budget. 

Therefore, pilot studies are important in research because they act as a first step to help you understand all costs and the scalability of the project. 

Running a test study will help your organization and the market research vendor understand areas to trim costs and save on budget.

Recommended Reading How Much Does Market Research Cost?

Benefit 4: Try out your market research vendor

Perhaps one of the unspoken advantages to running a pilot study is to simply try out your consultant and market research company you are working with.

Factors to consider when selecting a long-term partner include:

  • Do they offer quality results?
  • Are they responsive? 
  • Are they giving you the attention your project needs?
  • Do you mesh? 

More on that in the blog post, Consider This Before Choosing a Market Research Company.

By running a pilot, it almost works as a trial run. 

Before you commit a large investment with one firm, the pilot study will help you test the waters and understand if your organization should be shifting gears to a new vendor.

Market researcher working

George Kuhn, Owner and President of Drive Research

Benefit 5: Learn and improve

More so than anything, this final benefit of pilot studies goes back to the introduction of this post. 

Start slowly and walk before you run. 🚶🚶🏃

In the pilot, you'll learn a number of things that can be improved or changed for the follow-up waves. 

Perhaps it is a new question you want to add to the survey. Or restructuring the flow of a survey to improve response rates. 

Whatever changes you make will improve your market research for the long term.

Pilot Study Example

Our market research company, Drive Research conducts many pilot studies on behalf of B2B and B2C organizations across the country.

Though, the best example of a pilot market research study would have to be a project we administered for a ride-sharing app.

The ride-sharing company was looking to introduce and launch its app into new markets.

They wanted to conduct online surveys with consumers living in different area codes to test the concept. 

Because the sample size was so small, our online survey company conducted a pilot study in just two zip codes where we fielded the survey using social media ads and a panel provider. 

Man writing pilot survey questions on laptop

The initial pilot study acted as a trial to test…

  • The feasibility of surveying consumers in specific area codes
  • What sample source provided more quality data
  • What sample source was more cost-effective
  • How engaged respondents were throughout the survey
  • How much money we needed to spend to achieve the goal response rate

Through this soft launch, our market research company learned that using social media to find research participants offered both quality and cost-effective data.

There were no adjustments made to the survey length or questions being that completion rates were high.

Steps of a Pilot Study in Research

The process of conducting a pilot study is similar to a larger-scale market research project.

The biggest difference is that a pilot survey is broken into two stages. 

The first stage acts as a trial run to test and experiment with what should be changed before investing more resources into the bigger study or the second stage.

Step 1. Kickoff meeting

The first stage of any market research project is a kickoff meeting

If you are working with a third-party market research firm, here is the stage you will meet your dedicated project team. 

The kickoff meeting allows both parties to dive deeper into the pilot study’s objectives, approach, timeline, and any other necessary information. 

Step 2. Designing the market research tool

This next step of a pilot study in research depends on your choice of methodology. For instance, conducting an online survey will follow a different process than a focus group. 

If you are choosing to conduct quantitative market research, such as online surveys, this stage will involve writing, programming, and testing the questionnaire.

If you are choosing to conduct qualitative market research, such as focus groups or IHUTs, this stage will involve creating a screener survey and recruiting participants

Recommended Reading: Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Market Research

qualitative vs. quantitative market research

Step 3. Conducting the pilot study

Again, this stage will vary based on the market research approach.

Regardless of the method, now is a good time to assess how the project is going (and how it’s gone so far). 

  • Is your vendor a good fit? 
  • Is the process going as smoothly as expected? 
  • What hiccups have occurred that should be avoided next time? 

All great things to be thinking of during this trial market research study.

Step 4. Analyzing the outcomes

As the pilot study comes to a close, it is a good idea to host a debrief meeting with your internal team and outsourced market research vendor. 

Not only will you discuss the results of the study, but also what worked well and not so well.

Evaluating all elements of the pilot study will help decide what the next steps should be.

From here, you’ll either decide to repeat the pilot study on a much larger scale, make adjustments before continuing, or scrap the full-scale study altogether.

Final Thoughts

A pilot study in the market research world is an initial and smaller-scale project undertaken before a much larger full-scale study. 

Some common types of projects where a pilot study is recommended are in-home usage tests (IHUTs), customer experience programs, or concept surveys across different markets.

Before investing time, money, and resources into a hundred-thousand-dollar project, it is best to test your approach and feel confident that the study will meet your expectations and needs.

Contact Our Market Research Company

Drive Research is a market research vendor located in the United States.

Our team works with companies both large and small on a variety of market research projects including pilot studies.

Questions about an upcoming project? Need a proposal or quote? Contact us.

  1. Message us on our website
  2. Email us at [email protected]
  3. Call us at 888-725-DATA
  4. Text us at 315-303-2040

Author Bio George Kuhn

George Kuhn

George is the Owner & President of Drive Research. He has consulted for hundreds of regional, national, and global organizations over the past 15 years. He is a CX-certified VoC professional with a focus on innovation and new product management.

Learn more about George, here.


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