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GuidesResearch methodsAn overview of sampling methods

An overview of sampling methods

Last updated

27 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

When researching perceptions or attributes of a product, service, or people, you have two options:

  • Survey every person in your chosen group (the target market, or population), collate your responses, and reach your conclusions.

  • Select a smaller group from within your target market and use their answers to represent everyone. This option is sampling.

It’s not always possible for researchers to acquire data from a complete population of interest. Sampling collects data from a smaller group that represents the wider population group.

Sampling saves you time and money. When you use the sampling method, the whole population being studied is called the sampling frame.

The sample you choose should represent your target market, or the sampling frame, well enough to do one of the following:

  • Generalize your findings across the sampling frame and use them as though you had surveyed everyone

  • Use the findings to decide on your next step, which might involve more in-depth sampling

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How was sampling developed?

Valery Glivenko and Francesco Cantelli, two mathematicians studying probability theory in the early 1900s, devised the sampling method. Their research showed that a properly chosen sample of people would reflect the larger group’s status, opinions, decisions, and decision-making steps.

They proved you don't need to survey the entire target market, thereby saving the rest of us a lot of time and money.

Why is sampling important?

We’ve already touched on the fact that sampling saves you time and money. When you get reliable results quickly, you can act on them sooner. And the money you save can pay for something else.

It’s often easier to survey a sample than a whole population. Sample inferences can be more reliable than those you get from a very large group because you can choose your samples carefully and scientifically.

Sampling is also useful because it is often impossible to survey the entire population. You probably have no choice but to collect only a sample in the first place.

Because you’re working with fewer people, you can collect richer data, which makes your research more accurate. You can:

  • Ask more questions

  • Go into more detail

  • Seek opinions instead of just collecting facts

  • Observe user behaviors

  • Double-check your findings if you need to

In short, sampling works! Let's take a look at the most common sampling methods.

Types of sampling methods

There are two main sampling methods: probability sampling and non-probability sampling. These can be further refined, which we'll cover shortly. You can then decide which approach best suits your research project.

Probability sampling method

Probability sampling is used in quantitative research, so it provides data on the survey topic in terms of numbers. Probability relates to mathematics, hence the name ‘quantitative research’. Subjects are asked questions like:

  • How many boxes of candy do you buy at one time?

  • How often do you shop for candy?

  • How much would you pay for a box of candy?

This method is also called random sampling because everyone in the target market has an equal chance of being chosen for the survey. It is designed to reduce sampling error for the most important variables. You should, therefore, get results that fairly reflect the larger population.

Non-probability sampling method

In this method, not everyone has an equal chance of being part of the sample. It's usually easier (and cheaper) to select people for the sample group. You choose people who are more likely to be involved in or know more about the topic you’re researching.

Non-probability sampling is used for qualitative research. Qualitative data is generated by questions like:

  • Where do you usually shop for candy (supermarket, gas station, etc.?)

  • Which candy brand do you usually buy?

  • Why do you like that brand?

Probability sampling methods

Here are five ways of doing probability sampling:

Simple random sampling

There are three basic steps to simple random sampling:

  1. Choose your sampling frame.

  2. Decide on your sample size. Make sure it is large enough to give you reliable data.

  3. Randomly choose your sample participants.

You could put all their names in a hat, shake the hat to mix the names, and pull out however many names you want in your sample (without looking!)

You could be more scientific by giving each participant a number and then using a random number generator program to choose the numbers.

Systematic sampling

Instead of choosing names or numbers, you decide beforehand on a selection method. For example, collect all the names in your sampling frame and start at, for example, the fifth person on the list, then choose every fourth name or every tenth name. Alternatively, you could choose everyone whose last name begins with randomly-selected initials, such as A, G, or W.

Choose your system of selecting names, and away you go.

Stratified sampling

This is a more sophisticated way to choose your sample. You break the sampling frame down into important subgroups or strata. Then, decide how many you want in your sample, and choose an equal number (or a proportionate number) from each subgroup.

For example, you want to survey how many people in a geographic area buy candy, so you compile a list of everyone in that area. You then break that list down into, for example, males and females, then into pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, senior citizens, etc. who are male or female.

So, if there are 1,000 young male adults and 2,000 young female adults in the whole sampling frame, you may want to choose 100 males and 200 females to keep the proportions balanced. You then choose the individual survey participants through the systematic sampling method.

Clustered sampling

This method is used when you want to subdivide a sample into smaller groups or clusters that are geographically or organizationally related.

Let’s say you’re doing quantitative research into candy sales. You could choose your sample participants from urban, suburban, or rural populations. This would give you three geographic clusters from which to select your participants.

Multi-stage sampling

This is a more refined way of doing cluster sampling. Let’s say you have your urban cluster, which is your primary sampling unit. You can subdivide this into a secondary sampling unit, say, participants who typically buy their candy in supermarkets. You could then further subdivide this group into your ultimate sampling unit. Finally, you select the actual survey participants from this unit.

Uses of probability sampling

Probability sampling has three main advantages:

  • It helps minimizes the likelihood of sampling bias. How you choose your sample determines the quality of your results. Probability sampling gives you an unbiased, randomly selected sample of your target market.

  • It allows you to create representative samples and subgroups within a sample out of a large or diverse target market.

  • It lets you use sophisticated statistical methods to select as close to perfect samples as possible.

Non-probability sampling methods

To recap, with non-probability sampling, you choose people for your sample in a non-random way, so not everyone in your sampling frame has an equal chance of being chosen. Your research findings, therefore, may not be as representative overall as probability sampling, but you may not want them to be.

Sampling bias is not a concern if all potential survey participants share similar traits. For example, you may want to specifically focus on young male adults who spend more than others on candy. In addition, it is usually a cheaper and quicker method because you don't have to work out a complex selection system that represents the entire population in that community.

Researchers do need to be mindful of carefully considering the strengths and limitations of each method before selecting a sampling technique.

Non-probability sampling is best for exploratory research, such as at the beginning of a research project.

There are five main types of non-probability sampling methods:

Convenience sampling

The strategy of convenience sampling is to choose your sample quickly and efficiently, using the least effort, usually to save money.

Let's say you want to survey the opinions of 100 millennials about a particular topic. You could send out a questionnaire over the social media platforms millennials use. Ask respondents to confirm their birth year at the top of their response sheet and, when you have your 100 responses, begin your analysis. Or you could visit restaurants and bars where millennials spend their evenings and sign people up.

A drawback of convenience sampling is that it may not yield results that apply to a broader population.

Purposive sampling

This method relies on your judgment to choose the most likely sample to deliver the most useful results. You must know enough about the survey goals and the sampling frame to choose the most appropriate sample respondents.

Your knowledge and experience save you time because you know your ideal sample candidates, so you should get high-quality results.

Voluntary response sampling

This method is similar to convenience sampling, but it is based on potential sample members volunteering rather than you looking for people.

You make it known you want to do a survey on a particular topic for a particular reason and wait until enough people volunteer. Then you give them the questionnaire or arrange interviews to ask your questions directly.

Snowball sampling

Snowball sampling involves asking selected participants to refer others who may qualify for the survey. This method is best used when there is no sampling frame available. It is also useful when the researcher doesn’t know much about the target population.

Let's say you want to research a niche topic that involves people who may be difficult to locate. For our candy example, this could be young males who buy a lot of candy, go rock climbing during the day, and watch adventure movies at night. You ask each participant to name others they know who do the same things, so you can contact them. As you make contact with more people, your sample 'snowballs' until you have all the names you need.

Quota sampling

This sampling method involves collecting the specific number of units (quotas) from your predetermined subpopulations. Quota sampling is a way of ensuring that your sample accurately represents the sampling frame.

Uses of non-probability sampling

You can use non-probability sampling when you:

  • Want to do a quick test to see if a more detailed and sophisticated survey may be worthwhile

  • Want to explore an idea to see if it 'has legs'

  • Launch a pilot study

  • Do some initial qualitative research

  • Have little time or money available (half a loaf is better than no bread at all)

  • Want to see if the initial results will help you justify a longer, more detailed, and more expensive research project

The main types of sampling bias, and how to avoid them

Sampling bias can fog or limit your research results. This will have an impact when you generalize your results across the whole target market. The two main causes of sampling bias are faulty research design and poor data collection or recording. They can affect probability and non-probability sampling.

Faulty research

If a surveyor chooses participants inappropriately, the results will not reflect the population as a whole.

A famous example is the 1948 presidential race. A telephone survey was conducted to see which candidate had more support. The problem with the research design was that, in 1948, most people with telephones were wealthy, and their opinions were very different from voters as a whole. The research implied Dewey would win, but it was Truman who became president.

Poor data collection or recording

This problem speaks for itself. The survey may be well structured, the sample groups appropriate, the questions clear and easy to understand, and the cluster sizes appropriate. But if surveyors check the wrong boxes when they get an answer or if the entire subgroup results are lost, the survey results will be biased.

How do you minimize bias in sampling?

 To get results you can rely on, you must:

  • Know enough about your target market

  • Choose one or more sample surveys to cover the whole target market properly

  • Choose enough people in each sample so your results mirror your target market

  • Have content validity. This means the content of your questions must be direct and efficiently worded. If it isn’t, the viability of your survey could be questioned. That would also be a waste of time and money, so make the wording of your questions your top focus.

  • If using probability sampling, make sure your sampling frame includes everyone it should and that your random sampling selection process includes the right proportion of the subgroups

  • If using non-probability sampling, focus on fairness, equality, and completeness in identifying your samples and subgroups. Then balance those criteria against simple convenience or other relevant factors.

What are the five types of sampling bias?

  1. Self-selection bias. If you mass-mail questionnaires to everyone in the sample, you’re more likely to get results from people with extrovert or activist personalities and not from introverts or pragmatists. So if your convenience sampling focuses on getting your quota responses quickly, it may be skewed.

  2. Non-response bias. Unhappy customers, stressed-out employees, or other sub-groups may not want to cooperate or they may pull out early.

  3. Undercoverage bias. If your survey is done, say, via email or social media platforms, it will miss people without internet access, such as those living in rural areas, the elderly, or lower-income groups.

  4. Survivorship bias. Unsuccessful people are less likely to take part. Another example may be a researcher excluding results that don’t support the overall goal. If the CEO wants to tell the shareholders about a successful product or project at the AGM, some less positive survey results may go “missing” (to take an extreme example.) The result is that your data will reflect an overly optimistic representation of the truth.

  5. Pre-screening bias. If the researcher, whose experience and knowledge are being used to pre-select respondents in a judgmental sampling, focuses more on convenience than judgment, the results may be compromised.

How do you minimize sampling bias?

Focus on the bullet points in the next section and:

  • Make survey questionnaires as direct, easy, short, and available as possible, so participants are more likely to complete them accurately and send them back

  • Follow up with the people who have been selected but have not returned their responses

  • Ignore any pressure that may produce bias

How do you decide on the type of sampling to use?

Use the ideas you've gleaned from this article to give yourself a platform, then choose the best method to meet your goals while staying within your time and cost limits.

If it isn't obvious which method you should choose, use this strategy:

  1. Clarify your research goals

  2. Clarify how accurate your research results must be to reach your goals

  3. Evaluate your goals against time and budget

  4. List the two or three most obvious sampling methods that will work for you

  5. Confirm the availability of your resources (researchers, computer time, etc.)

  6. Compare each of the possible methods with your goals, accuracy, precision, resource, time, and cost constraints

  7. Make your decision

The takeaway

Effective market research is the basis of successful marketing, advertising, and future productivity. By selecting the most appropriate sampling methods, you will collect the most useful market data and make the most effective decisions.

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