Qualitative Research – Why doesn’t it get the recognition it deserves?

Oct 22, 2013 5 Comments by

Edward Appleton

I’ve long been a fan of qualitative research – Groups, Depths, ECGs, ethnographies … both as a client and agency side provider. It’s simply powerful stuff.

A quantitative researcher by training, I am frequently stunned by how truly transformational insights are generated by relatively simple qualitative tools in a very short space of time. An evening, if you like.

Paradoxically, qualitative research is also an area of market research that in my experience gets consistently undervalued.

  • It doesn’t often make it into Board Room presentations
  • It can easily get overlooked in the drive to launch a new product or campaign
  • Sometimes it’s regarded as expensive and soft to boot.

Why is that? Is qualitative research doomed to remain the unsung hero in the marketing process? I’d say: hopefully not, despite significant headwinds. Here’s my take.

Qualitative research is about much more than “groups” – and central to “new market research”.
Ask a marketing person what they associate with qualitative research, there’s a high likelihood the answer is group discussions, possibly depths. Hardly surprising given the fact that groups were – and probably still are – the most prevalent form of qualitative research around.

This perception is narrow, hardly exciting, possibly even tainted slightly – and certainly lagging behind reality. It needs an update.

Qualitative research has a much broader toolkit now than 10 years ago. It is at the heart of some of the more successful New MR tools – ethnographies, netnography, MROCs – for example. How many of us think of those explicitly as qualitative?

If the connection were tighter, it would become clear that qualitative has moved on and is playing an important strategic, and creative, role in marketing growth initiatives. It’s pretty central to the upfront process of identifying unmet needs, for example.

The onus is on agencies – or individual practitioners – to help accelerate the speed with which that is understood to help profit from a growing and exciting industry sector.

Technology is an Opportunity for Qualitative, not a Threat.
When the first wave of online qual appeared, maybe 6 – 8   years ago in Europe, uptake was relatively slow. Many qualitative practitioners I talked to appeared cagey about it, suspicious of losing the richness of insights generated by a (real) in-person dialogue and slightly nervous about something they hadn’t done before. The thinking was often: why do a group online?

The opportunities offered by technology for different Qualitative end-uses, online communities for co-creation and innovation research for example, were slow to be recognised broadly. No doubt clients were equally responsible, risk-averse and with a clear preference for the tried-and-tested.

I’d say the techno-phobia factor is less pronounced now, and less important. Technology (like love) is all around us, invariably cost-free and easy to use. Mobile is a great qualitative insights-enabler. Take a picture of where you are, say what the occasion is, what the mood is, who the people around you are, why you’ve chosen what you just ordered. The same is true for some of the social media platforms such as Pinterest – they provide fast, inexpensive, visually driven clues, inspiration even, that can be very useful at the front end of the innovation process.

If qualitative can demonstrate to marketing that it’s technologically on the pace, has expanded its toolkit, can leverage advances in the mobile and social web for business advantage, then it’s likely to be higher up the list of research priorities when budgets are planned.

New Qualitative Needs Better Visibility
One of the fundamentals for “reward and recognition” of any discipline is visibility – both amongst Decision Makers in Corporations and amongst the General Public.

Where would behavioural economics be without the efforts of Daniel Kahnemann, Dan Pink or Dan Ariely? All are not just academics, they promote their thinking – to Governments, Industry Associations, and of course they write and publish relatively easily-readable books that reach a wider public.

How many qualitative research agencies can the average client-side researcher name, as opposed to quant?

The awareness constraints for qual are clear: the industry is small and fragmented, gaining awareness requires ongoing efforts, investment, organisation, leadership.

However, with imagination and a good marketing approach, it’s not impossible – capturing the imagination is a battle of ideas as much as anything else, and what better body of creativity than the community of qualitative researchers?

Big Data Will Ultimately Help Qualitative
There is so much currently written about big data, predictive analytics and data mining, the quantification of cities, the self. One can already sense the upcoming backlash. We have more and more data, but less and less intelligence.

I’d dare to predict that a technology-savvy qualitative research body should profit in the post-hype phase of big data – back to the microscopic, understanding context properly, a serious take on understanding the “why” as well as the “what”.

Behavioural economics has already established the primacy and science of “irrationality” (we are predictably irrational, according to Dan Ariely), the importance of context in understanding behaviour – so what better discipline than qual to help piece together a picture of what is really going on when people go about their daily purchasing lives.

All of the above sounds perhaps overly optimistic. There are indeed multiple headwinds working against qualitative:

  • The current and ongoing obsession with quantification
  • Cultural biases (both the US and Germany) that place more importance on quantification
  • Claims made occasionally by neuroscience that attempt to render alternative methods of understanding less interesting.

All of these are powerful forces, creating “dominant narratives”.

There are also structural challenges, not the least of which being the diminished status of brand and creativity in a world of online advertising and Google Adwords. Ad Agencies’ creative departments may often have been vociferous opponents of research, but they were and are important clients with influential staff and leaders.

Leaving aside the shrinking importance of advertisement agencies, there is room, a need even, to create a new qualitative narrative with broader resonance, should those working within the industry have the appetite for it .

As Moses Naim recently outlines in his book The End of Power, dominant power structures, the mega-players, are crumbling – thanks largely to low-cost and widely available communications technology, it is becoming increasingly easy for the voices of small, splinter groups, micropowers – think the pirate movement, Occupy – to be heard.

On a more banal level, qualitative research, individually (quicker but often with lower impact) and collectively (powerful but slower) could implement tried and tested PR and marketing techniques. Celebrate “stars”, use anniversaries/birthdays eg of Sigmund Freud, Bill Schlackman, co-opt powerful and famous people, tap the ad industry for creative voices who loved qualitative … the list is a long one.

Perhaps it’s time for the qualitative movement to make its powerful voice heard more clearly.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Appleton is Senior Manager Consumer Insights, Coca Cola Gmbh. Edward is presenting at this year’s ESOMAR Qualitative 2013 event. If you’re interested in attending you can register on the ESOMAR event pages.


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5 Responses to “Qualitative Research – Why doesn’t it get the recognition it deserves?”

  1. Frankie Johnson says:

    Thank you for writing this, Edward. I always enjoy your writing and perspective on our business. Since I am the first to comment, I can ask “why doesn’t this post get the recognition it deserves?”

    All your points are spot on. I’ll add one more. The qualitative business is small, fragmented AND predominantly female. Women have not often assumed leadership roles in market research – I won’t dabble in theories of why. But I do think that the lack of recognition for qualitative reflects the lack of recognition for women. For instance, the AMA Parlin award for excellence in marketing research has been awarded to just one woman in 66 years, Faith Popcorn. Most MR conferences tend to have an abundance of male speakers despite attendees being split fairly evenly by gender. And only about 10% of the CEOs of top MR companies are female. I could go on with dozens of examples. This is in an industry founded and staffed by many women, unlike tech where the lack of women leaders tends to reflect the low proportion of women throughout its ranks.

    I’m not casting blame here. But there is an obvious connection between the lack of recognition of the contribution of qualitative and the downplaying of the role of women in market research.

  2. Stephen Cribbett says:

    Well done Ed for capturing the current feeling toward Qualitative Research. I do, however, feel that the discipline and rigour of qualitative research has been snatched from the hands of researchers and massaged into co-creation – the emperors new clothes!

    Working ‘with’ the consumer rather than simply trying to ‘understand’ them is the result of technology-enablement and where ultimately qual has ended up. But it’s not being ‘owned’ by the MR industry, leadership has been assumed by brand strategists, product design and innovation professionals, and those who ultimately have a louder voice and a clearer line into the marketing director.

  3. Steve August says:

    Edward – this is an excellent post on the triumphs, tribulations and opportunities of qual in the quant/big data world. Qual uncovers the ‘Why’ that lies at the heart of the quantifiable “What” – and it is really only when the “Why” is understood that effective decisions can be made.

    I would also add that while the big data headlines work somewhat against qual, there is a new appreciation of qualitative information, since so much of the big data in the social media space are really small bits of qual data.

    Ultimately, the holy grail is to be able effortless drill down from quantifiable data that maps what is happening into the qual information that shows why.

  4. Edward Appleton says:

    Frankie – thank you, for commenting, and for the kind words. Do you think that qual. would be taken more seriously if more major MR companies were headed up by women? If I am not mistaken, Phyllis McFarlane was head of NOP/Gfk for some time, and is now very senior within the UK MRS. Just an example, and perhaps the exception, I have no overview.

    Stephen – do you ever feel that MR overall was ever actually not dominated by those driving eg innovation, product design – those closer to a) sales b) Marketing directors? I would think qual. could do worse than bask in the reflected glory of co-creation?

    Steve – I think Big Data will pan out as relevant for some industries (finance, health, telecoms for example) and for certain purposes, but it will probably raise more questions than answers. I would suggest the holy grail for MR is to drill up from qual. to the quantifiable – we simply need to find ways of putting a humanist agenda back on the map, that is not swept away by the “certainty” and safety of stats, science….;)

  5. Alan says:

    First I should say I know next to nothing about Qual. Nearly all my experience is in home F2F Quant.

    Just a couple of points –

    The natural attraction of Business people to big numbers is a possible reason for an unconscious bias toward Quant. This is coupled with the fact that Statistics may be cruel but they are reliable and repeatable, ample reason for a conscious preference.

    Where do you find the people that engage in Qual research, and without the Quant how can you know that they are (nominally at least) representative? Self selection is inevitably going to result in a more articulate and open character coming forward.

    The way I deal with this on the doorstep is to emphasize the Quantitative and Inclusive nature of the research, that “You don’t have to be Einstein or even interested in the subject of the research, you are a like pixel on a tv screen; its not the end of the world if you don’t participate, but we wont have a perfect picture without you” – This draws in many otherwise shy or disinterested participants.

    The responsibility of getting involved in Qual will put many otherwise sound and useful respondents off. Likewise, online methods accentuate the selection bias.

    I particularly like the idea of “drilling (or synthesising) up from qual. to the quantifiable” – it has long been a bugbear of every decent F2F interviewer that the 20 minutes of quality time spent in a Quant interview is boiled down to a few hundred bytes of data; all nuance, extraneous and contextual information is lost. Note in the margins will only take us so far.

    If there was a way to deliver better quality questions and record more detail in the response that would be a huge step forward in bringing Quality into Quant. Qualitative training for individual ground level Quant Interviewers combined with intelligent scripting could very easily multiply our value.


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