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 European Insights Manager, Avery Zweckform. 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.