By Edward Appleton

Berlin hosted this year’s (and 20th running of) ESOMAR’s Global Qualitative Conference, focusing on The Business Value of Intelligent Stories – two days packed full of case studies, almost 50 hours in total I believe, over 200 people there in person, and over 750 joining via the free live ESOMAR TV stream.

So – what was sticky with this observer? Well, I have pages and pages of notes, but I will try to write top of mind.

The stand-out memory to me was listening to Oana Popa Rengle from Rumanian Agency MAPPERS talking about how techniques borrowed from narrative psychology can help when mining existing data to challenge what she termed dominant client side narratives. It was crisp, intellectually challenging, reflected well the challenges facing many large client-side insights organizations in maturing markets – insight saturation, stagnation even coupled with low topline growth – and suggested ways of breaking through such entrenched thinking with practical tips. It was awarded best presentation.

Second up: video is key in reporting out qual, capturing meaningful moments for emotional impact – it takes us there, grabs us, pulls us in… so many of the presenters demonstrated the power of video, the work presented by folk from Join the Dots was powerful.

Third: branding works – something we quallies ignore at our peril. Branding isn’t about just a logo – it includes giving an identity to individual pieces of work such as presentations, where the visual reporting aspect grabs the eye and helps content stick.

There’s an upside to the additional time and effort involved – our own presentation with Zalando got plenty of Twitter shares for the lively gaming style we adopted in our case study; Richard Drury from Walgreen Boots Alliance UK and Nick Coates from C Space shared how they used printed invitations to stakeholders for a report-out – a bit like an invitation to a party. Meeting invites become “movie trailers”, the de-brief “theatre”, the researcher the “producer”. Did George Lucas of Star Wars fame ever consider becoming a researcher, I wonder? The downside is sobering – good thinking can easily be forgotten if there’s nothing visually captivating to make it stick. There was one excellent paper from Ferro Explore’s Jochum Siemstra on how story-listening is as important as story-telling in helping a charity engage with potential donors – but it was only when flicking through my notes that the prompt happened, the aha moment came. I could easily have forgotten the brilliance. The visual appeal was perhaps lacking – at least to me. Curious as to others’ views.

Fourth: Twitter teamed up with Flamingo to show how contemporary qual is embracing adjacent disciplines – formal linguistic analysis in this case – to mash up with analytics, bigger data if you will – the levels of RTs, likes etc – to deliver holistic answers, in this case answering: what makes a good “’Tweet”?

Their key take-out – that Twitter effectively falls between “speech” and “writing” thereby emerging as a new language – was compelling, and has all sorts of implications for marketing and comms. That this team received the Peter Cooper Award for ESOMAR Qualitative Excellence was deserved…. off I go to read their paper to refresh myself on the 12 types of successful Tweets they identified, in the hope that I can become a better Twitterer.

Rolling on to point five…. Qual has business impact. Period.

Unilever and Nielsen shared a case where the combination of eye-tracking with focus groups aiming to understanding male motivations and purchase triggers better helped drive staggeringly impressive sales and web traffic uplift. Finn Raben mentioned this in his keynote summary – Qual and ROI stories are of huge importance, lend weight and gain the attention of broader business audiences.

Point six – Qual voices, success stories need to be heard. Our industry hasn’t had a great reputational year, as fabulously upbeat Chairperson Sven Arn pointed out right at the beginning of Day 1. The 2016 polling industry’s efforts in the UK (Brexit) and the USA (Trump) were sadly not impressive; none of us in the market research industry can likely avoid the negative halo effect.

Ensuring qual stories and insights are disseminated broadly is a challenge, and one risen to nicely by KAO and Point Blank, who presented their idea of a company-wide insight toolkit as a way to drive consumer-centricity and avoid the sense of doing the same or very similar research over and over again.

That’s it from the top-of-mind drawer. So what conclusions could I make?

Point seven: Overall, qual seems well placed to deliver its very own form of “consultancy” – combining people understanding and storytelling skills with tech to capture experiences and moments in the raw.

Sure, we have way to go – but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, especially as more people experience and understand what new qual is all about.

The two delightful students Mia Hasanagic (University of Denmark) and Suki Arunyaphoom (2 x 4 Solutions) closed the proceedings with their message to the audience – to paraphrase Suki:

“My friends all wondered why I was going to a conference on Market Research, it sounded really boring. It’s been an eye-opener, I will spread the word amongst my fellow millennials”

Quite. Onwards and upwards – may we combine our humanness with intellectual rigour, harnessing the excitement and enabling power of tech to pack a business punch. On that rather exhortatory, messianic note, I will wrap up, swerving into a closing question:

If you were there, or one of the 750 joining us via ESOMAR TV on the free livestream – what were your impressions? Do share.

And to close – really – there was one question that remained tantalizingly unanswered over the two days….if the first Esomar Qual conference was in 1990, why was this their 20th birthday event in 2016? Were we meant to feel quantitatively challenged, I wonder? Answers on a postcard please….;)

By Edward Appleton, Happy Thinking People