Understanding the Why? Projective Techniques in Qualitative Research

By Rachel Parry

Qualitative research aims to understand the ‘why’. As researchers, we’re often trying to delve deep into the attitudes, behaviours and opinions of an individual or organisation and uncover the reasons behind these.However, people don’t tend to have a firm understanding of their behaviours, and may not be consciously aware of the reasons behind them. Projective techniques, also known as enabling techniques, are methods that can be used by skilled researchers to tap into participants’ deep motivations and attitudes.

The phrase ‘emotional verses rational’ has been used frequently within market research. We know that a lot of what drives behaviour, even within B2B, can be irrational and driven by emotion. Understanding and identifying these emotional drivers is a difficult and inexact science. However, it can be aided by using a variety of projective techniques. Partnered with direct questioning, these tools are best placed within focus groups and depth interviews.

Projective techniques are derived from clinical psychology, and many remain rooted in this discipline. For example, the Rorschach Ink Blot Test is one of the most well-known. This involves showing subjects images of ink blots, and analysing their perceptions of them to determine personalities and mental states. Many other traditional projective techniques have been tailored for use in market research.

There are a wide variety of projective techniques available to choose from. Below is a list of some of the most popular methods:

Word Association

This is a method in which participants are presented with a word and asked to quickly respond with the first word that comes to mind. This allows insight into immediate reactions, personal connections, as well as understanding language used. This technique is used to gain feedback on new brand names, uncovering product or brand attributes, and building a picture of how a product is positioned. This technique can be effectively visualised using a word cloud, where the size of the word represents the number of times it was mentioned.

Sentence/Story Completion

This is a more developed version of word association. Here, participants are presented with a sentence or story that contains a blank, and asked to fill in the missing word or words. Similarly, to word association, this is often asked to be completed quickly, to capture initial thoughts before the response is rationalised. This encourages creative thinking and can uncover thoughts and attitudes associated with various situations.

Photo/Picture Sorts

Many people are visual thinkers and may find it difficult to articulate their opinions. Photo sorts is a technique in which participants are presented with a stack of photos or images. They are then asked to pick those that they most associate with a brand or attribute. These could be photos of people, scenes or emotions. This technique can uncover stereotypes that may exist, as well as underlying brand associations. More recently emoji’s have been used as a method for participants to represent their feelings on a series of situations. This has been effective in gaining insight into emotions that might not have immediately come to mind.

Brand Personalities

This involves asking participants to personify a brand or product, and then describe various characteristics of the ‘person’ (e.g. what they look like, what personality traits they possess) and why these were chosen. This is particularly useful in branding studies, to better understand a brand’s perceived personality, values and voice. This exercise can identify personality traits that are unique to the brand. These can then be built on to create a brand personality that is emotionally engaging and relevant to its users.

Projective techniques put relatively low strain on participants. Furthermore, using a variety of techniques as opposed to direct questioning boosts engagement and increase participant enjoyment. When used correctly, they are useful tools that can uncover true motivations behind behaviours and subconscious attitudes.

Getting to the emotions is all well and good, but so what? B2B buyers surely leave their emotions at home and make rational decisions, don’t they? WRONG! We believe that in B2B markets emotions account for a up to 50% of the buying decision. Therefore, projective techniques can help us tap in to B2B emotions to help companies have a deeper understanding of their customers and thus more closely develop communications that resonate. For example:

  • Images and colours to use in adverts and online
  • Stories that will interest customers
  • The words that should be used in body copy to resonate with customers
  • Taglines that better position the brand
  • More effective customer value propositions (focusing on what people really want and need)
  • Scripts for sales teams that will improve relationships

If you are interested in B2B emotions you might find this white paper of interest.

By Rachel Parry, Senior Research Executive, B2B International

About B2B International

B2B International is the world’s most experienced b2b market research company. It has offices covering Europe, North America and Asia and specializes in developing bespoke market research solutions for global clients, including 600 of the world’s largest 1,500 companies among its client base.

Contact: Daniel Mullins 0161 440 6000 danielm@b2binternational.com