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Going Big with Qualitative Market Research


By Adam Rossow

The qualitative research renaissance is in full swing. Brands have figured out that context is the key to understanding what’s relevant. And, we have seen through countless examples that left to its own devices, data of any size can lead to missteps based on assumptions.

Despite qualitative’s growing value, drawbacks, both perceived and actual, are still a drag on the more touchy-feely research discipline. A major one being its lack of scale. Many people need the security blanket of large base sizes; the ability to say “3000 people said this”, even if that mass response is too vague or cloudy to prompt action.

It’s understandable. There is always safety in numbers.

But qualitative is branching out. While it’s still the home of the intimate focus group and in-depth individual conversations, it can also be the vehicle that empowers 1,500 consumers to paint a picture of the type of person that stays at an Airbnb, or the platform for 1000 digital natives to provide insight into technology’s role in the shopping experience.

Thanks to advances in sampling, outreach platforms and text analytics, quickly launching a series of open-ended questions to the masses is possible. And, extracting insights from a mountain of responses isn’t nearly as tedious or susceptible to missteps and vagaries as it used to be. That ability to ask and analyze at scale has given rise to a different breed of qualitative. And while a few questions don’t provide the same depth as hour long IDI’s, they do provide a valuable utility for brands – that of quick contextual insight from a large number of individuals.

With just a few open ends clients can get an up to the minute view of their customers, understand if what they are communicating to consumers resonates, uncover which product features are most important, see how their competition is perceived, and more.

Despite needing only a few key ingredients to achieve qualitative at scale, the recipe for success in not so simple. Anyone who has experience working with open ends and text analytics has seen their fair share of one-word answers, word clouds, and uninformative findings. Effectiveness lies in meticulous question formulation and testing, as well as analysis that provides a story, not just word counts and nebulous themes. As with any good qualitative initiative, preparedness and skilled people are vital.

So next time you need answers from the masses, don’t immediately default to quantitative research that’s void of context. You may be missing out on the opportunity to have your scale and your story too.


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6 responses to “Going Big with Qualitative Market Research

  1. Justin, I don’t think that all research needs to employ both disciplines. What the client’s needs are and the project objectives may clearly dictate one over the other or a blend of the two. I do believe that many brands are relying to heavily on data though, and that can lead to risky assumptions. I’m always an advocate for the context whenever it makes sense.

  2. Adam:
    Nice article and it is an exciting time to be doing qualitative with lots of new tools at our disposal. Can/would you provide an example or two of what you call ‘outreach platforms’ and ‘text analytics’ tools that can make this type of research happen? I know what you meant by these things – I’ve used both – but there are many players out there with varying degrees of capabilities. Thanks!
    Bruce Peoples

  3. Sorry I’m late on this Bruce. Just saw your comment… You’re right, there are many players out there to sift through. When I refer to outreach platforms I’m thinking along the lines of a vehicle that can deploy a quick micro survey of a few open ends to the masses. Depending on who you’re targeting, something like a Google Consumer Surveys or Survata could work. But, you’ve got to really spend some time formulating and testing questions to get the most thoughtful response possible. When it comes to text analytics, it runs the gamut. There are very robust solutions like Clarabridge, to more scaled back ones like Wordstat. I just caution that the tool only takes you so far. I’m a believer in coupling software with human analysis to get the best results.

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