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A Renaissance of Qualitative Research

In a world characterized by speed, of rapid hypothesis development, and agility, the very subjectivity that was once regarded as a disadvantage (flaky) is being more broadly accepted as an advantage.



By Edward Appleton

“The qualitative research renaissance is in full swing”.

Wow – a bold assertion from Adam Rossow on the GreenBook Blog.

Is it true?

I’d like to think so, working in the qualitative space. But is it wishful thinking? His article focuses on the need for qual to address “scale” more seriously – suggesting the ability to ask an open-ender to thousands of people fast might help.

I think something altogether different is going on – qual is morphing into something else, something resembling the function of “account planners” that flourished in much of the English speaking creative and marketing world from the 1970s – 1990s, perhaps longer. It’s not really about “scalability”.

Here’s my take.

  • If Context is King, Qual is Queen.

Behavioral Economics has given considerable weight to the importance of context, emotion and social factors in understanding what we do, say, think.

More innovative qual delivers on this through e.g. ethnographic and observational techniques – taking behavior as the base line from which to branch out to “understanding”.

The question “why” is just too important to be left to the direct but invariably shallow direct questioning approach – how, when, who, what…..all that can create a rich understanding of a person’s everyday reality that quant, especially digital, either can’t or doesn’t.

  • The remarkable Rise of the fast-growing Integrated Agency

One press release caught my eye recently – from a medium-sized German based but globally operating market research agency (no, not Happy Thinking People) which I’d thought of as a qual institute. Two things stood out:

Their 2015 YOY growth rate of +20% – hardly peanuts on a turnover base of over Euro 30 million and employing well over 200 people worldwide

Half their turnover is from quant. projects – they’re clearly an integrated shop, not just a “qual” outfit

There are plenty more out there like that, maybe not quite so large but growing fast  – feedback from the AQR Event I attended recently in London confirmed strong demand for strategic advice from mix-method qualitative consultancies.

Take out – qual is no longer either a mix of one-or-two man band operations or a quasi-invisible unit tucked into a major network MR player. There are new types of operations with size, scope and (ha!) scale!

  • Groups, In-Depth-Interviews….sure. But that’s not all!

Setting aside qual-quant integration, many qual agencies have positively bounded into an era where digital is a friend, not an enemy. OK, it may have taken a few years, but still.

Online communities, mobile ethnographies – to name a couple – are not just a must-have in the expanded qual toolkit to avoid being perceived as a digital dinosaur, they open up fertile new business areas such as innovation projects or co-creation.

That leads to a more consultative approach, with facilitating skills becoming as important as moderation. Many qualitative researchers are ideally placed to take that small step, many already have.

  • Creativity Beckons…

Remember Account Planning?

Originally a London-inspired discipline within advertising agencies (J Walter Thompson, BMP are two that spring to mind) to help steer the creative process, maybe even ground it in real-life, it struggled for a while especially in the Noughties, with many agencies not investing in it, with the surge of digital advertising with its A/B testing and eminent measurability pushing it aside.

It seems like planning’s enjoying a renaissance – I see two factors at play:

Firstly, the crucial role of “availability” (mental & on-shelf) has been stressed by Prof. Byron Sharp of Bass Ehrenberg Institute fame in his influential and widely cited book “How Brands Grow”.

Secondly, the role of TV advertising in creating emotional brand bonds – creating positive bias, if you like – seems unchallenged by digital transformation tools. I’ll let folk from the IPA comment on this, should anybody be reading.

Still with me? Well, I was also interested to see that BBDO has hired a seasoned planner in its German office “to boost the planning offer” very recently – something I haven’t seen for ages. TV ads are expensive – they need, well “planning”.

An opportunity for qualitative research? Sure – qual. and creativity were and are linked if not at the hip, then at least enjoying strong attachment, however tense things may sometimes become.

  • Creativity Summons

What do qualitative researchers feel when they see a creative execution based on their insights work that has gone “off-track”? Not that good. The work’s gone through numerous iterations, modification phases, tweaks, with various voices influencing the message, but net-net: the work no longer corresponds to the original insight.

Insights can fall through the cracks – organizationally it’s maybe time to look at closing the gap between qualitative work on creative development or brand positioning and the people executing. Whether it’s via closer co-operation models, or looking a new ways of allowing insights folk to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the creatives executing the insights.

In summary – I’d say we’re indeed witnessing not just a renaissance of qualitative research, we’re seeing a transformation.

It’s shifting into a world characterized by speed, of rapid hypothesis development, agility, where it works in often inter-disciplinary teams at the front end – I’d say the heart – of an innovation process, for example.

The very subjectivity that was once regarded as a disadvantage (flaky) is being more broadly accepted as an advantage.

There’s plenty more evidence emerging about the new importance of qual. in a changed MR world.

The 2016 Esomar qual event in Berlin, for example, follows immediately after Esomar’s new conference Big Data World also in Berlin, same venue – reflecting a likely future combination of disciplines, “smart” data partnering with “small” data. The AQR in UK reported strong growth in pretty much every area – financials were robust, membership up strongly as I recall.

Maybe its time for the voice of Qualitative to be heard more clearly and broadly – hence this article, I suppose.

Curious, as ever, as to other’s views.

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3 responses to “A Renaissance of Qualitative Research

  1. Yes, there is a qualitative renaissance, at least among the most sophisticated marketers. Time will tell if industry statistics show real dollars moving, but there is a change in what clients are seeking. (in fact, industry studies will probably have difficulty accurately measuring, because the nature of the tracking questions no longer matches the nature of the work.)

    I am seeing more interest in strategic projects vs. ad hoc and tactical projects. These are typically more complex to execute, but generate a much better foundation on which to build competitive advantage.

    Internal project teams are larger as a result of really including the business people in the the insights process, not only the researchers. It’s a pleasure to have more contact with the executives charged with delivering business results, not just the senior managers managing a research project.

    More integrative analysis is sough, not only integrative methodology.
    So we are asked for more that looks like consulting than qualitative data gathering. For the right research consultant, this is a joy.

    As you point out Edward, larger teams on the consulting side are also required, just because there are so many moving parts. Not necessarily qual + quant, but potentially data mining, social media mining, co-creation events, and so forth. And frequently multiple qualitative approaches inside a single project: online, offline, shallow dives, deep dives.

    Among the good news is that brains are winning. Glitzy methodologies that do not ultimately deliver a basis for competitive advantage don’t get a second project.

    I think we are also getting more receptivity to — rapidly followed by escalating demands for — more engaging ways of presenting information, which means inclusion of video and graphic specialists in the creation of research deliverables.

    It’s an exciting time. I am doing some of the best and most impactful work of my career.

  2. Hi Susan – what do you see as the main challenges for Quallies to rise to the opportunites out there with a consultatative flavour? Size of Organisation – scope, scale? Skills? Awareness Levels, Branding? Sales drive, Business acumen? Am curious – qual. in Europe tends to still fly a bit unseen, maybe that’s different in the US? Curious about other qual perspectives from around the globe

  3. For a sustainable rise of qual, true quant+qual integration is a must. Since this is now readily availably, I second Edward’s prediction that there will be a renaissance, as measured by an increased share of qual in MR industry revenues over the next several years.

    I suspect that the reason for the dominance of qual (before quant qual integration became available) was its falsifiability – the very foundation of the scientific principle. As long as there was only stand-alone qual, researchers had no handle what a qual finding actually meant. Verifiable meaning needs a measurable expression, a translation into a quantified business result.

    Having said that we can predict even further. As more and more methods with true quant/qual integration become available, the old distinction will blur, first at the edges, and on the long run disappear completely when the integrated methodologies displace the “crippled” pure ones.

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