How to get the most out of Qualitative research

Qualitative research can play a vital role in enabling brands to navigate our rapidly changing world. We can use this Covid-19 period as an opportunity to stand back and assess how we’ve been working; to retain and develop what’s good; to challenge what’s got rotten.

For the past decade, I have worked selling and conducting international Qualitative research. As I find myself in a new country and working for myself I have been thinking about how clients can get the most out of Qual.

I’ve tried to roughly follow the chronology of a project:

1. Come to us with a business problem, not a method

The most frustrating “briefs” are ‘we should probably do a few groups’. Ok, thanks for getting in touch – but what’s the purpose of your request? If it’s just to meet consumers or humanize data then that’s ok – but maybe just spend time where your consumers hang out. Qualitative research is a toolkit of techniques and methods that provide insight to unlock strategic challenges.

Requests like this devalue Qualitative research. In this challenging time, we could all do without that!

2. Tell us what you want to do next, right at the start

Budgets will be even more precious moving forward, so if you’re going to spend money it better get you where you need to go.

That means you’ll benefit from telling us upfront what the research needs to enable you to do. This gives us a focus; we can give you what you need and also not waste time and money giving you things you don’t. 

Sometimes, qual may not get where you want to go, or it may be that qual can get you some of the way there.  If that’s the case, we need to be clear right from the beginning.

There are plenty of articles out there which dismiss Qualitative research by demonstrating it’s not very good at doing something it’s not designed to do. Attempting to fit Qual where it’s not right only adds fuel to these articles.

3 Brief us on what matters, don’t waste time on what doesn’t

Take the time to brief your qualitative agency and get other stakeholders at that briefing. The more we know the more useful we can be.

If you tell us what you already know, it’s a lot less likely the project will end with a limply put ‘thank you, I think that confirmed a lot of what we knew’.

Just don’t waste time at the briefing. It can be awfully fun musing on if the sample break should be 30 or 32; or if we should do St Louis or Atlanta, but it’s not the best use of time here.

4. Make us part of the team

Qual agencies are rarely on the retainers comms or quant agencies enjoy. That can be a good thing; it means that we come to things fresh. It can be particularly appealing for clients when ‘testing’ something. Our outsider status reassures everyone we’re not marking our own homework.

But you’re not getting the best out of your qual agency if you treat us like independent inspectors. The more we’re integrated with the team, the more useful we can be. Our role is not to be impartial but, like everyone else, to work for the best interests of the brand.

Great planners and great qual researchers should happily work together. I’d argue they do, but if you have a mediocre researcher or planner you can hit problems. Any good qual researcher should be able to talk the talk about ideas and ‘the work’.

5. Give us good stimulus

Good stimulus is not the necessarily same as good work or a good idea. Stimulus is a tool that enables good researchers to get to the insight they need.

If we’re ‘testing’ an idea we want to present it in the best possible way. If we’re at a more exploratory phase then stimulus is there to stimulate. It’s ok if people hate it, that could even be the point – if we can expose the no go areas and the edges that might help us to more clearly define the space in which we can operate.

6. Come along if you can, but behave

We like it when clients attend fieldwork; just remember the fieldwork is just one part of qualitative research. What you’re witnessing here is the raw data collection.

I’d suggest clients attend for two reasons; to ensure the method is working and for inspiration.

It can be reassuring to check in that methods and tools (incl. stimulus) you’ve signed off are working. Whilst we never want to be ‘chasing the last group’, your presence then can enable us to tweak.

Beyond the specific research objectives it should be inspiring to hear your consumers talking about you – the language and tone; what they do (and don’t!) care about. We love it when clients and agencies leave fieldwork buzzing with ideas and new insights, even if they’re not on brief for this project.

7. Remember what you’re really paying for 

Moderating is the easy bit of qualitative research; it’s not primarily what you’re paying for. A good researcher isn’t only moderating when they moderate – they’re also analyzing and developing hypotheses to drop in.

For good or ill don’t judge us solely on how much you enjoy observing the fieldwork. Obviously a good researcher will ensure fieldwork is engaging and dynamic, for respondents and therefore clients, but that’s not our primary aim. The fieldwork is our inspiration; we’re using that time with consumers to stimulate our thinking.

8. Don’t indulge us; support us when we’re creating outputs

Qualitative researchers want to sound interesting and intelligent (don’t we all), but what matters is that we are insightful. ‘Interesting’, ‘Intelligent’ and ‘Insightful’ are not always the same. Tell us when we’re not being insightful – if we’re new to the category/brand it’s possible that what we find insightful isn’t really.

Clients can also help us to be more impactful with stakeholders. What do stakeholders need to see/hear to take on board what we’re saying? Does it need to be beautifully designed, does it need to be littered with verbatim? Sometimes what’s required is a 30-minute call and a shit hot one pager; sometimes we need to deliver something big and beautiful through a workshop.

9. Don’t ask us what consumers said

You’re paying for our thinking, not the consumers’. This is actually a more general point about the sort of questions to ask at the debrief. Make us earn our money, question and debate our thinking and recommendations. Questions that start ‘What did they say about….?’ are really just asking to see the raw data. We’ll send you the recordings if you like.

Between fieldwork and debrief is when good Qual researchers earn their money. Qual can tell you so much more than what people said. It can surface the drivers and perceptions underpinning behaviour. It can bring your consumers (and potential consumers) to life; highlighting their functional and emotional needs. It can identify how your brand could better meet these needs and become uniquely relevant. This all comes from good analysis and thinking.

10. Don’t let us hide 

Of course researchers should have the confidence and intelligence to sometimes say ‘I don’t know’, but don’t let us hide behind the equivocal nature of qualitative research. If a researcher says “I’m not sure the research answers that” push them.

We may not be able to give the definitive final word but the least we can do is offer an intelligent contribution. This again comes back to what you’re paying for – our thinking, not the consumers’. Just because the consumers didn’t manage to crack the big strategic question – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to offer an intelligent point of view.

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