Why qualitative research is as needed as ever in marketing

Old? These days qualitative research looks positively medieval. While practitioners of its younger brother – quantitative research – boast of crunching big data on servers and running algorithms to find patterns, qual researchers are talking to people. Slowly. In a room. They could do it with a quill pen on parchment.

Yet if you ask a market researcher whether there’s life in “ye ancient qual”, you’ll get to see a grin on their face and a glint in their eye. Qualitative research is as loved and needed as ever. But why?

“You get flashes of brilliance with qual,” says Matthew Froggatt of market research agency Incite. “If you have a new product and you want to find a way of articulating its benefits in a language consumers find compelling, then use a focus group. The right words might just fall out of one of the participants.”

A qual session can sober up marketers. “Marketers can get tunnel vision from time to time,” says Mr Froggatt. “Show them a vox pop of a real consumer talking about their product and the scales fall from their eyes.”

Qual beats quant for texture and nuance. That’s its job. It goes deeper. It probes areas which numbers and tick-box exercises can’t capture. How could that ever be obsolete?

Interviewing Techniques

Doing qual relies on one-to-one interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research – watching people at home as they brush their teeth, watch TV, eat family meals and go to sleep. But there have been a few advances.

The rise of smartphones means ethnographic research can be accessed on demand. This is a big step forward for the qual profession.

A popular startup in this space is Streetbees. Founded in 2014, it offers brand managers a pool of 20,000 consumers, or bees, in 81 countries who’ll do whatever is asked of them.

“We do videos,” says Streetbees founder Tugce Bulut. “We had a client who wanted to know how mothers feed their babies aged six to twelve months in Switzerland, Germany, France, Poland, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. That research used to take months and cost £20k. We asked our bees to film what they did in their homes. Some used cereal with milk, some used Aptamil. The client saw what these consumers did and what they stocked in their kitchens. Our research cost £2k and took two days to undertake.”

PepsiCo used Streetbees to gather data on consumer snacking habits after dinner. The Streetbees community was able to offer near-instant footage of their activities. Unilever, Starcom Mediavest and Innocent Drinks are clients – an impressive roster for a startup.

Part of the appeal of the Streetbees formula is the lack of contamination. The bees download an app to participate and get paid a small amount for each bit of research they submit. Qual researchers are rightly paranoid about interfering with consumers with leading questions or intrusive camera crews. This approach gets round that issue.

It isn’t always possible to keep arm’s length from consumers when doing qualitative research. Focus groups are the mainstay of qual and need the presence of a moderator. With tiny numbers – as few as eight consumers – sessions are always at risk of going sour.

Paul Hague, founder of market research agency B2B International, has been doing qual for more than four decades. He recalls: “I ran a focus group for a gas company. As I went round, one of the attendees said her husband worked for BOC, a competitor. The client knocked on the door and said ‘Get her out!’ It created a huge problem. She left. The others were disturbed. It took a while to calm them down.”

Mr Hague says qual can only be trusted if the moderator has the skill to tease opinions from the group without triggering a bias or freaking them out. “It’s a piece of theatre,” he advises.

When used well, qualitative research gets to hidden layers that are not easily accessible, providing a complete picture of people in context

Can focus groups be valid, with so few participants? Mr Hague: “If a new restaurant opened, how many people would you need to ask before you felt confident that you knew if it was good or bad? Two? You don’t need to ask 200. With a big number, you get more accuracy, but not necessarily any greater understanding of what the place was like, its strengths and weaknesses. Just ten to thirty consumers are all you need for good qualitative research.”

Pollster and market research agency Opinium Research is using pop-up communities to offer quick, uncontaminated qual responses. Managing director James Endersby says: “We recruit relevant respondents on to an online-platform community where we are able to engage with them for a number of days as we feed tasks and queries to them or load up images of products for them to view. They are able to log on in their own time to feedback their opinions and build the discussion. These pop-up communities are great value for money for clients and provide a huge amount of powerful qualitative insight.”

Methods such as this will bring qual to even the most budget-conscious firms. However, there will always be a constraint on qual. It is a time-consuming, forensic process. There are no shortcuts. Anjali Puri, global head of TNS Qualitative, says: “While it’s relatively easy now to draw verbatims from social data and to make quick and easy connections with consumers in real time, if we base judgments on fragments and sound bites rather than full stories, we are in danger of losing the real meaning of things.

“When used well, qualitative research gets to hidden layers that are not easily accessible, providing a complete picture of people in context – a story that goes beyond the fragments that any other approach provides.”

So yes, qual is old fashioned. It can’t be delegated to a machine. But this is its charm and strength – and the reason it will be around for years to come.


The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy of Arts is arguably the finest gallery in the country. It is still independent, supported by members and paying visitors who come to see the extraordinary collection of paintings, books and the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the UK. The Summer Exhibitions attract big crowds, swelling annual numbers to around 1.3 million.

The management of the Royal Academy was keen to learn more about the visitor experience. Quantitative, tick-box market research was felt to be contrary to the spirit of the institution. Asking art lovers to fill out forms would destroy the emotional resonance of the experience. Besides, the Royal Academy wanted deeper, non-verbal insights into the way art affects viewers.

So, in the summer of 2014, qualitative research agency Northstar Research Partners, together with the London School of Economics, conducted an ethnographic study for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

It was the first such study of its kind in the 245-year history of the institution. It was hoped the results would help the management lure in a new generation of visitors and improve the experience for old-hands.

Northstar used a method called “micro anthropology”. This borrows from the field of academic anthropology. It requires close, but unobtrusive, observation of communities. The big difference being the time frame; Northstar had a few months, not the years usually spent by academics in the field.

The Northstar researchers recorded “micro moments” which reveal how visitors are responding to the art. These include recording conversations, interactions, gestures and movements within the exhibition context.

Northstar’s researchers then looked at three areas of the visitor experience. First, the Summer Exhibition is known for its free-flowing navigation. There are few signs to guide viewers; they make their own way. The idea is to allow each visitor to have their own personal, undirected experience.

Secondly, there is a big family element to the Summer Exhibition. Children accompany their parents, making it distinct from other galleries where lone visitors are more common.

Thirdly, the study looked at the impact of the highly varied artists on offer. Unlike, say Tate Modern or the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Academy hosts a wide array of art across all styles. This is the same venue which put on the Young British Artists’ Sensation exhibition, launching the career of Tracy Emin, and next year will host Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.

The results of the qualitative study? A number of changes were made to the current Summer Exhibition, including a greater online and social media presence, changes to opening hours to encourage family attendance, and minor variations in curation and exhibition design. The Royal Academy reports an increase in visitors of 30 per cent in the first weeks of this year’s Summer Exhibition compared to 2014.