In Defense of Qualitative Research/StarpointConsultingGroupQualitative is Dead.

I had lunch recently with a good friend and former colleague who, like me, received his graduate training at a top-ranked Midwestern university known for its quantitative social science research programs. During our lunch he once again put forth the proposition that “Qualitative research is dead. And, besides, who needs it…?” This is an old argument – we’ve been over this issue several times in the past – but now he makes his case in the wake of the recent observation that we have entered “the post-survey era” in which marketing research has morphed “from an analog to digital world, with new tools in big data and advanced analytics, observation of actual consumer behavior via scanning UPC codes, and advances in the neurosciences.”*

Long Live Big Data.

My friend’s emphasis, his evidence for the demise of qualitative research, is the evolving use of “big data” – specifically social listening techniques for monitoring brand equity, advertising campaign impact, shopper marketing initiatives and perceptions of product quality. Some of the examples he cited for the superiority of social listening versus traditional qualitative methods included:

  • A prominent advertising campaign (and the agency that produced it) was quickly changed when social media revealed unintended interpretations and negative reactions to the humorous approach that had been employed.
  • The packaging of a hair care product for an ethnic minority was quickly changed when social media revealed that a key product descriptor was missing from the front of the package.
  • A major website was quickly relaunched when users complained about the site’s new design.
  • Shopper marketing initiatives are now being tracked – and in some cases completely managed – through social media.
  • Specific consumer language and topical issues now can be pulled directly from social media for incorporation into tracking studies.
  • Twitter feeds can be shown to be predictive of ratings in brand tracking studies.

Problem Detection vs. Problem Avoidance.

Let’s assume that all of my friend’s examples are completely accurate as described. The last three examples probably represent clear advances in efficiency and in our ability to use massive social commentary for modeling efforts. But what about the first three examples: the advertising campaign that backfired, the package labeling error and the problematic website design? Are they examples of how social listening triumphed, or are they examples of expensive mistakes that could have been avoided through the use of traditional qualitative techniques? I would argue the latter: in all three cases the problems uncovered by social listening techniques could have been avoided prior to launch had appropriately designed qualitative research been employed during the development process.

Vote Early. Vote Often.

Qualitative research is enormously helpful on the front end of a creative or new product developmental effort – and in my experience it can be extremely cost effective, as well. Consider the example of the advertising campaign that had to be scrapped. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce new advertising. Why wait until you’ve spent the money to find out if you’ve got a problem? A simple communications check on work in progress, consisting of 12-24 IDIs and costing around $20k (or less), can tell you almost immediately if:

  • The target consumer recognizes and recalls the brand being advertised.
  • The target consumers feel that the advertising is relevant to them and to their lifestyle/lifestage.
  • The advertising delivers on its intended strategic messages.
  • The advertising is judged to be distinctive or original.
  • There are no “red flags” – unintended interpretations of the copy or negative reactions to the images, metaphors or humor that have been employed.

Seriously: why wouldn’t you do this before finalizing your creative and going into production?

The same can be said for logos and brand ID concepts, for package designs, for displays, and for websites and apps: qualitative research performed early in the process can substantially improve the end result at a cost that is marginal compared to the total costs of development. A lot of problems can be completely avoided and the total elapsed time for the research – from recruiting through reporting – usually can be measured in days.

Good for new products, too.

I have found qualitative techniques, especially IDIs and couple’s dyads with purchase decision-makers, to be tremendously helpful for new product development, as well. The classic implementation would be a series of quick concept checks on work in progress to immediately focus the development team on the concepts with the most promise. I also recommend short, intensive qualitative interventions at key checkpoints in the development process – great for answering questions such as: Does a proposed design element convey the intended appeal? Are there any issues with usability? Does the intended user respond positively to our prototype? Or – which of these three prototypes has the strongest appeal vs. our key competitor?

Quick bursts of directed qualitative research – timely, focused individual interviews with members of the intended target group – are the natural ally of an agile design process.

Been there. Done that.

We have a lot of experience using qualitative techniques to guide and to improve the creative process both in advertising and in new product development. We have done more communications check on rough creative materials than I can count with stimulus materials as varied as concept boards, storyboards, logo sketches, packaging mock-ups, prototype displays, promotional offers, mailers – even entire retail store layouts… The process is simple, it’s cost effective and it works. The basic approach is outlined under the Communications Tests heading of our website.

Working with our clients in both packaged goods and consumer technology, we also have developed several specific qualitative techniques for new product development and for improving user experience. Lastly, if development of your product or service has been finalized and the team now wants to optimize the marketing communications strategy, we have a couple of specific techniques for that, as well. You can find the details under the heading Our Unique Capabilities.

Quick, Focused & Cost Effective.

Obviously, social listening techniques have opened a much larger window on consumer commentary than “a quick round of groups” ever provided. It’s also fair to say that the all-purpose utility of focus groups was substantially overplayed in the past. But that does not mean that “qualitative is dead.” Qualitative research, properly designed and executed, is still extremely valuable in specific situations, including:

  • At the front end of any creative development project whether it is advertising, package design, brand ID, or new product/service concepts. Well-designed qualitative research can quickly answer questions like: Does the target consumer understand what we’re trying to communicate? Do they resonate with our concepts and with our design direction? Which features are of critical importance; which ones just complicate the offer?
  • On-site or in-situ observation. Again, a “front-end” exploration to understand how the client/customer uses or experiences an existing product or service as input for new design thinking. How can we to reduce the friction, enhance the experience, and introduce genuine enjoyment?
  • At key check-points in a product development process. Are we meeting our development objectives? Does the consumer/end-user understand what we’re doing? Which of the design or prototype options available to us now offer the greater promise?
  • How do we position our (new) product to its maximum advantage within the competitive set?

Applied at the right times with an appropriate design, qualitative research is still the quickest, most cost effective route toward understanding how the target consumer is likely to respond to your new creative or to your new product/service concepts and prototypes. Qualitative is not dead, it just needs to be applied in those situations where it has an undeniable advantage.

For a free evaluation on whether qualitative research makes sense for your scenario, please contact us.

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*“A Nation of Numbers” by Paul A. Scipione.