An advertising agency executive responds…

If not dead, I think traditional qualitative is becoming an endangered species. I’ve seen enough bad practice in focus groups – often driven by agencies and clients who have no real understanding of either the purpose or process – to cause everyone to question why they should continue with qualitative research or whether it should be euthanized.

The days of the traditional focus group being used to evaluate creative work I think quite rightly are done: it’s cheaper and faster just to develop multiple pieces of content, A:B test them in the market place and refine the content and approach on the fly. The work is “disposable” in most cases and is not meant to exist as “high art”. I’m sure the likes of Bill Bernbach, John Webster, and Stanley Pollitt would turn in their graves if they knew.

But I think the intentions behind qualitative of understanding the “How?” and “Why?” are not dead. The key distinction between old and new is not just how you acquire knowledge, but more importantly what you want to do with it.

Using tools like workshops to enlist consumers to collaborate may well continue in areas like NPD where you need hands on intimacy with products on a visceral level. It will also likely continue in areas where a deeper psychological understanding of emotions, history, culture, and context are hard to elicit through quant studies or observation of conversations in social media. My belief is that campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty” and Always’ “Like a Girl” could not have been created without that type of deeper insight that only qualitative or social observation gets to. I also believe that political campaigns will still need to probe conceptual topics with consumers/voters to elicit their true beliefs before being developed.

What this does lead to is a requirement for much better qualified and better trained facilitators. People who are given the time to go beyond “How many of you prefer the blue one?” to do the job properly: to identify and to understand the emotions, the history, the culture and the context in order to be able to inform agencies and clients on a much more meaningful level how they can better engage with their consumer.

So qualitative is not dead, but it needs to evolve before it becomes extinct – a distant memory of a dull life lived behind the one-way mirror…

Jon Cheffings, Strategic Planner

Photo Credit: By Tadek Kurpaski from London, Poland (sauropod  Uploaded by FunkMonk) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons