MARKET RESEARCH

How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research

A variety of techniques from online chats to video logs can reveal how people feel about your product or service and how you can improve it to make more money.
As seen in Mad Men, fifty years ago, research was collected by having a one-way mirror installed and adverting guys would be on the receiving end. The homemaker would host the meeting with a group of women who would talk about soap or some other consumer product.
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Visualize. Just as you head off to work you get a text message asking if you've had a cup of coffee. You reply "no." About 20 minutes later you receive another text asking "did you have your coffee yet?" You reply "yes" this time. Now you receive a series of texts about when and where did you buy the coffee—a corner store Starbucks or company cafeteria. What brand or flavor did you choose—regular or Hazelnut? Why did you choose it? How do you feel now that you've had that first cup? Will you have had a second or third cup come lunchtime? Later in the week when you're at the local grocer, you take out your cell phone to take a picture of the one pound of ground French Roast coffee you just purchased so you can post it online.

Welcome to the brave new world of qualitative research where companies can catch or capture their customers' behaviors in the moment using modern technology. It could be a single person doing online journaling or a video log about a product or issue, a moderator directing conversations in an online chat room, or webcam gathering of people in Hollywood Squares game show-like fashion.

It's a different spin on the traditional focus group. Social media is playing a bigger role. "We are even monitoring whole online communities; we have a targeted representative find out what selected individuals are saying in their social networks," says Peg Moulton-Abbott, a certified professional research consultant and principal of Newfound Insights, a Virginia Beach-based market research firm. Such tech-oriented research is generally skewed towards a younger twenty-something demographic. But more importantly it speaks to how market researchers are sprouting new methods of qualitative study as an outgrowth of old techniques.

Comparatively speaking, fifty years ago qualitative research was done in a big city like New York or Washington, DC with focus groups conducted inside women's homes, notes Moulton-Abbott. A one-way mirror was installed and adverting guys would be on the receiving end, she explains. The homemaker would host the meeting with a group of women who would talk about soap or some other consumer product.

According to the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, qualitative research can help business owners identify customer needs, clarify marketing messages, generate ideas for improvements of a product, extend a line or brand, and/or gain perspective on how a product fits into a customer's lifestyle.

Any size and type of business can benefit from qualitative market research, says Moulton-Abbott. However, "my job is not to make a sales pitch for your product; my job is to find out how people feel about your product and what you can do to improve it so that you wind up making more money selling it," she adds.

Qualitative research can help entrepreneurs to understand their customers' or clients' feelings, values, and perceptions of a particular product or service. Once you know the reason "why" people react a certain way or make certain decisions, you can use that feedback to help build your sales and marketing plan, says Moulton-Abbott.

The design and implementation of qualitative research will depend on your particular situation, says Robert E. Stake, PhD, author of Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work and director for the center of instructional research as the University of Illinois. "The means are different in different situations. It's what you are interested in that defines qualitative research," he adds. "It isn't the style of data gathering, it is whether or not you are interested in the experiences of your customers or clients."

Business owners won't have to wrack their brains over how to conduct the nitty-gritty aspects of market research if a professional is hired. But here are some general guidelines and what to expect on how qualitative research is handled.

How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: Determine What You Want to Study

Do you want to investigate a current or potential product, service or brand positioning? Do your want to identify strengths and weaknesses in products? Understand purchasing decisions? Study reactions to advertising or marketing campaigns? Assess the usability of a website or other interactive services? Understand perceptions about the company, brand and product? Explore reactions to packaging and design?

Qualitative (qual) research is usually contrasted against Quantitative (quant) research. Quant asks closed-ended questions that can be answered finitely by either "yes" or "no," true or false or multiple choice with an option for "other." It is used to collect numerical data, employing such techniques as surveys. Whereas, qual asks open-ended questions that are phrased in such a way that invite people to tell their stories in their own words. Methods used to collect data include field observations, personal interviews and group discussions.

The job of a qual researcher is to design and deliver data that drives results.

Dig Deeper: How to Define Your Target Market 


How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: Understand What Methodology will be Used

Typically qual researchers don't use experimental methods such as field trials or test markets, Stake maintains. "Not many use really highly-developed psychometric (e.g., personality or psychological tests) or econometric (e.g., economic statistics) indicators." Qual researchers generally rely on methodologies rooted in ethnography (e.g. field or participant observation) and phenomenology (e.g., understanding life experiences using written or recorded narratives). Market researchers partner with professional recruiters to identify and screen qualifying customers or consumers who in turn receive an honorarium for their participation in the study.

You should rely on a market research firm to choose the best fit for you based on: what is it that you need to learn and who is your target audience demographically, where they are geographically, and what are their lifestyle behaviors or time constraints, says Kristin Schwitzer, president of Beacon Research, a qual firm that specializes in innovative online methods, based in Annapolis, Maryland.

Conducting qualitative research is about asking the right people the right questions in the right format, says Hannah Baker Hitzhusen, vice president of qualitative research at CMI, a market research firm in Atlanta. What qual researchers do is very much on the front end, it is discovery or exploratory work. "For a qual study, we generally do a discussion guide to make sure we cover certain topics or issues," says Hitzhusen. Qual is generally used for small sample groups, because, "you want to spend a lot of time with the participants, maybe 90 to 120 minutes. Quant usually uses a larger sample size of people and a smaller amount of time, 15 to 30 minutes (for someone to fill out a questionnaire)," she explains.

Dig Deeper: How to Use Sampling and Demos for Customer Feedback 



How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: Explore Various Means to Collect Data

•    Observation - Direct observation can involve a researcher watching subjects and taking notes in the background which could be from behind a one-way mirror or video camera recording the happenings. With participant observation, the researcher is actually part of the situation being studied as with a moderated focus group or one-on-one interviews.

•    Focus Groups - This technique is good if you need a range of opinions, says Hitzhusen. In general, you want to get reactions from eight to 10 people. But you don't have to have the traditional group of people closed in a room. You can do a webcam or online bulletin board focus group, in which consumers participate in an asynchronous group discussion over the duration of three to four days. Participants answer questions from the moderator and respond to images or video on their computer screen.

•    Subject Interviews - There are times when you want to talk with subjects or participants either over the telephone or face- to-face, says Moulton-Abbott. Such as if you want them to sample a product or if it is an emotional or sensitive issue, such as taking care of elderly parents with dementia or using personal hygiene products.

•    Hybrid Studies - This is a blend of qual and quant market research. So, you get some important metrics as well as the why's behind the numbers through narrative, photo collection, and other exercises, says Schwitzer.

Moulton-Abbott says for example, you may have a couple hundred people come into a big meeting hall. Using a handheld dialer participants respond to a survey that is projected on a screen. Afterwards, you host a town hall session to debrief the group and to find out what they think. From there, you separate the respondents into smaller focus groups based on demographics, their responses and other parameters. At the end of day you can say we spoke to 700 people today and this is what they said they like or don't like and this is how they feel about your product or service.

•    Online tools - The online piece is an outgrowth of in-person observation. "We can use tools such as their cell phones, iphone video cameras, digital cameras, and we can have them in the moment record what is happening in their world," says Schwitzer. Whether it is how they use a product or interact from a service standpoint." 

For example, Schwitzer conducted a study on how teenage boys were spending their money over a course of a week. They took pictures of everything that they bought and texted it in. They then created an online blog to be probed as the second phase of the study. "Online tools allow us to get even deeper into the subjects' lives and to see what is happening to them from an experiential level. We can be with them at crazy hours of the day now or during more private moments."

Dig Deeper: How to Write a Customer Survey 


How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: Analyze the Collected Data

A qualitative study may take one day or three weeks for the data collection and up to six weeks in total for the final report generation and turnaround solutions. Researchers will look at the collected data to come up with theories and answers to your questions or concerns. Generally, researchers will use coding to identify themes, patterns and ideas. They may also incorporate some statistics that describe what the data is showing along with narrative analysis that focuses on grammar, word usage, and underlying messages.

Dig Deeper: How to Conduct Market Research 


How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: Review Report and Recommendations

Finally, a researcher will generate a report featuring actionable recommendations. It doesn't have to be just a written document; it may be a video report or slideshow. As the saying goes a picture paints a thousand words; visual reports are more effective than simply words on a paper. Of course, you need to be aware upfront what the cash outlay will be for such extensive feedback.

Dig Deeper: How to Find New Customers and Increase Sales 


How to Conduct Qualitative Market Research: A Heads Up

Don't expect to pay under $10,000 for basic qualitative research, cautions experts. There are cost associate with the recruiters, facilities, moderators and reporting. It you have a small or tight budget consider working with a university such as Chicago's Northwestern, Atlanta's Emory Goizueta, or the University of Maryland, suggests Moulton-Abbott. Many of the top business schools have marketing research programs.

To find a reputable market research firm, check out trade associations, including directories from The Marketing Research Association, which publishes the Blue Book, and the New York American Marketing Association, which puts out the Green Book. Also, the QRCA has a search tool for locating market research firms geographically. 
Choose a firm that is knowledgeable about your industry and be sure to get a couple of proposals and competitive price offers.

Dig Deeper: How do I find training programs for market research?

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Oct 25, 2010




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