Qualitative research has proved remarkably robust in the face of digital disruption. A steady 14% (yes, contrary to popular belief, many qual researchers quite like numbers too)… as I was saying 14% of all market research projects globally are qualitative according to the latest ESOMAR Global Report, with no change versus 2017. Compared to the -3% for quant.
It even seems that the role of qual is growing in the face of the data deluge. The more data sources and data points we have, the more we need tools to “make sense of it all”. And often qualitative thinking and the fusion with qualitative approaches offers just these tools.
The ESOMAR Global Report even states that “qualitative research methods have strengthened their relative position, a result which is consistent with the need for nuance” (p. 28).
Talking of nuance, it we take a closer look at that 14%, it’s clear that it’s comprised of methods and approaches that are very different from 10 or 20 years ago.
How qualitative research has changed
Qual has drastically changed in the past decade or so, perhaps not so obviously to the casual observer – and not just in its embrace of digital tools.
Right up until the early 2000s many qual practices were rooted deeply in Tiefenpsychologie or depth psychology. You needed to get to the bottom of something and Freud and Dichter provided the academic underpinnings. Hidden meanings were sought, laddering techniques were commonplace: why, why, why we asked ourselves. And many a ‘respondent’.
The method mix was relatively straightforward: focus groups, depth interviews and a splash of ethnography to capture the behavioural complementary colour to psychological interpretation.
Fast forward 15 years later and things are very different.
In 2006 my colleagues Ayobamidele Gnädig and Oliver Schieleit heralded the Death of Depth. A manifesto to ensure that qualitative research did not lose sight of the real influences in behaviour. And around the same time, theories from behavioural economics were making noticeable inroads into market research culture.
Digital has been fuel to this particular flame.
The array of digital tools has made MROCs and mobile ethnography commonplace. Although mobile is a different bird to classic ethnography, the reality is that it is quick, easy and possible to integrate into the type of research that in the past would have just consisted of talking to people in front of a one-way-mirror.
Research projects have become complex and multi-phase. Consumers are no longer ‘respondents’ but participants, often taking a much more active role in building ideas, concepts, products. The concept of passive recipients is history and brands need to engage very differently with today’s consumers be it in research or in life. Co-creation is a mature discipline and not a passing playground.
Furthermore, many qual companies have developed their quant abilities, linking exploration with validation, ideally seamlessly.
And more fundamentally, behavioural insights have become the norm. Taking over from the more in-depth psychological approaches. Behavioural Economics has been a powerful force in demonstrating the power and role of biases and priming in effecting behavioural change. Still the holy grail of all marketing ambitions.
All this has impacted the way we conduct focus groups and depths today.
People come to research prepared with material generated by a mobile pre-task for example. One that we have been able to follow and view prior to meeting our research participants. And we no longer ask people to switch off their phones. People ask Google constantly. Why shouldn’t they in focus groups?
We ask questions differently. Rather than just relying on the qual classics like projective techniques to unearth the semi-conscious, we integrate experiments into groups, we use storytelling to understand consumers’ interactions with the world around them and we use technology to capture individual response as a counterpoint to the group dynamic.
We level with participants and encourage direct interaction between our clients and consumers. We ignite, facilitate and drive these interactions. Rather than observing people like laboratory animals in a mirrored meeting room, occasionally intervening in a pale imitation of a psycho analyst.
All in all a huge change. But let’s move onto the issue of consumer closeness.
Is consumer closeness more lip service than reality?
(Real) Consumer closeness remains an elusive beast for many companies – and qual has a proven track record in making consumer centricity come alive. The advance of data freely available on social media platforms, chatrooms, blogs and huge online panels combined with menu-driven DIY market research software has fostered a huge change in how research is conducted, and attitudes towards it.
Data democratisation apart: in theory, it’s possible to discover everything about your consumers, certainly their behaviours, without having to shift from your desk or even ask them any questions.
In other words, why get your hands dirty talking to real people, when you can find out everything you need to know at the touch of a few buttons?
Our own experience doesn’t support this theory. The question ‘why’ remains too important and is not just answered by asking people why. It is best resolved by combining conversation with observation and most importantly by recognising that people will start talking about changing sentiments and attitudes long before their behaviour reflects this directly.
Let’s take a theme like environmental awareness and sustainability, for example. For a while now, we have been sensing a discomfort for many consumers with some of their long established behaviours. But actual consumer choices have been a while to change, not lastly because appropriate offers have not been in place.
But in the wake of a growing concern with the planet, things are now changing at some speed and companies who have taken too long in listening and understanding what is going on may be at a disadvantage in having the corresponding strategies in place.
Cheryl Calverley, CMO of the mattress company Eve Sleep puts it more strongly in the Marketing Week issue entitled “Today’s marketers are missing true insight”:
“I find it astounding that the more sophisticated we get – with analytics, predictive modelling and rafts of data scientists – the less able we seem to be to put ourselves in our customers shoes and create brands and interactions that genuinely make their lives better.”
More fundamentally, research budgets are under huge and ongoing downwards pressure – even recording an alarming 17% quarterly reduction in the UK according to the Q3 2019 IPA Bellwether Report, Market Research being the worst performer in cuts across the marketing mix.
Or more bluntly put: how can companies deliver on consumer closeness if they don’t talk to their customers?
Contemporary qual is well placed to help marketers understand their challenges in a totally different light. Aha moments are frequent in well-designed qualitative research – so it is perhaps up to practitioners to make their voices heard more effectively.
Looking to the future
So let’s finish with some observations for the future. Not in crystal ball terms, but looking at where the future potential of qual lies.
Although the focus group may still be the bread and butter of many a qual practitioner, we think that the future of qual will be strengthened in understanding that the barriers between qual and quant, digital and face-to-face, traditional and innovative qual tools continue to be broken down.
Qual of the future will constitute a fusion of methods and approaches encompassing mobile ethnography, other online approaches, semiotics, qualitative social media listening to name just a few – but also in-situ ethnography and, yes, also depth interviews and focus groups that use a traditional qual framework but reflect the changing world in the way we design a conversation, add in observation and create research environments that move away from the classic subject and observer set up to create real consumer connection.
And one thing will remain true for a long time to come. Nothing can replace a real conversation with real people!
This article was first published on ESOMAR’s RW Connect, November 2019.