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Qualitative Research

5 Guardrails to Guide Qualitative Learning

It’s not in my nature to be the adult in the room, but it’s time to clear the air on using “qualitative” to breathe one’s own exhaust.

Each morning research facilities the world over are replenishing M&M dispensers, filling minibars and testing sound levels for the next episode of “how much do they like us.”

And while it would be easy to launch into a cynical diatribe, the productive course of action is to implore the researcher to cling to their objectivity, hone interpretive skills and apply new qualitative methods able to reveal the next product or service consumers couldn’t imagine life without.

Embrace innovative tools for qualitative learning. Earlier this year, Schlesinger Associates installed of “The Wall” at their facilities. This dynamic, multi-window, interactive wall serves as both a free form and a structured display of qualitative stimuli.

Most importantly, we need to recognize that we exist to inform senior management decision-making. We are invested in having them make good ones. So, how do we practice our profession in a world where “disrupters” long for validation and sales organizations are hungry for sound bites?

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Here are Some Guidelines:

1. Bring “Context” to the Project.

There’s value in any opportunity to hear customers and prospects reactions to concepts, products, and offers. Be sure to clarify what to expect, what’s the realistic take-away and perhaps most importantly, the comments which must be ignored.

Sure, it’s invigorating to be the purist and say “exploratory research” is not the proper forum for a Facebook thumbs up or down reaction. Instead, be the realist. Rally around creating a productive conversation behind the glass. Just keep the words “Research” off the report. “Customer Audit” has a nice ring to it.

Accept that in some situations your talents are being used to facilitate instead of moderate . Recognize the difference and get the work done.

2. Objectivity

It must be unwavering. Some marketers design, field and report qualitative implications internally. Many have productive, long-term relationships with go-to moderators. Both can be valuable resources steeped with an understanding of customer and category.

That said, if there’s a fork in the road between self-preservation and autonomy you’re on the wrong path.

In your first visit with a client’s research director, you’ll know the level of objectivity, senior management sponsorship and respect they’ve achieved through their candor. Cherish those who have it. Propose quant for those who don’t.

3. Annihilate Narcissism

It’s fine to applaud passion for the business, but keep it out of the moderator’s guide.

Esprit de corps is healthy. It fuels incredible accomplishments. Celebrate opportunities to live vicariously through your client’s success. Just remember, a productive devil’s advocate can be the saving grace in getting a strategy right and keeping expectations in line with results. You weren’t invited to validate. Qualitative’s role is to investigate.

4. Research Designed to Stimulate

Perhaps there was a day when research came in chocolate and vanilla. And while the first question is often quant or qual, the first response should be, “what will you do with the findings?”

The menu of exploratory methods is ever growing. Researching research has become a more important part of being a resilient practice. The tools and forums to deliver stimulus are far-reaching, and the morsels of characteristics available for recruiting are virtually limitless. Without letting the process become cumbersome, embrace and use all means available.

We’ve organized methods across Brand, Engagement, Product, and Communications. Each of these Practice Areas house methods designed to deliver the learning needed to answer and measure specific client requests. For instance, Brand understanding asks us to isolate the core motivations that form strong connections. Communications checks focus on an interpretation of message, capacity to understand and overall appeal. Each request calls for a specific approach and offers the challenge to add new techniques and exercises over time.

Recognize that today life is woven with threads of e-mails. And our conversations have been replaces by a series of texts. The challenge of hosting a focused dialog today makes research design paramount. Commit to learning and incorporating new platforms while distinguishing the “tool” from the job of getting constructive observations and valuable insights through the consumer narrative.

With all that said, the simple handwritten notes of participants’ “ideal moments” remain some of most insightful treasures of our studies – there’s nothing wrong with the tried and true.

5. The Art of the Question and the Empathetic Ear

The proliferation of bias in virtually all content consumed these days is overwhelming. Developing an objective question as a means of getting an unadulterated response has become more difficult. More than ever, we need to guard against discussion guide rewrites that unconsciously entice respondents to draw a target around your dart. Continually ask yourself if a question is designed to prompt an answer or launch a narrative that reveals their story. You need to understand the world in which your client hopes to play a role and not the other way around.

It’s time to face the facts with respect to Qualitative. “We” have reached a point where behavioral tracking, algorithms, and rigid experience designs are asking consumers to do business on the marketers’ terms. All of these factors make it the perfect time for customer information to meet customer understanding.

Acquiring valuable qualitative insights before applying assumptions to data just might provide that powerful point of difference opportunity no one else has discovered.

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