In the early stages of my career as a qualitative researcher, my most frustrating experience was toiling away on a seemingly crucial project, carefully analyzing information and providing what I thought were truly unique and actionable insights—only to see them drift into the ether.
Typically, I follow up with clients 4-6 weeks after a project to ask how the marketing issue is progressing and how the research is impacting decision making. But many times in the past, this turned out to be a difficult conversation for clients who had no answers or tried to make things up to avoid hurting my feelings. My favorite line was, “The research was so good, we didn’t know what to do with it.”
While qualitative and quantitative research combine art and science, I’m sure you’ll agree on the relative position that each occupies on the art-science continuum. Please excuse the strained metaphors, but qual is like a painting or poem that is most memorable when eliciting a strong emotional reaction, whereas quant is more like a lecture on American history that is most memorable because of its clear rationality.
As time went on, I realized that style was just as important as substance in order for qualitative research to gain traction and become a genuine call to action for my clients. So, here are a few of the things I always keep in mind when designing and executing qualitative projects:
The Sphere of Influence
It is critical to go beyond your immediate research clients and get to know their internal clients as well. Talk to them in depth about their marketing problems and challenges. Focus your attention on them from the beginning of the project, in the back room and during the analysis. Try to avoid having your direct client contact become a buffer or conduit between you and the key decision makers.
The Entertainment Factor
It used to be that I would walk into the backroom after a group—quite proud of myself because of all the information gathered—only to find a room full of glazed-over eyes. I thought maybe it was the late hour or the deep dish pizza served for dinner. But, since then, I have learned to never underestimate how a fun, entertaining atmosphere for respondents and viewers (and the moderator) will turn those glazed-over eyes into applause. A humorous, lighthearted moderating approach combined with entertaining group formats and techniques ensure viewer engagement.
Secrets and Lies
Of course we know that, in many cases, people will not or cannot express their true feelings and motivations. The worst thing we can ask research respondents is “why?” – Why do you do that? Why do you like that product? – because we often get a laundry list of rational, obvious answers that we could have brainstormed ourselves without ever talking to the respondents. The key is to use appropriate projective techniques (the subject of a future blog?) to get below the surface and have clients say, “Wow, I can’t believe she told us that!”
The Other Side of the Mirror
Why not conduct a focus group in the other room? For appropriate situations, it has been very useful to allow time after the groups to set up a flip chart in the backroom and spend 10-15 minutes having viewers discuss key learnings, biggest surprises, implications for decision making, etc. This systematic approach to debriefing gets viewers more engaged and produces greater insights than the typical informal debriefs that can evolve into long-winded, rambling exercises.
Qualitative research reports have been notorious for helping clients cure insomnia. Long PowerPoint decks often receive cursory reading and are then filed away for a rainy day. However, over the last five years or so, video has become more and more prevalent as a means to grab people’s attention and immerse them in the research findings. I think it is now time to move beyond simply inserting clips into reports. When possible, clients should be given a compelling video deliverable that combines the right amount of entertainment (music, animation, voice over) with key insights. A “movie” report I recently worked on was viewed in its entirety (45 minutes) by the president of a major retail chain who gave marching orders to his direct reports to act on the research findings. Talk about traction!
I welcome any ideas, thoughts or suggestions about how qualitative research can truly make a difference for clients.