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The benefits of marrying two complementary research approaches

Article ID:
May 2013, page 70
Isabelle Albanese

Article Abstract

The author explores her company’s experiences with combining qualitative and quantitative methods, with the goal being to capitalize on the strengths of both types of research.

Qual, meet quant

Editor's note: Isabelle Albanese is president and founder of Consumer Truth, a Hinsdale, Ill., research firm.

You might be getting tired of the same old research. Focus groups, IDIs, online bulletin boards, surveys, tracking studies. Ho-hum. Perhaps you’ve been wondering what else can you do to push your research methodology to the next level? What can add some cohesiveness to your research plan? The answer is quali-quant. It’s that beautiful marriage of insight and understanding and validation by numbers. There are so many ways to incorporate the quali-quant methodology into your next research recommendation – from on-site keypad response to pre- or post-qual surveys to pre-conjoint qual studies that help define the best levels.

At the end of the day, you’ve got broad-based, actionable insight brought about by qualitative learning that helps make the numbers talk – or even sing! The cohesiveness and truth are uncovered when the qual and the quant are woven together to help support insight discovery and recommendations. The net result is a stronger, more actionable research recommendation – and more importantly, stronger, more actionable research results.

Qualitative benefits

Reviewing all the benefits of qualitative research might also be a bit humdrum. You know why you do the research you do. But for discussion purposes, let’s agree to a simple baseline of qualitative benefits. Here they are, from my perspective: insight, understanding, truth, inspiration.

Sure, you can name several more benefits of conducting qualitative research. Just keep those in your head as further backdrop as you move through the article.

Insight. One of the research-related LinkedIn groups has spent more than a year now collecting one-word definitions of “insight.” You’ve probably seen a hundred of them. They range from “idea” to “awareness” to “BAM!” Here’s my take on it: It’s that aha moment (I’m sure this was also one of the one-word responses) when that light goes off and your questions are answered; when consumers’ thoughts and behaviors are explained. It’s feeling confident and comfortable about what you need to do next to market a product or service because you have discovered the consumer’s truth – that often-elusive nugget that motivates feelings, attitudes, behavior and purchase power. You know the moment you hear it or find it. Sometimes you just feel it in your gut. Then it just keeps getting clearer and clearer and deeper and deeper. Insight is that wonderful intersection of brain and heart. It’s clarity and emotion imprinted on one another.

Understanding. Qualitative research is the great explainer. It helps the researcher understand what otherwise might be unexplained by segmentation studies, blips in trend and tracking studies or questions about why a quant study revealed what it did. Getting up close and personal with the consumer and listening intently to their articulation helps us understand the great “Why?” This enables us to formulate recommendations and plans of action that specifically address consumer behavior. Understanding is knowing. It’s empathizing with the target group now that some pivotal piece of insight or information is revealed. “Oh, now I get it.” Understanding means you can make sense of consumers’ behavior in the marketplace.

Truth. Qualitative research helps us get at the consumers’ underlying truth. We spend time with consumers – whether it’s two hours in a focus group or two days in an ethnographic interlude or over the course of three or four days reading and responding to online bulletin posts, we get personal. Doing so enables us – if we are good at our craft – to get to know the consumer’s truth. When we find it, we are empowered by it because maybe we then come to own a little piece of it. Because we can put our qualitative researcher stake in the fertile ground of consumer discovery. Knowing their truth enables us to make clear and unequivocal recommendations for how to talk to them and to relate to them in the marketplace. Truth is pure and once found cannot be denied.

Inspiration. Qualitative research is inspiring, isn’t it? As a qualitative researcher, I am constantly inspired by consumer discoveries – by the insights, the understanding and the truths we elicit and unveil. I am inspired not only to make recommendations to clients for their brands and products and services but also inspired by the consumers themselves. They inspire us to think differently; to think bigger; to expand our ideas and our research horizons; to inform the next leg of the research or the next research project. Inspiration is enlightenment. When we are inspired, we fall in love with our craft all over again. The qualitative research that we do is enlightening but . . .

The benefits of quant

Technically speaking, I’m not a quantitative researcher by trade. I came to the qualitative research business by way of Madison Avenue, having first spent 15 years in the advertising agency business in New York and Chicago. I made it all the way up to being a senior vice president of planning at J. Walter Thompson. So I know about communication and advertising research. And developing brand strategies. And reading tracking studies and A&U studies, segmentation studies and BASES II studies and survey results.

To tell you the truth, that’s not really what jazzed me about the research business. I always liked the qual part (see above!). But I can tell you with much certainty that my esteemed client partners love the studies and surveys! It’s what they rely on to make marketing decisions about branding, promotion, packaging, positioning, pricing, line-extending or even brand-killing. Numbers are important. They support the request for funding – advertising, R&D, packaging – even sometimes for more qualitative research. They support arguments for following certain directions. And of course I can understand that.

Quantitative research does provide the data and data analysis to make marketing decisions with a comfortable degree of certainty. So from a qualitative researcher’s perspective and for purposes of this article, let’s agree some of the benefits to quant research are: measurement of performance; analytics to inform direction; prediction; confidence in decision-making.

Blending of benefits

So what is research “cohesion”? It is the brilliant blending of benefits of qualitative and quantitative methodologies applied to a single research objective in order to yield the deepest, richest, most action-oriented results. It’s not right for every research objective but it is or can be right for many of the qualitative projects your company does right now.

But if quantitative research is not exactly the strongest part of your game, you’re going to need help from some of those fantastic quantitative partners out there. We’ve partnered with a sample company for surveys and a couple of on-site statisticians to do what we need to do. A few of our clients really like this approach and we’ve been doing it for them for the past five years. Our reports include an analysis of both the quantitative results and the qualitative results. Our clients get the value of one “voice” providing a cohesive analysis on the numbers and what they mean in a practical sense. Their confidence in the research relative to what they can do with it soars.

Here is an overview of some variations of the cohesive (quali+quant) approach:

Quantitative methodology followed by qualitative. To explore and, if necessary, explain the whats of the quant and reveal the whys. To explore different directions of the whats. To reveal emotional connections and underlying motivators. Puts emotional “meat” on the rational “bones.”

Qualitative followed by quantitative followed by more qualitative. To make truth and insight discoveries on an emotional level, then validate and confirm the insights by exploring multiple consumer behaviors via super-size quant sample, followed by illuminating qualitative on the back end to help organize and provide deeper understanding of the quantitative learning to ultimately provide confident recommendations.

Simultaneous quali-quant. Using keypads to record answers to a series of closed-ended questions in a qualitative environment (e.g., a focus group facility), this methodology is conducted among roughly 100 respondents and is immediately followed by smaller sub-groups selected to provide qualitative exploration to explore the whats and reveal the whys. Clients often use this methodology when time and budget are constrained yet they need something more than “just a focus group” to make actionable recommendations on next steps.

Case study: quantitative followed by qualitative – digital media storage

This truly integrated project began with a 500-respondent survey conducted to explore the awareness of, interest in and engagement with the next generation of digital video content storage (e.g., digital lockers), including consumers’ willingness to pay. The survey revealed a wealth of learning on current behavior, intent, awareness and understanding of various modes of digital media storage. But many questions emerged that warranted further exploration within a qualitative environment. During subsequent focus group discussions, respondents were exposed to a few key survey results and asked to help uncover some of what might be underlying motivators.

The outcome: Turns out in a few cases, survey results were inconsistent with qualitative discovery. For example, of the five types of video content reviewed among survey respondents, movies (72 percent) and TV shows (48 percent) were ranked the top-two most likely to be stored in a hypothetical digital library/locker. Music was ranked a close third, with 44 percent top two-box, driven by the 18-24 age group. However, focus group respondents had a different priority ranking, with music and photos emerging as the most likely content to be stored in their hypothetical digital lockers. And while the survey reported a music skew to the 18-24 age group, the qualitative learning indicated music content storage as a priority across age groups.

Most importantly, qualitative participants helped put into perspective what might have driven movie content storage to the top spot in the survey, explaining that movies would only surpass music in importance if it meant “home movies,” not theatrical releases. This could possibly have explained the high ranking in the survey and provided interesting insight into how consumers may be defining “movie content.”

Case study: qualitative followed by quantitative followed by more qualitative – the move to mobility

This level of cohesion linked research phases in a successive chain and provided iterative learning, resulting in a holistic understanding of attitudes and behaviors of smartphone users relative to usage, functionality, specific use of apps and how mobile technology has impacted their everyday lives. Qualitative interviews and group discussion were employed to help uncover consumers’ emotional attachment to their smartphone. These discoveries informed a survey design, conducted among 3,282 smartphone owners, which examined 15 possible smartphone activities. Following analysis of the survey results, the cohesion chain was completed with another round of qual to help explain some preferences as well as some age and gender skews uncovered in the quant (e.g., news/sports/weather; access social/business network; find a location, upload videos, etc.).

The outcome: The cohesion of qual and quant consumer discovery in this example meant starting out with a more well-defined survey, using specific mobile activities most emotionally important to smartphone users. Following up with additional qualitative discussion enabled probing into those activities which skewed by age and/or gender in the survey to help explain these variances and add context and emotion.

Our client published the results of this study in a white paper which received worldwide circulation and exposure. In net, they used this chain of research cohesion with complete confidence to report, predict and recommend.

Case study: simultaneous quali-quant – packaged goods positioning concept

Here the goal is quick, action-oriented results for speedy decision-making. In this methodological scenario, clients not only get the numbers but they get them fast and complete with instant explanation and understanding. Table 1 shows an example of the data coming out of an on-site quali-quant project where seven positioning concepts for a well-known consumer packaged goods brand were exposed. They needed to select the best concept so that a number of agencies could develop creative ideas for a new advertising campaign. This was really important because the best ideas stood to win a pretty significant portion of their advertising business.

As with any advertising/creative development project, the timetable was “yesterday,” so they couldn’t really go down the more traditional path of concept and then copytesting. And the stakes were too high to rely on “just” qualitative consumer response, which in the highly sensitized scenario of agency competition can be subject to wild and loose interpretation. It was for these reasons both the client and ad agencies involved were receptive to this idea of methodological piggybacking, so to speak.

This methodology included about 10 questions using a five-point agreement scale for each concept exposed. Questions covered the following areas: purchase intent/motivation; ability to make the consumer think differently about the brand/product; ability to set the brand apart from competitive brands; overall brand fit; and believability.

The outcome: This research – along with the qualitative discussion which immediately followed to help break open questions on comparisons across concepts, collection and tabulation of data – enabled the client to narrow down the concepts from seven to three and thus “safely” and confidently narrow down the agency participation as well. Without the quant portion of this research, agency elimination would have seemed more arbitrary and anecdotal.

Imagine other combinations

I’d like to think that by this point in the article, you have already thought about one or two projects that could benefit (or maybe a past one that could have benefitted) by employing research methodology cohesion. Or better yet, that you can already imagine other combinations of quantitative and qualitative methodologies that can combine for stronger, more cohesive insight discovery and more confident action plans for your business.

The learning, analysis and recommendations can deliver more validated insights, enable more in-depth consumer understanding, reveal more inherent and motivating consumer truths and inspire confidence and trust from our clients – which, as researchers, is always a good, cohesive goal!

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