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How researchers, recruiters and end clients can produce cheaper, faster qualitative

Article ID:
June 2014, page 34
Andrew D. Cutler

Article Abstract

Andrew D. Cutler outlines several ways – from fine-tuning screening criteria to shortening interview lengths – to wring more value from your qualitative research budget.

A group effort

Editor's note: Andrew D. Cutler is principal at Integrated Marketing Associates LLC, a Bryn Mawr, Pa., research company.

Let’s face it: marketers are under intense pressure to save time and money, and these pressures inevitably spill over into the research projects that they commission. In these days of tight timelines and limited budgets, con-ducting high-quality marketing research may seem difficult, if not impossible. But fear not, intrepid reader. As this article will discuss, there are a variety of tactics to keep costs to a minimum and quickly turn projects around. When used judiciously, one or more of these steps listed below and in the accompanying table can provide you with valuable research output that can be as useful as the findings that much larger and more ex-pensive projects would generate.


How to save time

Conduct the research online or by telephone. When time is of the essence, technology comes to the rescue. Conducting marketing research via telephone or online survey has long been an inexpensive alternative to in-person (face-to-face) research. Although some information (e.g., non-verbal communications) is usually lost, these types of research achieve what is often a core purpose of research projects: obtaining factual, rational-ly-driven, scientific data. And these days, with the advent of Internet technologies such as Skype and Webcams, remote-location participants do not need to be hidden from view.

Furthermore, because recruiters can draw from a much larger pool of participants anywhere in the country, recruiting telephone or online respondents is often faster and more efficient than recruiting participants for face-to-face research. Professional recruiting organizations typically have databases of tens of thousands of potential respondents – sorted by a wide range of demographic, health-related and other variables – who are interested in participating in research and are only a phone call or e-mail or text-message away. It is possible in certain cases to schedule interviews/surveys to occur on a next-day (or even same-day) basis but it is generally advisable to allow more time from when recruiting starts to when the fieldwork actually begins. In other words, give yourself some breathing room or you may run out of air!

Keep the screening criteria simple. Despite the previously-mentioned treasure trove of potential respond-ents, recruiting can be a difficult and often thankless task. Finding participants who meet the precise screening criteria is often a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor. Screeners that contain pages and pages of exclusionary criteria not only make each individual screening session more time-consuming but also reduce the chances that the po-tential respondent will actually qualify for the research. But a lengthy screener may not even be necessary to reach the target audience.

Designing screeners is both an art and a science. Obviously, it is vitally important to limit the recruit to partici-pants who can provide meaningful, useful feedback. That being said, however, it can be tempting to make the screening criteria more rigorous than is truly necessary. (Do you really need to limit the sample to physicians who write more than 50 prescriptions for hypertension medication per month?) Furthermore, some clients may ask for specific quotas on several different respondent types (e.g., 10 high-prescribers, 10 medium-prescribers and 10 low-prescribers of the client’s product; half of the respondents in each segment must be high-prescribers of the competitor’s product and the other half must be low-prescribers of the competitor’s product). Inclusion of these kinds of screening criteria can be very valuable for providing insights into the attitudes and behaviors of specific respondent types. However, it comes at a price: longer recruits. In some cases, it proves impossible to fill certain quotas completely and decisions must then be made as to whom to recruit instead. In addition, there is the risk of having segments that are actually too small to make meaningful inferences, conclusions or recommendations.

Start recruiting immediately. It almost goes without saying that the more time the recruiters have to find the research participants and schedule them, the more likely the recruit will be successful. However, it is also important to understand that experienced recruiters prioritize tasks depending upon how much time they are given and how difficult they anticipate the recruiting process will be. If they are recruiting specialists and primary care physicians, for example, they will likely focus on the specialists first. If they are working with two clients, one of whom has expressed a need to expedite the research, they will focus their energies on this client.
When partnering with a recruiting organization, make certain that they have a track record of success in finding the respondent type(s) you require (or have targeted). Ask them how many they have in their database. Explain that the project requires an unusually quick turnaround and a specific deadline. Ask them if they feel they can meet this timeline. If you’ve worked with these recruiters in the past and have a solid relationship with them, they will do everything in their power to meet your timing requirements. However, all recruits are subject to the laws of physics and the surest way to increase the odds of success is to start the recruit at the earliest possible opportunity.

Finalize the research objectives ASAP. If you follow the steps outlined above, chances are you will have participants scheduled for research before you know it. Don’t be caught unprepared. Make sure that you have a survey instrument or discussion guide in place as soon as possible.

Think of the process as a series of dominos. If you have a clear grasp of the research objectives early on, it becomes much more feasible to create the survey/guide in time for the first day of fieldwork. Consider holding a kick-off meeting within 48 hours of when the project is commissioned. This will enable all project stakeholders to discuss and finalize the project objectives, at which point the creation of the initial draft of the survey/guide can begin. Make sure that everyone at the meeting understands that it is imperative that the survey/guide be finalized by a specific deadline (day and time). Obtain buy-in from all parties on this date and have an agreed-upon plan for reviewing the survey/guide, so that those with the final say review it last. When it is your turn, do not hold the process up; go through the document, including any revisions (using tracked changes, please) and then pass it along to the next person in the chain. Immediately. Well done, everybody!

Expedite the final report. Preparing a final report is similar to a preparing a feast for your guests at a dinner party: It requires lots of time, patience and attention to details. If you try to rush it, you may just end up burning the soup.

That being said, it is interesting to note that even highly-experienced report-writers often come right down to the wire in their delivery of the document. If you request the report on November 14th, they will send it on the 14th, not (heaven forbid) on the 13th. This is partly attributable to the desire for perfection that these professionals have. (Why deliver something early, they may think to themselves, when I could make it even “more perfect” and deliver it on time?) However, it is also partly due to the fact that report-writers are human and if they know the report is not due for two weeks, they may postpone the inevitable as opposed to buckling down and getting to work.

Fortunately, this human weakness can be exploited, to everyone’s benefit. If you are writing the report yourself, then just bite the bullet and start writing already! (Sheesh!) If you’re not the report-writer, explain to the person writing the report that it needs to be turned around unusually quickly: specifically, by next Thursday at 5 p.m. Once the report-writer stops laughing in disbelief, he or she may say something like, “Well, I can do that but it’s going to cost you extra.” Time is money, so saving time can cost you money.


How to save money

Conduct the research online or by telephone. Saving time can also save you money, however. Online and telephone research, in addition to offering the time savings mentioned earlier, also are less expensive than in-person, face-to-face research. Research facilities do not need to be rented; incidental expenses are not incurred; airline tickets do not need to be purchased; hotel rooms do not need to be booked; taxi fares are non-existent; honoraria and recruiting costs are lower, and so on.

There are modest costs associated with online and telephone research, however. In the case of telephone interviews, in order for others to listen in, teleconferencing needs to be provided. If Webcams are utilized, these need to be purchased and shipped to participants whose computers lack built-in Webcams. If the survey (and/or other research material) is to be posted online, the services of a programmer may be needed.

But when all is said and done, the cost of conducting research in-person dwarfs the cost of these alternative approaches. Just as technology has made it possible to buy the latest Stephen King book online for half the price you’d pay at your local bookstore, technology has made it possible to obtain a robust sample of respondents from around the country at a fraction of the cost of in-person, face-to-face research.

Recruit the minimally-needed sample size. Much to the chagrin of many, there is no magical target number of participants that you must recruit to obtain meaningful research findings. Particularly when it comes to qualita-tive research, a simple dictum usually applies: More respondents is better. But the law of diminishing returns kicks in after a while. Choice of sample size hinges largely on how much you want to slice and dice the data. It also depends on the objectives of the study and the size and diversity of the target population. In a qualitative study, for each respondent type that you want to investigate, it is normally inadvisable to recruit less than 10 respondents. Fifteen would, of course, be preferable. The average is in the range of 15-20.

If your budget is strapped, consider running a small qual study with 15 respondents. This will let you dip your toe in the pool and get a sense of what the findings would be if you were to (instead) interview a larger sample. While the results will obviously lack external validity (meaning that you cannot safely assume that the patterns would hold if you talked to more people), you will at least have obtained an in-depth understanding of how 15 individuals who meet your target criteria think, behave or feel.

Beware of hard-to-find respondents. Almas caviar, from Iran, is extremely rare and extremely expensive. One kilo (about 2.2 pounds) of the stuff will set you back about $25,000. Sure it tastes good (although my broth-er-in-law would disagree) but it is not on my shopping list and I’m guessing it is not on yours either. Somehow, we have both managed to survive, and perhaps even thrive, on nourishment that satisfies our taste buds for a lot less. Sure, a grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich does not have quite the same cachet as caviar but it accom-plishes much the same purpose, at a fraction of the cost.

The same principle applies in marketing research. It may be of interest to find respondents who are rare as Almas caviar but recruiting these types of respondents can be very expensive, due to the additional lengths that recruiters must go to find them. If you have a limited budget, you may need to reconsider the sample of respondents that you decide to interview.

As an example, let’s consider epileptologists – that is, physicians who specialize in the treatment of epilepsy. If you want to learn all about the treatment of epilepsy, talking with epileptologists would seem like the way to go, right? Well, actually, no. Even though epileptologists know a lot about epilepsy and its treatment, there are precious few in the United States and to interview a very small sample of them will cost you about as much as a jar of that Almas caviar. You would be wise to focus instead on neurologists, as they see an awful lot of epilepsy patients, are far greater in number and much less expensive to recruit. From both a research and an economic perspective, focusing your research on neurologists would make more sense.

Keep the interview length to a minimum. You may be familiar with the phenomenon known as inter-view-creep. A project that initially is conceived as requiring 30-minute interviews gathers steam as marketing colleagues, advertising agency consultants and other project stakeholders request additional questions be included in the discussion guide. Eventually, you are looking at a 45-minute, or even 60-minute, interview. This is a problem if you are on a limited budget, as honoraria amounts increase with interview length.

The solution? Plan ahead. Limit or fine-tune the research objectives. Know in advance what your budget is and what sort of interview length you can afford to buy. Then make it clear to all project stakeholders that the interview length will need to be kept to 30 minutes (or 20 or 45).

The good news is that much can be accomplished in interviews that run 45 minutes or less. After 45 minutes, in fact, respondents often start to flag and the quality of their responses can begin to suffer. The law of diminishing returns starts to kick in.

So, to save money, keep the interviews focused and lean. Identify the key areas that you want to explore and stick to those. Go through the discussion guide and consider weeding out questions that are not germane to the project’s objectives. Manage your colleagues’ expectations and remind them of the maximum interview length. And be prepared to trim the discussion guide after the first few interviews.

Opt for one report, not two. In general, clients usually expect and ask for two deliverables: a topline report and a full final report. The topline report provides an overview of the research findings very shortly after fieldwork completion, while the final report, delivered later, goes into considerably more detail and includes verbatim quotations, conclusions and recommendations.

However, one size never fits all. Certain clients find that just a final report may be sufficient. In particular, cli-ents who are in no hurry to obtain the results of the research may forgo the topline and just ask for a final report. (As always, time is money!) Alternatively, take the middle road. You may want to consider a document that goes into more depth than a traditional topline report but without some of the minutiae that a full final report would in-clude. Such a document, sometimes called an extended-topline report or a summary report, may provide every-thing that you and your client need to make informed marketing decisions.

If you are working on a shoestring budget, then, determine what deliverable(s) are necessary and sufficient. You may find that a single report represents the optimal solution.

Plenty of other ways

The strategies that I’ve outlined above are certainly not all-inclusive; there are plenty of other ways to save time and/or money as well. To list just a few additional examples:

• Review secondary data and previously-conducted research. This not only expands the moderator’s baseline knowledge but also avoids redundancy in data collection. It may also save time and improve consistency by using the same screener(s) between research studies.
• Run a small pilot study beforehand. Doing this can be a useful way to test the waters and determine whether a large, comprehensive study actually makes sense. It can also provide insight into the proper scope of the study and may highlight areas where one or more of the previously-described time/cost-saving measures can be implemented.
• Create a small panel of respondents. This is especially advisable if you intend to conduct a series of studies and you are dealing with a hard-to-recruit target population. Plan on recruiting the best respondents from the first study to participate in the subsequent waves of research.

Be well-positioned

Obtaining meaningful, actionable insights does not have to cost an arm and a leg nor does it necessarily have to take an inordinate amount of time. By taking one or more of the steps that I’ve described, you and your end client will be well-positioned to save time and/or money.

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