Editor's note: Garrett McGuire is vice president, corporate strategy at Quester, a Des Moines, Iowa, research firm.

Brandon Stanton is most known for his photo blog, Humans of New York (HONY), which began in the summer of 2010. The goal, initially, was to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants by photographing 10,000 New Yorkers and then plotting their pictures on a map. “Somewhere along the way,” Stanton admits, “HONY began to take on a much different character.”

His blog features people primarily from New York City and brief pieces of conversation that shed incredible light into personal memories, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. In October of 2013, his first book, Humans of New York, was released and quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

(In an interview available on YouTube, Stanton explains to an audience of University College Dublin students how he approaches people on the streets of New York City – no easy task – and gets them to share something about themselves – also no easy task. I hope you have 15 minutes to watch it.)

Today, HONY has over 8 million followers on social media and has been recognized by such news outlets as The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, CBS New York, The Huffington Post and others.

If you are not familiar with HONY, Figures 1 and 2 show sample posts. As shown in figure 1, the story of Vidal Chastanet and his principal, Nadia Lopez, became a national highlight when over 51,000 HONY followers and supporters donated over $1.4 million dollars to Mott Hall Bridges Academy. The money raised will provide many years of Harvard visits so sixth-grade students of the Brooklyn, N.Y., school can “broaden their horizons and expand their idea of their own potential.”

What led the success of this story? Stanton. What’s his secret to unlocking suppressed truths in people? He’s a stranger to them, no doubt. What can we learn from Stanton, as marketing researchers about human understanding and interviewing?

An interest in human understanding

Like many researchers, my accidental induction into the field was initiated by an interest in human understanding and business. I studied people – how life experiences and memory impact decision-making. I also studied advertising – how human understanding can influence message effectiveness and thereby business strategy. Marketing research is, theoretically, the perfect blend.

I’ve realized, since then, that we need to increase the role humanity generally plays in marketing research. I found that a lot (not all) of research was a compilation of data. Data sheets are reviewed and analyzed for similarities, differences and trends. Data is reported and explained the best it can be. Where does the human component fit in?

With help from technology, qualitative research is transforming. Focus groups are still widely leveraged, communities and other online qualitative techniques are helping ascertain value. But it is seems that qualitative is still, for the most part, viewed as unreliable. While I’m empathic that businesses need data to make large-scale decisions, I’m hoping we can find common ground that incorporates the human component as well. Humanity.

Part of “rebranding” qualitative research is in how we present the value of human understanding to the business. The value of qualitative is in stories and human emotions that allow executives to understand their target consumer, answering the question “Who is this?” So often, qualitative reports are filled with overall findings and themes or an overall summary of the findings. Reviewing the HONY blog, you might realize that there are themes. There are commonalities in fears, aspirations and advice. And, for business, those commonalities could certainly be quantified. The value, however, is in the unique stories and circumstances behind those commonalities. The value is in the individual and we must, then, as researchers, be willing to share the unique stories that get our executives living and feeling like the person behind the number. Empathy.

In reading about Brandon Stanton, I’ve been reminded that people are first unique before they are similar. I’ve been reminded that people will share their stories and explain who they are, if you allow them to. But you have to allow them the space and the opportunity to do that. Whether it’s about life, or a brand, people are willing to share who they are really – if you’re willing to ask.

Our industry needs a new discussion around qualitative research, other than the notion that “qualitative research is dead” or dying, or extinct, or endangered, or whatever. The conversation is boring and it’s grown stale. The conversation leaves us defending an age-old application of research instead of reinventing it to meet modern-day expectations. It has to be faster, it has to be less expensive and it has to reflect the thoughts of more people in more places. It doesn’t have to die because it’s old. Let’s make it new again. Let’s bring people to life in research.

Feeling inspired by HONY and Brandon Stanton’s mission, I firmly believe there’s a lot we can learn a lot about the value of human connection, intimacy and conversation in how we conduct and report our research.

Here are four key tips Stanton’s experience can offer us in how we learn about people:

1. Consider one-on-one conversations

2. Start the conversation broadly but not generically

3. Probe on abstract, emotional language to uncover greater detail

4. Don’t force responses; if you’re not getting what you need, move on

Consider one-on-one conversations

Stanton seeks people standing alone. Even if they know their personal story will be shared with millions of people all over the world via the HONY blog, people are likely to share intimate details about their life if no one else is around. “They clam up,” he tells the Dublin audience.

There has been a lot of discussion in marketing research about the value of focus groups. That’s not what this is about. As a former client-side researcher, I understand there is a time and place for group discussion. What we learn from Stanton and his success in curating personal stories is the value of one-on-one discussions as well. Are you doing focus groups because they are the right approach or because they are an efficient alternative? Traditional qualitative research companies are seeing value in one-on-one conversations. Many have expanded their offerings to include one-on-one Webcam interviews, an efficient alternative to groups (if one-on-ones are the right approach). Online communities also offer the ability to share things as a group and individually.

Intimacy has been studied and discussed in regards to qualitative research. Vulnerability is an important aspect to qualitative – it’s something that quantitative research simply cannot provide. Technology does interfere with intimacy, it’s true. In some cases, I would argue, the screen between a respondent and an interviewer provides a stronger sense of security for the respondent and therefore provides a more intimate engagement. This will alter from research topic to research topic but communication via technology is a widely accepted format.

For some, the value of focus groups is in consensus. Technology is helping marketing research companies conduct one-on-one conversations, either with small sample sizes or very large sample sizes. Text and linguistic analysis tools are helping companies realize the propensity of key ideas and emotions from people all over the world and then delve back into the personal stories that reflect the overall idea. There are ways to report on individuality and consensus.

Consider your modern-day options for one-on-one interviewing. If you haven’t investigated the space lately, I think you’ll be surprised.

Start the discussion broadly but not generically

Of course, moderators won’t typically just jump into the research. There’s a warm-up period and Stanton reinforces the importance of this step. He quickly introduces himself, establishes credibility and asks a broad but personal question – broad enough to gather a unique answer but personal enough that it opens the opportunity for a deeply personal story from the interviewee, something like “What’s something you’re really satisfied with right now?”

I’ve sat through my fair share of focus groups and interviews. The warm-up period can last five minutes, going around asking about what you do, your family, what you enjoy doing as a hobby. I get it. This type of introduction helps respondents relax and get comfortable with the moderator. It helps ease the discomfort with being placed in front of a double-sided mirror. It helps create intimacy with the group.

But imagine the intimacy by starting a conversation the way Stanton starts a conversation: “What are you most optimistic about right now?”

In a recent Inc.com article entitled “How to make small talk way more fun,” Jessica Stillman reports on the value of unconventional small talk. She draws insight from Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, who in a recent TED blog post offered an excerpt of their book What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss. The authors offer two points of advice, one of which includes asking unexpected open-ended questions – “Where are you from?” or “How’d you end up in your line of work?”

Stanton, indirectly, is showing us the value of starting a conversation in a non-generic sort of way. Instead of the normal small talk, consider starting conversations at a more personal and intimate level to achieve deeper and more meaningful research results moving forward.

Probe on abstract, emotional language to uncover greater detail

Like the readers of the HONY blog, marketing researchers and marketers are interested in humanity. We’re interested in each other and our stories so we can understand the world better and more clearly. With storytelling, we find ourselves living, for a moment, as the characters we’re reading about and fully understanding their inner selves. As marketers, it helps us communicate more sincerely and more memorably.

Where does the storytelling component of HONY come from? Stanton’s brilliance is in his follow-up questions, in which he tailors his questions to get below the surface – to awaken personal history and, thereby, stories.

“What are you most optimistic about right now?”

Follow-up: “Tell me about a time in your life you had a hard time being optimistic.”

Don’t force responses; if you’re not getting what you need, move on

Move on politely. There are times when a participant passes the recruitment criteria and articulation screener. But then they get there and you realize that they are, in fact, not poised to provide the insight needed for the study. Surprisingly, they are kept in the study: “Perhaps they’ll give something we can use…”

Stanton recognizes after a few questions if a person will add to his cause – or not. If he’s unsuccessful in getting them to share personal details, he thanks them for their time and moves on.

There is a lot of focus in cleaning quantitative data but in a qualitative setting, where the depth really matters, there seems to be less restriction. This is primarily driven by the traditional nature of qualitative research in which a set number of respondents are chosen to show up at a specified location in one week. To find new people who meet the specified target, on the fly, is nearly impossible. Over-recruiting for a focus group or shop-along is normal but typically only employed if someone from the core recruitment list doesn’t show up.

Again, this is where advances in technology have improved the potential for qualitative research. Finding respondents is much quicker in an online setting. If the interview doesn’t go well or they aren’t giving great information, the interview can be scrubbed from the final analysis.

Advancing the perceived value

So what’s the point? Qualitative research is far from perfect. Instead of talking about how the method is “dead” or “dying” we need to brainstorm solutions for advancing the perceived value in our research strategies. There is value in conversation. Stanton teaches us that. He teaches us that personal stories and connection are the link to human understanding and empathy. If your research connects your CMO and agency to your target audience in this way, your marketing will be more meaningful and impactful. Instead of hitting on functional benefits, your marketing will speak to people at an emotional level.

While it’s easy to find faults in traditional qualitative research, I challenge you to join me in finding solutions for advancing the method to meet modern-day needs. I challenge you to try new things and talk about them. Share your experiences. There is absolutely no better time to advance the field than now.