Editor's note: Morgan Goebel is research manager at Werk Insight. She can be reached at morgan@werkinsight.com.

With the explosive growth of generative AI over the past year, a lot of talk in market research has centered around implications for quantitative research. But in B2B markets, quantitative data is not always substantive and automation may not fully capture the complexities of decision-making. There will still be the need to gather nuanced and observational insights about B2B audiences through qualitative methods. 

Why B2B needs qualitative research

Qualitative research can help to uncover and understand the human side of your B2B target market. Whether it’s a farmer buying new tractor tires or a contractor determining which insulation brand to install, most business decisions today are still made by humans – who can be influenced by a range of complex factors and emotions. 

While business purchasers typically consider tangible factors such as pricing, contract terms and return policies, decisions are not made on data and numbers alone. Relationships, brand perceptions and emotions play a critical role in business transactions. Bad decisions can harm an individual’s reputation within their company and how a provider makes a buyer feel (e.g., trusting, confident) is often a crucial deciding factor. Through qualitative research, B2B companies can probe deeper to identify the underlying emotions and rationales driving business decisions, as well as the higher-order needs of B2B customers. 

Best practices for B2B qualitative research

When conducting qualitative research in B2B markets, some best practices can set up a project for success:

Recruit the right people. High-quality insights come from quality respondents. You need to make sure you are talking to people who have sufficient involvement in decisions you want to understand and can speak to these decisions in detail. To do this, recruitment and screening needs to go beyond simply asking for a respondent’s job title and industry. In addition, ask screening questions about specific roles and responsibilities, experience and technical expertise and ascertain the individual’s ability to articulate. This will ensure that the roofing contractor or investment banker you’re talking to truly fits into your target audience and will be able to helpfully answer your questions.

Use participant-centered language. This advice is relevant across the board but it carries an additional nuance in B2B qualitative research. When possible, ask questions from the interviewee’s perspective rather than their business’s perspective.

For instance, instead of, “When your company purchases fasteners for a project…”, ask, “When you purchase fasteners for a project…” Participants are already thinking in terms of their role at work; asking them about their company instead of them as an individual can result in more bureaucratic, surface-level answers, such as an explanation of the company’s procurement process. 

B2B qualitative research should go beyond organizational structure to uncover deeper, humanistic insights into purchasing pain points, brand perceptions and areas for improvements. Combining insights from several individuals and viewpoints provides representation of the broader business perspective, without discounting the impact of the individual.

Use the right research method for the target audience and subject matter, with a focus on building rapport. Be sure to balance the research objectives, subject-matter sensitivity and target audience comfort when choosing a method for B2B qualitative research.

Some research objectives are better suited for one-on-one methods like in-person or phone IDIs due to the sensitive or privileged nature of the research (e.g., business sourcing methods), while others are better suited for group research methods. For example, dyads or triads can be very effective when seeking to understand the perspectives of multiple audiences on a topic (e.g., understanding how different departments within a company interact during the B2B purchase process), and focus groups are well-fitted for gauging reactions from a diverse cross-section of the target audience to physical stimuli (e.g., product prototypes) or new messaging collateral and concepts.

Regardless of the research method you choose, it is important for the moderator to build rapport and trust with participants early on, so that they are comfortable opening up. Depending on the audience and the research topic, individuals can be skeptical of participating in B2B market research because they don’t want to reveal any trade secrets about their business, especially when participants know there are other individuals in the room who have similar roles in the same industry. Moderators have the unique and important job of assuaging these concerns while making respondents feel at ease and willing to share.

Tell a story

When done right, B2B qualitative research can tell a story that numbers alone can’t. Qualitative research can help B2B companies gain deeper insight into their customers and the people driving their transactions, ultimately enabling more purposeful and customer-centric business strategies. Despite the excitement around generative AI and its implications for market research, the need for human-led research in B2B markets is still evident.