An introduction to qualitative market research

Qualitative research is concerned with identifying and understanding the motivations and feelings of the research audience. It provides rich data and is particularly powerful in supplying ideas for marketing or creative teams. It is flexible, dynamic and open-ended. It is often used in conjunction with quantitative research either preceding it e.g. to define the parameters the quantitative survey should embrace, the key questions to be asked and/ or the marketplace terminology used by consumers; or following it, to increase understanding/ aid interpretation of the quantitative responses given and/ or progress ideas/ suggestions made.

Respondents are interviewed by a skilled interviewer or moderator in an unstructured, free-flowing format in which a topic discussion guide is loosely followed. Given answers are probed in depth and the ensuing discussion is very much determined by the respondent's own thoughts and feelings. The emerging data (audio and/ or video-recorded) must be subsequently interpreted and analysed by the interviewer running the session as observed body language and non verbal responses all contribute to the data collected. Projective techniques may be used to elicit what respondents are feeling at a deeper, often unconscious level about this particular topic and why.

Interviews generally last from 45 minutes to 1½ hours, although extended groups are sometimes convened in creative development projects. Respondents may be interviewed in a one to one format, in pairs where more intimate, private or detailed information/ attitudes are sought; or in triads or in small (focus) groups of 4–8 individuals where respondent interaction yields richer data. Recording observed behaviour in a purchasing/ decision-making context and subsequent discussion of the same may be involved as may follow-up interviews/ data collection over the internet/ via blogs/ message boards etc.

A smaller sample of respondents is involved than with quantitative research, sufficient to ensure each different audience/ subset within a client’s universe is represented.

Its principal aims are:

Qualitative research objectives centre on identifying, evaluating, expanding, clarifying, understanding and/ or explaining respondent attitudes and behaviours. It can address research problems such as perceptions of the current marketplace, ways in which brands/ products are differentiated, decision-making processes followed when selecting/ purchasing, identifying opportunities for new products, discovering the optimum consumer/ brand relationship on which an advertising strategy/ campaign can be based, gauging stakeholder attitudes after/ before corporate change/ restructuring, determining ways in which an advertising or information campaign or execution can be improved to maximise communications etc.

Summary of pros and cons of qualitative research

Pros Cons
Open ended, dynamic, flexible Responses are not measured, neither are they  statistically representative
Depth of understanding Dependent on interviewer skills, orientation & interpretation
Taps consumer creativity Can not be repeated as easily with exactly replicable & thus comparable results as quantitative research
Deeper, broader database Requires trust in interviewer’s ability to draw (unseen) data together
Smaller sample size: speedier results, less costly projects Smaller sample sometimes necessitates follow on larger quantitative sample for more controversial marketing decisions
Penetrates rationalised, superficial responses Dependent on interviewer skills & experience
Open-ended, formative creative ideas can be evaluated Interviewer involved required to have particular skills/ experience in introducing such material & interpreting responses given
Richer source of ideas for marketing & creative teams "Less accessible" data mix for clients