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Qualitative Market Research “Methodologies” are Perennial – Its the Number of Prospective “Tools” That Are Increasing

January 15, 2013

A client recently asked if I had a list of new qualitative market research methodologies. I replied with a caveat saying:

“I think that it is important to say that many projects mistakenly begin with a consideration of research methods rather than an adequate analysis of the research objectives. I believe that this often results in bad research where you get the answers that are possible with the predetermined methodology but do not get to the heart of the matter, meaning what the client needed to know to take action. For this reason I strongly encourage my clients to come to me prepared to talk about what they want to learn, rather than how they want to get the information.”

That said… upon consideration of my list of “methodologies” I have come to the realization that qualitative market research really comes down to how many people you communicate with at a time. Working upwards you have:

Title # at a time Options/Tools
Individual interviews 1  
Triads 3  
Mini Groups 4-6  
Focus groups 7-12  
Panels/Advisory Boards 12-25  
Large Groups 25-100+  


Once you have determined the ideal number of people to speak with at a time, you have multiple choices about how to actually engage with them. This brings into play many new online tools, which is what I believe people often mean when they reference new qualitative market research methodologies.

Here some of the options and tools that I am aware of

Title # at a time Options/Tools
Individual interviews 1 Live – In market research facility or in ethnographic setting (at home, store, work etc…)

Online and synchronous – Videoconferencing or text-based groups with slides, whiteboard, video and photo or other types of visual stimulus

Brainstorming with Prezi, GroupZap or document and media sharing online services

Online and asynchronous – via email, text, online bulletin board or journals, or video responses

Triads 3
Mini Groups 4-6
Focus groups 7-12
Panels/Advisory Boards 10-25 (Same as above, plus…)

Live – In hotels or conference centers

Large Groups 25-100+ Live – Clicker or perceptual analyzer technology

Online and synchronous – Clicker or perceptual analyzer technology

Online and asynchronous – Online surveys with some free text responses, bulletin boards


So, bottom line, I believe that the methodologies of qualitative research currently are very much the same as they have always been but that the number of tools that potentially help to execute these methodologies provide an increasingly richer assortment of choices when considering how to best achieve the objectives of a given study.

The posts that follow, all originating from the beginning of this blog, still provide what I consider to be useful insight into how to begin a study. I hope that they serve you well.

Big Data and Qualitative Market Research

January 9, 2013

Big Data“Based on results” was one of the catch phrases commonly used among my fellow facilitators of Insight Seminars, the personal growth company I worked with prior to beginning my market research career. The phrase was used to bring awareness to discrepancies between beliefs we hold about ourselves and the actions we actually take in our lives. For example, “based on results” I am not as committed to a healthy diet as I believe or sometimes represent to others, because of my compulsion to eat Hagen Dazs coffee ice cream.

Technology is now providing many ways to measure people’s actual actions in ways that are changing the nature of market research. “Big data”, the tracking of our actions, such as where we click, the things we purchase, where we go and what we watch on television can be analyzed directly to produce insights, or can be used as a tool to facilitate an inquiry.

I would presume that the increased ability to accurately quantify the actual actions of a segment of individuals has reduced the amount of certain types of traditional qualitative market research that is being conducted. Why ask people about their practices when you can view data showing what they actually do?

I also see ways that qualitative market research can take advantage of “big data” and expose a deeper level of insight related to why individuals are taking specific actions. Most critically I think that big data can assist to identify the most important individuals to participate in a qualitative study.

Here are some ideas:

  • Use big data to help identify and then recruit different types of customers. Most obviously contrast the opinions of loyal customers to those who recently abandoned your brand and purchased the product of a competitor.
  • Compare  the experiences of first time customers who purchased a product from your website, or who “liked” your company, with those who visited your website and did not make a purchase or interact in any way.
  • Interview those who have commented on your company’s services through social media, perhaps comparing those with positive, neutral and negative reviews.

According to a report from SAS entitled Big Data: Lessons from the Leaders, many companies are collecting big data but are challenged to isolate what is meaningful and to gain insight from it. I believe that qualitative market research can help by finding the right folks and interacting with them in strategic ways to answer the most relevant questions related to improving marketing results.

Overcoming the Sequential Response Limitation of Online Bulletin Boards – How to Generate Richer Online Text “Discussions”

December 6, 2012

ConversationAbout half of my projects in 2012 have used online bulletin boards in different ways. Through experimentation I have found a simple method of eliminating one of the inherent weaknesses of this methodology that I intend to use a lot more frequently in the future.

The sequential nature of participant’s responses in online bulletin boards is always problematic. The first participant to answer a discussion question has no previous posts to respond to. The second can only respond to the posts of the first. In fact, the key issues that are relevant to the online discussion do not really become evident until about half the participants have weighed in on a question. This is a little late for moderators to intervene and focus the discussion because only the remaining half of the participants in the conversation have the opportunity to really discuss these issues.

To address this problem I structured a recent bulletin board in two phases.

  1. In the first phase, participants answered roughly 20 questions in a “blind” manner. Essentially, completing an online journal, without seeing the posts of their peers or interacting in any way.
  2. In the second phase they “discussed” about five of these questions.

The online hosting service I use (Focus Forums) enables me to design very detailed discussion guides and to control the level of “discussion” on each question.  Some of the phase one questions gathered data with ratings or addressed the specific practices of participants that were unique to their market and not universal.  Realistically, many of these questions would not benefit from any type of “discussion”.

The phase two questions were only those that were truly suitable for discussion. Every participant had already made a “blind” response to these questions before Phase 2 began. As the moderator, I was able to read all of these responses and insert specific probes to focus the discussion before it began. The first Phase 2 participant had the opportunity to read and reply to the initial posts of every other respondent in the study, as well as my additional queries.

The study I am referencing was a small one due to the uniqueness of the 22 participants. The final transcript included roughly 1,200 entries. On average, each participant posted over 50 times! More importantly, the depth and quality of the discussion was the best of any of the online bulletin boards I have conducted. I believe that the described two-phase structure is the reason.

“Four Questions” that qualitative market research can answer…

November 27, 2012

It is appropriate that my return to actively posting to this blog begins with a response to Seth Godin’s post entitled “Four questions worth answering” because Seth  inspired many of my first posts a couple of years ago.

Clicking this  link will take you to his excellent blog. However, the post is so short that here it is in its entirety.

Four questions worth answering

Who is your next customer? (Conceptually, not specifically. Describe his outlook, his tribe, his hopes and dreams and needs and wants…)

What is the story he told himself (about the world, about his situation, about his perceptions) before he met you?

How do you encounter him in a way that he trusts the story you tell him about what you have to offer?

What change are you trying to make in him, his life, or his story?

Start with this before you spend time on tactics, technology or scalability.

 In my opinion these questions have universal application for any business committed to serving their customers with excellence. They are very familiar to me because they generically state the objectives of many of the qualitative market research projects I have conducted. They are especially reminiscent of the work I do when assisting my medical clients to better understand “the story” of the patients they are serving.

These are also the kinds of questions I find most challenging and rewarding to answer.

Documenting Market Research with a Dynamic Debrief

September 24, 2012

A dynamic debrief gathers the wisdom of the entire
team of individuals who are involved in a market research project and can generate deep and wide-ranging insights in a rapid manner. This post outlines the main steps, including refinements resulting from some recent experiences with the process.

There are three main reasons for conducting a dynamic debrief:

  • Time pressure – A dynamic debrief is usually conducted on the day following the completion of the field component of the research and results in a list of the key findings and agreed upon next action steps.
  • Need for consensus – The dynamic debrief process generates a deeper level of interactivity among team members than may be typical. If a study is complex, then the interactivity this process demands often helps to get to the bottom line.
  • Desire for an energizing “jump start” for a project – Participants usually leave these sessions with a clear list of next steps that they are excited to begin.

There are three main steps to a dynamic debrief. Here is the shortcut formula:

  • What? – Identify the key research findings
  • So What? – Generate recommendations to address the findings
  • Now What? – Prioritize and refine the recommendations into “next steps”

Here is a brief overview of each step:

Step 1 – What?

Unless it is patently obvious, it is smart to begin with an overview of the study objectives. If the team leader outlines the history of the project and the desired outcome of the session the team members tend to pay attention and hold the focus as the process advances.

Participants begin working individually by posting their “findings”. Imagine a team of people circling a large conference room, stopping at each of 5 to 10 “stations”, writing short statements about “what they heard” on large post-its and placing them on flipcharts labeled with the main research questions. Eventually, everyone has posted their findings to every flipchart or station. These findings are then organized by small groups into a few key themes.

Step 2 – So What?

Participants divide into teams and generate recommendations to address the research findings at each of the stations. After posting their recommendations, the teams rotate through each of the stations and expand on the recommendations made so far by adding their ideas or comments.

Step 3 – Now What?

Participants are each provided with a limited number of dots and instructed to “vote” for the recommendations they regard as most critical and important. To conclude the process, the whole group assembles at each station and discusses the highest ranked recommendations, defining and agreeing on the next steps.


Participants receive a table outlining the key findings and the recommended next step actions in order of importance.

Some Final Thoughts

  • This post outlines the basics of the dynamic debrief process but leaves out many important details.
  • There are many possible variations to finely tune the process to match the idiosyncrasies of a given study or team.
  • With simple studies the process can be completed in a half-day. More complex studies may benefit from a full day.
  • Running an effective dynamic debrief requires careful planning and is definitely more complicated and demanding than running a typical focus group.
  • Recent developments in online group brainstorming tools inspire me to attempt to run this process in a paperless and perhaps a remote fashion.

I believe that conducting a dynamic debrief merits the investment if time is tight, group interaction is critical to effective decision-making and the team will benefit from an energizing “jump start”. As you might imagine, participants leave a dynamic debrief with a level of clarity about the study results and what they are going to do about it, that is much deeper and more practical than the “usual” experience of reading a report a couple of weeks after completion. Most teams also find the process to be fun and engaging, and the outcome to be effective.

Inspirational and Scary – Acknowledging the Impact of Our Digital World

February 17, 2012

“The biggest opportunity for the music business is to combine permission with subscription. The possibilities are endless.” Seth Godin

Seth Godin just reposted this article which he wrote 4 years ago but which continues to be highly relevant. It draws parallels between the impact of technology on the music business and publishing.

However, it is also a straight-shooting wake up call for every business to evaluate how it can adjust to the reality of the changes relentlessly imposed by technology.

My business has changed dramatically and continues to do so. About half of the studies I conduct are directly about “technology” in the form of website usability and the development of online products. The other half of the projects I conduct typically are using technology in the form of online surveys, bulletin boards or other methods of communication. This is in stark contrast to what I did just a few years ago when I traveled much more frequently to conduct live research.

Frankly, I found Seth’s unflinching “get over it” and “get on with it” attitude in this piece both scary and inspirational. In short he states that how I feel about the “good old days” is irrelevant. If I want my business to survive I have to change with the times. Check it out.

Brainstorming – Increasing Creativity and the Quantity and Usefulness of Ideas

January 30, 2012

“The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions.” Jonah Lehrer

True or False: Best practices for brainstorming in the context of market research include:

  • Consulting experts in a particular domain
  • Employing group discussion (as opposed to individual reflection)
  • Requiring participants to defer judgment to maximize the quantity of ideas

If you do not regard any of these ideas as ‘true” then your perception of brainstorming is already non-traditional. My guess is that most readers of this blog have participated in and/or led brainstorming sessions that followed most of these guidelines. I say this because they represent “conventional wisdom” about brainstorming.

An article entitled “Groupthink”, by Jonah Lehrer, from the January 30th issue of the New Yorker magazine shatters some myths about these established brainstorming guidelines. He cites research that points to ways to be more productive, creative and effective during brainstorming sessions. The article intrigued me because it explains and reinforces some of the unconventional practices that I have intuitively adopted over time.

To keep this post short I am going to list some ways that I have refined my group brainstorming practices that align with the research cited in the article. To read about the research related to brainstorming you will need to read the article. If you are not a subscriber to the New Yorker you can listen to this podcast for free.

When leading brainstorming sessions (in the context of qualitative market research) consider the following guidelines:

  • Be very specific about the objective – One way to avoid disappointment about the results of a brainstorm session is to be clear from the start about your desired outcome. A long list of random ideas is not enough. The objective should be a long list of ideas that help to further the research objective i.e. achieve the goal or solve the problem.
  • Require personal reflection prior to the group brainstorm – I believe that participants provide better quality and more focused ideas when they can gather their thoughts before beginning a brainstorm discussion. Depending on the circumstance, personal reflection might occur prior to the group in the form of a homework assignment or pre-group task. Alternatively, I frequently give participants a few minutes of precious group time to record their ideas on a “worksheet” prior to discussion. This helps to quickly identify and document the common ideas so that our discussion time can generate deeper insights.
  • Encourage “critical refinement” of an idea – Critical refinement requires participants to note a perceived problem with an idea and then propose a solution. No critique is allowed unless it includes one or more proposed solutions or refinements. This guideline ensures that ideas are not dismissed due to personal opinions (“I don’t think that will work”). Instead, the person challenging the idea adds depth and stimulates conversation related to making it even more effective.
  • Engage a range of participants to “cross-pollinate” ideas – For many reasons focus groups that devote some time to brainstorming tend to include mostly homogenous mixes of participants. However, there are many ways to share the ideas of Group A with those of Group B. This article on the Next Step Consulting website about the fishbowl process discusses one useful method.

Brainstorming is an essential qualitative market research tool that requires an experienced and professional touch on the part of the moderator to reap its full potential value. These refinements of typical practices have proven helpful to me and seem to be supported by the research cited in the New Yorker article mentioned at the beginning of this post.