What is qualitative market research?
Qualitative market research is primarily used as exploratory or discovery research, during the development of new brands, products, services, communications or packaging.
It is also used in psychographics studies, assessments of the consumer's System 1 versus System 2 decision-making processes, and for projects focussing on customer experience analysis and optimisation.
Qualitative research is unstructured or semi-structured, most often based on a discussion guide or task list.
Focus groups and depth interviews are probably the best-known methods of qualitative research, but many other forms also exist.
Qualitative research studies are sometimes augmented with semiotics or behavioural economics exercises.
What is the purpose of qualitative research?
The purpose of qualitative research is typically to provide contextual understanding, by identifying and exploring the relevant thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of the target audience.
When qualitative research is used in an exploratory capacity, it is likely to be commissioned at the project’s outset, in order to provide marketers with the vital customer insights they need to create initial (brand, product, communications, packaging…) concepts or hypotheses.
If it is commissioned at a later stage in the project, its role is often to evaluate and refine concepts or hypotheses that have already been developed.
Why is qualitative research so important?
In many ways, qualitative research is actually more important now than its ever been and that’s because most markets are more competitive than at any time previously, with more and more brands competing for static numbers of consumers.
At the same time, expectancy has never been greater, with both B2C and B2B customers expecting their brands to demonstrate total customer understanding– in everything they do and say.
Without qualitative research most brands will simply not be able to achieve the level of customer closeness and competitive advantage that is required to be successful in today's market place.
Qualitative versus quantitative research
Qualitative research can either be commissioned on a standalone basis, or in conjunction with quantitative research, which may be required to validate and refine the qual insights, as well as any concept or hypothesis that has been based on them.
Quantification of qualitative results is most often required if major marketing decisions or investments are to be based on the research findings, or if the commissioning organisation wishes to use the research output as part of an application for angel investment or funding.
What types of qualitative research are there?
There are 2 main qualitative research approaches:
face to face qualitative (e.g. focus groups, depth interviews, co-creation workshops)
online qualitative (e.g. online communities and bulletin boards, diaries and event video capture)
But there are two further approaches that can also be included under the qualitative research umbrella.
neuromarketing (e.g. eye-tracking, facial coding)
ethnography (either observed or accompanied)
Face-to-face versus online qualitative research
The research agency you commission will be able to explain exactly why face-to-face is more appropriate for your project than online (or vice-a-versa), but in brief:
Face-to-face qualitative research is more appropriate for detailed exploration of subject matter, for subject matter is sensitive in nature or for creative development projects, where respondents work together to achieve broad consensus on key issues and opportunities.
Online qualitative research is more relevant when the research event needs to take place over a period of days, when there is a significant volume of stimulus material to be shown and reviewed in depth, or when respondents are required to contribute stimulus of their own in digital format. It may also more appropriate if larger numbers of respondents are required.
Who should use qualitative research?
Qualitative research is equally as appropriate for SMEs and start-ups as it is for global brands.
Most of the larger businesses that we work with use qualitative research on an ongoing basis. They know how to get real value out of it – and the agencies that provide it.
However, this is often not the case with start-ups and SMEs. For them, the benefits of qualitative research are often unknown.
However, qualitative research can actually be more important for smaller businesses – and they can also benefit disproportionately from it, as they seek to establish their brands and grow.
This is because qual will typically provide them with a type and level of customer understanding that many of their competitors will not have access to.