More close – more breadth – more depth
The targeted combination of direct and indirect methods of qualitative market research makes it possible to participate more directly and closely in the behavior and feelings of consumers.
by Oliver Schauss, Head of Qualitative Research, Icon Added Value
Group discussions were and are the successful classic in the toolbox of qualitative market researchers. The boom of recent years can not only be seen in the increased number of studies. The quantity and quality of the studios in major German cities has also increased significantly: the latest generation of customer rooms with the now unmistakable lounge character, the catering is becoming more and more exquisite, multimedia equipment, cinema seating and wall-sized one-way mirrors are standard. Bread and circuses for customers: focus groups as a showroom for market research! But is this also reflected in qualitative research? What about the leap in quality in the methodology?
The focus group is dead – long live the focus group
The advantages of primary qualitative market research (primarily focus groups, but also in-depth interviews) are obvious: close to the consumer – separated only by the pane, fast – the first results are immediately available, flexible – no rigid questionnaire, and interactive – the ability to dialogue and adapt the content. So: qualitative research is an efficient and direct way to get to know and understand your market, your customers and the competition and to derive consequences for strategy, marketing mix and communication.
But: the questions of the customers in marketing, market research, sales, business development or in research & development are becoming increasingly complex, the research tasks more and more specific. These requirements are passed on to the market research institutes: understanding of the world of experience of ever more acute target groups, their behavior and needs, identification of new markets and sales potential, development and review of innovative, differentiating new products with convincing customer benefits, as well as concrete instructions for products and brands in increasing numbers fragmented markets.
Standardized methods and one-dimensional research designs (à la “Let’s do four focus groups quickly…”) sometimes show signs of fatigue. There is a risk of not really learning anything new or relevant. Therefore, a task-related adaptation of the investigation methods is required in order to arrive at differentiating and meaningful findings.
Liveliness and the direct experience of the consumer is and remains the core benefit of qualitative market research. The use of multimedia technologies, methods that include unused sources and a more active role for consumers in the research process help us to better depict and understand the reality of the living environment and the handling of products and services.
The even greater involvement of the customer is another consequence of the increased demands and complexity. Especially when it comes to multi-stage projects in the area of brand positioning or product development, the close, interdisciplinary cooperation between market research institute and customer is a win for both sides: on the customer side an increased ‘buy in’ for the project and implicit consequences of action, on the institute side longer-term, closer relationships and more room for consultation and implementation.
Learn from experts
In innovation and positioning processes in particular, it is necessary to tap into different sources of knowledge and eliminate possible ‘blind spots’. The selection and combination of these sources depends on the product segment, market and competitive situation of the company – and of course: on time and budget.
At the beginning it is often helpful, and has always been a tried and tested method for management consultants, to first ask around in the company itself with internal experts in order to collect and condense knowledge, data and ideas. Such qualitative stakeholder interviews also prevent a project from quickly following well-trodden paths, especially in large, widely ramified companies, and leading to results that colleagues have been in the drawer for years.
In addition to internal experts, external experts can provide inspiration and new approaches. For an innovation project of the frozen food market leader iglo, a number of experts from the fields of trend research, catering, scene gastronomy and nutritional sciences were won over to discuss new ideas and tendencies in the field of nutrition and frozen food and to evaluate concepts.
Another example of the acceleration of knowledge and idea processes through expert workshops is an innovation study by Added Value for Levi’s ®, in which a young fashion designer gave a decisive impetus for the development of engineered jeans with his statement about the importance of the fit of jeans has set.
About cooking gestures and mother’s worries
In addition to the indirect methods that tell us something about the customer, his behavior and the use of products, the consumer himself is the most direct and richest source of knowledge and inspiration. However, as is sometimes the case, word and deed are not always congruent. The non-biotic questioning situation in an interview or group discussion clouds the unfiltered view of the user.
Ethnographic interviews are currently a popular way of approaching consumers in their ‘real’ living environment and thus reducing the distance between saying and doing. In the mix of methods, they represent an invigorating component of consumer insights. In order to gain the most authentic ‘insights’ possible, the interviewer’s behavior is more reactive and observing – he ‘immerses’ in the consumer’s world and experiences everyday life with him: when shopping , cooking, setting the table, cleaning.
Through the change of perspective, one witnesses scenes that remain hidden in the test studio: an unconscious gesture, a despairing look, the way a package is ripped open. In the iglo project, we got valuable and in-depth insights into households, shopping baskets, cooking rituals and mother’s worries.
The strengths compared to classic interviews and focus groups are more authenticity, more insight into behavior and rituals, more liveliness and clarity. A digital camera, MP3 player and/or video camera record the daily routine and are used very discreetly and sensitively by the interviewer.
The results convey, for example, product developers and designers in a very graphic way who uses what, how and why. Study results based on ethnographic interviews can also clearly convey customer needs and barriers to use for training courses in sales or the service sector. Disadvantage: the analysis of the various written and audio-visual recordings is time-consuming and expensive. Therefore, ethnography can be an excellent addition to the qualitative research process, but can only be used in isolation to a limited extent.
Qualitative participants: get out of the comfort zone
Prior tasks have proven to be a further refinement and deepening of the results of qualitative interviews and group discussions. When casting the participants, it is agreed that they will deal with a specific topic in advance. This means: instead of just reacting to questions and stimuli, the product, environment and needs are actively dealt with.
The use of such homework can be individually tailored to the project, customer and industry: for example, what do skin care rituals look like over the year, or how are cooking occasions and cooking constitutions related, or simply: what are the personal ‘heaven & ****’ experiences during shopping. It is both exciting and revealing to ask the respondents to keep a photo diary with their digital camera for a week – or to do without certain (favourite) products for a week and record the emotional consequences of this deprivation.
In this way, the participants in the study become researchers themselves and also gain new insights (“I wasn’t even aware of all the things I pay attention to when I shop!”). These experiences are documented in so-called scrapbooks or diaries and ideally sent back a few days before the interview/discussion. The moderator can thus get an idea of the participants at an early stage in order to be able to respond flexibly to their needs and attitudes right from the start. In addition, the preparatory work offers an excellent basis for the lively design of the final report. And the originals like to make the rounds of the audience during the presentation.
Critical minds see a pre-conditioning of the participants here. It is actually to be avoided to reveal the client and the actual object of investigation too early – also for reasons of confidentiality. However, the catalyst function and the knowledge advantage for the actual qualitative part cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Blogs & Bulletin Boards – Mixed Mode in the Qualitative Mafo
The internet is also currently getting its second chance in qualitative market research – albeit somewhat more cautiously than is currently the case with quantitative market research due to the bad experiences of the first boom. Especially with target groups that are difficult to reach and the widespread enthusiasm of young people in particular to make their personality public in communities such as Facebook, the Internet offers opportunities to place the individual more in the foreground, to activate and motivate participants.
Bulletin boards and consumer blogs in qualitative market research are a thematic virtual pinboard with a colorful range of information that can be experienced interactively, individually and quickly in terms of content. Even before a group discussion, young people can exchange ideas about their personal fashion styles, experiences with biologically sustainable drinks are embellished audio-visually, or the pros and cons of new coloration products are discussed. Good preparation and attunement to moods and opinions for both customer and moderator.
Many ‘springboards’ for dialogue with consumers
The adaptive combination of these direct and indirect methods of qualitative market research represent opportunities to participate more directly and closely in the behavior and feelings of consumers. A stronger activation and higher involvement of the participants increases the quality of information, liveliness and communication density – without conjuring up insights. The extended horizon of qualitative data consequently deepens the understanding when analyzing groups and individual interviews and increases transparency in the recommendations to the customer.
The complexity and density of information also pose new challenges for qualitative market researchers in study design, recruitment, implementation and analysis. In addition, the costs and time of a project must be in reasonable proportion to the objective of the investigation, so that a heterogeneous project design does not just become a sheer accumulation of exciting method modules that achieve redundant results.
In this way, the strengths of qualitative market research in terms of relevance, authenticity and substance are further developed and their applicability extended to new target groups, markets and product groups. And the next focus group remains exciting and insightful on both sides of the mirror.
Oliver Schauss is Head of Qualitative Research at Icon Added Value.