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A penny for your thoughts

Technology & Data

A penny for your thoughts


This article is part of a series by Katie Harris, principal at Zebra Connections (if you missed the other parts, start here).   

As we brace ourselves for a slowing economy, and marketing budgets are squeezed, it’s well worth asking; is qualitative research something you can do yourself? What can be done with a tight budget?

DIY qualitative research

In one sense, qualitative research is not only something you can do yourself, it’s something you should do yourself. Here I’m specifically talking about informal observation; watching your/competitors’ customers – in real life, online – wherever they might be.

Informal observation is not only interesting in itself, it can also provide you with some rich context for understanding your customers’ experience. And it can help you identify issues that warrant further investigation.

But interesting and useful as it may be, it’s almost always necessary to go further than observation alone; to dig deeper to understand the behaviours you observe. And observation alone probably won’t deliver the goods if you need answers to specific business questions.

Using qualitative research consultants

If you need to dig deeper and/or answer specific questions, you may find it helpful talk to a professional qualitative research consultant. They’ll be able to;

  • Turn your business questions into research questions
  • Advise you on a sensible and efficient research methodology and sample structure
  • Manage the respondent recruitment process
  • Develop a research topic guide that enables the discussion to flow naturally, whilst efficiently capturing relevant information
  • Understand which particular research techniques/stimulus will work best for the task at hand
  • Run the focus groups, in-depth interviews, etc; experience based skill is key here
  • Analyse the research findings; sort the wheat from the chaff
  • Debrief the research findings in such a way that you can put them to profitable use

You can find accredited research consultants through the Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) directory. Consultants with QPMR (Qualified Practitioner of Market Research) accreditation generally have more experience.

Tight budgets

What can be done with a tight budget? The short, but definitive answer here is; it depends.

First, of course, it depends on how you define ‘tight budget’. Second, a ‘tight budget’ (however it’s defined) may or may not adequately fund a useful inquiry; it depends on your information needs.

For discussion sake, though, let’s assume you have an adequate budget, tight or not, to fund a useful research project.

If you want to get maximum value for your research dollars, you need three things;

  1. The right sample
  2. Senior consultants
  3. Your fair share of insight

The right people

I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk to the right people, but I covered this in an earlier post in the series, so will focus on the second two topics here.

Senior consultants

When I was starting out as a qualitative researcher, I was based in London. Fine city, but I seemed to spend quite a lot of time out of London, on the road, conducting focus groups anywhere but London. I must have covered every corner of regional England, and a fair chunk of country-side Scotland too.

Not surprisingly, these were groups that the clients couldn’t make it to, or didn’t want to travel for. Those who sent me off to such remote parts were clever enough to know not to put a junior moderator in front of a client. They knew what all experienced moderators know: good moderation is a product of experience, and lots of it.

Researchers with relatively little experience, perhaps straight out of university or a year or so into their careers, shouldn’t be allowed to moderate client-paid focus groups:

  • They’re still learning the mechanics of facilitating a group. This takes cognitive effort, generally at the expense of the greater commercial purpose of the research
  • While possibly well versed in theory, relatively speaking, they don’t have much business world experience

If you commission a series of focus groups, and half are run by juniors, you’re paying half of your research budget in training. Unless you’re happy to subsidise these training sessions, and are confident that the output will be sound enough to guide your business decisions, then insist that a senior consultant moderates all your groups and/or interviews.

Your fair share of insight

To get the best value for your research dollars, insist that either all moderators working on your project watch all of each others groups, or that one moderator conducts all the groups.

Here’s why. Lets say you commission a six group research project and you find that two moderators will be working on your project, each running three groups. Timings, diary clashes, etc. mean that they wont get to attend many (if any) of each others groups.

When the groups are finished, the two moderators get together to discuss their three groups worth of insight. They then stitch the findings together, in a perfectly gestalt fashion, to deliver six groups worth of insight. Not!

It doesn’t work that way. The insight from three groups, even if you multiply it by two, is still just insight from three groups.

Whats missing, is the incremental learning: each moderator has only three – not six – sessions in which to evolve and refine their hypotheses. Effectively, you’re getting three groups worth of insight, but you’re paying for six.

The nutshell

  • Do your own qualitative research constantly; watch customers/potential customers in action.
  • If you need to dig deeper and/or answer specific questions, use a professional qualitative research consultant.
  • To get maximum value for your research dollars, make sure that you’re talking to the right people, that senior consultants conduct (not just oversee) your research project, and that you get your fair share of insights.

Check out the next post, where I discuss qualitative sample considerations.


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