For starters, the sample is never large enough to be statistically meaningful.
Most of the assignments I’ve been involved with over the years range between 6 and 30 respondents. Scientifically speaking, this is inadequate to come to any definitive conclusion as to what people may think or believe, or to how they might act. Even if we doubled or tripled the high end of the scale, we would still be dealing with a minuscule sample in comparison to the size of the markets with whom we wish to communicate.
Moreover, respondents tend to speak on both sides of an issue, often holding opposing beliefs simultaneously: consumers hate pharmaceutical companies but love what they create; middle-aged women regret entering menopause but feel liberated by it. Amidst a swirl of contradictions, it’s difficult if not impossible to discern which beliefs predominate.
Certainly one could argue that all truth takes the form of a contraction, and it might indeed be the case. But that isn’t much help for us as marketers, since messaging, to be effective in our hyperactive media environment, needs to be simple. TV commercials, print ads, and even the host of new digital channels we now employ, are blunt instruments. Nuance is of little or no value.
Furthermore, the variety of contradictory opinions that one uncovers among groups of respondents, as well as within individuals themselves, can make it easy to manipulate the “data” in order to arrive at whatever “conclusion” one wants.
Added to all this is the tendency for marketers and their agencies to use qualitative research to “explore the obvious.” It’s hard to justify the value of “discovering” that patients with, let’s say, condition X, would prefer not to suffer from it, that a drug that could alleviate their condition would be welcome as long as it had no side effects, or that they occasionally look for medical information online.
Granted, confirming the obvious might have some bureaucratic value in that it displays a certain due diligence with regard to “understanding” the consumer. But if the objective of research is to uncover insights that can help you develop a unique strategic position and thereby distinguish your product from your competitors, confirming the obvious is not only of little value, but may actually be counter-productive.
So, having identified its many shortcomings, what actually is the value of qualitative research, and what are its real objectives?
As someone who has come to the research business from the creative side, having worked for years as a copywriter, creative director and commercial filmmaker, I approach the discipline from a different point-of-view than many of my colleagues and see its value lying somewhere else than is traditionally understood.
Qualitative research is, first of all, not research in the normal sense of
It is not scientific.
Its goal, therefore, is not to uncover an objective truth, but rather to gather language and insights to construct a story.
It is essentially a creative activity.
For decades researchers have tried to gloss over qualitative’s unscientific nature by dressing it in the trappings of the scientific method. Focus groups are held in faux laboratory settings. Respondents are viewed as objects, observed dispassionately through two-way mirrors. Moderators take a passive, almost psychoanalytic approach, rarely if ever interjecting their own opinions.
I’ve taken a different tack altogether. Rather than view focus groups as therapy sessions, I see them more as talk shows. I interject my opinions, gently point out contradictions, formalize points-of view and work together with the respondents to help discover not only how they understand a product or service, but more important, how they might understand it.
Think of it as a brainstorming session in which the person leading the event is less a research moderator and more a creative guide, less an authority than an imaginative peer.
There are a number of benefits to this approach, both conceptually and financially.
On the conceptual side, it is extremely useful during the initial, exploratory phase of strategic development. This is the time when we’re often working from the blank page, so to speak. If we’re lucky, we may have a few preliminary, often vague, strategic routes that we might want to pursue. But we’re often constricted in our thinking simply by virtue of being at the start of the process.
Creatively employing the talents and imagination of respondents can help explore not only the ideas we already have, but better yet, uncover new ones. A truly creative focus group or interview will uncover questions we never even thought of, and lead to strategies we never envisioned.
Researching creatively can also provide us with a wealth of language that we can use in our communications, both internal and external. As a copywriter by trade, I’ve often been blown away by the brilliant turns-of-phase that respondents come up with. This is not only beneficial from a communications point-of-view, but from a financial perspective as well. It’s a highly efficient use of creative resources (in this case, your target market) and an effective form of crowd sourcing.
In fact, I’ve discovered that the right respondents, placed in the right setting and provided with the right guidance, will offer up insights, concepts and strategies that rival those of the best creative and strategic teams I’ve worked with in the advertising business.
Moreover, If you record the focus groups and edit them properly, you can use what’s being said to construct a blueprint of sorts for the strategic direction or directions you might want to take, in a form that’s more rigorous, more coherent, more tangible and more concrete than, let’s say, bullet points on a Powerpoint presentation. These can be used to build consensus within your organization as well as provide your agency with a creative brief that is meaningful and can be acted upon immediately.
Best of all, thanks to advances in video technology, creative researching offers up a goldmine of testimonials that can be used on the web or even in traditional broadcast. Research recordings used to be viewed as mere “clip films,” something to be discarded after a presentation. In the hands of an experienced cinematographer and video editor, however, what transpires at a focus group can now offer cost-saving benefits for years to come.
To put it simply, qualitative research can be of enormous value if we simply allow it to do what it does best.
We need to abandon any pretense that it is a scientific pursuit, and understand it as a creative, if not artistic, way of arriving at strategies and language that can help us sell our products and grow our markets.
It is, at its core, a very human activity.
And that’s something we can’t live without.