As touched upon earlier, high quality research incorporates both quantitative and qualitative research tools. Qualitative research methods are often used in the exploratory phase of market research, and are intended to drive an understanding of ideas, concepts, and experiences. Quantitative techniques are used to address more specific issues and test hypotheses. They typically express results in quantifiable numeric values.
The two approaches complement each other well, and virtually every market research initiative should include both quantitative and qualitative techniques. By understanding different types of quantitative and qualitative techniques, their applications, and the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, you’ll better understand how to conduct a comprehensive market research process that results in actionable insights.
Qualitative Market Research Methods
Qualitative research focuses on driving open discussions of complex issues and ideas to enable researchers to better understand customer’s thoughts and feelings regarding certain issues. Generally, qualitative research is used at the beginning of the research process, and can help researchers generate a range of hypotheses they can test out with more exact, quantitative methods.
Market researchers usually conduct qualitative research on a relatively small scale. Because of the nature of the research, it can be challenging to systematically evaluate the output of qualitative research. While the sample sizes are small—typically between 10 and 20 participants—it’s important to ensure that the sample is highly representative.
Larger organizations may have ongoing customer communities or run focus groups on a regular basis. This allows them to keep their finger on the pulse of customer feelings towards the brand, products and services. These are helpful to understand both what customers think, and to explore the reasons why they feel this way.
It is common to turn to experienced, full service market research firms to run this type of research. Because the number of participants is small, this process must be managed correctly. Experts or consultants can ensure the research is conducted with the right respondents and eliminate or reduce bias wherever possible. This is particularly true for focus group research, where it can be easy for a facilitator—or even particularly vocal group members—to unduly influence the conversation in a way that is not reflective of the thoughts and feelings of the majority.
There are a few key qualitative market research techniques that are commonly used. These include:
These are an effective way to conduct qualitative market research with several participants at once. Research participants are gathered in a group setting, with around 6 - 10 participants being a common size. A facilitator leads the group and guides the conversation through a defined agenda that explores several ideas and concepts. Participants are encouraged to share their thoughts and the rationale behind their beliefs. Disagreements are common and, in some instances, are encouraged. Often, the facilitator will present an alternate view and observe participants' responses.
These sessions are traditionally held in person, but have moved to an online format recently. Focus groups are recorded, and might even be observed in real-time by executives from the organization sponsoring the research. While participants are typically compensated for their time, they must be carefully selected to ensure they fit the research criteria and can provide high quality insights.
Market researchers frequently conduct in-depth interviews with individual research participants to explore concepts in great detail. These interviews tend to be at least 30 minutes long. Researchers follow a relatively loose agenda but have the flexibility to dive deeper into any particular topic that the participant discusses.
In-depth interviews offer perhaps the most comprehensive view of the way that customers make decisions. However, they are expensive to conduct, are time consuming, and don’t scale particularly well. They are best used at the start of the research process to generate hypotheses that can be explored further using more scalable research methods.
The use of observational techniques is becoming increasingly common, particularly in categories like retail and consumer goods. Organizations in this industry employ observational techniques like shopalongs. In a shopalong, a researcher accompanies a research participant on a trip to the grocery store to observe the way they navigate the store, ask why they decide to buy certain products, or to observe the way they evaluate different categories.
These types of research techniques are very insightful in unmasking what goes through the minds of consumers at the moment they are making a purchase decision.
For example, how does a consumer choose which shampoo they buy? Do they navigate by brand, price, or some other factor? Does the position of the shampoo on the shelf matter? What about the color of the packaging? This is just one example of the types of issues that can be explored using observational techniques. Large organizations spend a fortune on research like this to determine the most optimal shelf location, price, and packaging design for their products.
Another type of observational research is ethnographic research, where the researcher watches a consumer interact with a product. This shows how end users truly use the product, not how marketers envision them using the product in a perfect world. Ethnographic research techniques can often lead to small but meaningful tweaks to products that significantly improve user experiences.
Strengths of Qualitative Market Research
Qualitative research has three key advantages:
Depth of Research: Qualitative techniques are best used to explore complex ideas in detail and help researchers to understand what participants feel and why they feel it.
Relatively Low Cost: Because the research is conducted on a small scale with just a few participants, the cost to administer this research is often much lower than larger scale research initiatives.
Adaptable: Qualitative research techniques are relatively unstructured, so it’s possible for researchers to switch gears and focus on a new topic without starting the entire research process again from scratch.
Limitations of Qualitative Market Research
It’s important to note that qualitative research does also have some limitations. These include:
Time Consuming: Conducting qualitative research isn’t as simple as grabbing ten people off the street and asking for their opinions. It takes time to craft the research agenda, recruit participants, and organize times and venues for interviews, focus groups, or observations.
Subjectivity: Inherently, qualitative research techniques are subjective, and two people watching the same focus groups might come away with very different interpretations of what was discussed. Because the research is relatively unstructured, it’s hard to quantify research insights in any numerical or statistical terms.
Possibility of Bias: Without highly experienced researchers, it can be easy for bias to creep into qualitative research techniques. One particularly loud participant in a focus group may overpower the conversation. Psychological phenomena, like groupthink, can also limit the effectiveness of research conducted in a group setting.
Quantitative Market Research Methods
Quantitative research techniques employ more rigorous, data-driven techniques to explore research hypotheses with a larger group of respondents. In many instances, these responses are then analyzed using advanced statistical techniques, with the output used to generate insights that inform an organization’s strategies. Researchers often rely on technology to make this process more efficient.
Researchers conduct quantitative research with hundreds or even thousands of participants. Large sample sizes are preferred to drive accuracy and statistically significant findings. While it’s possible for organizations to administer quantitative research on their own behalf, it’s far more common to contract with an external, full service market research firm. This ensures that the research methodologies are sound and that the research can be reliably used to inform strategic decision making.
Quantitative techniques are primarily used to quantify research topics in numbers, graphs, or charts. They are used to test an existing hypothesis or set of hypotheses, rather than generate new ideas. In designing quantitative research, researchers should first start with these hypotheses, and then formulate research questions that will either prove or disprove these hypotheses.
Surveys are the most common type of quantitative research, and can be administered in a wide variety of ways.
Market Research Surveys
A survey is a series of questions administered to research participants through email, phone, online, or an in-person medium. Every participant receives the exact same set of questions. This uniform design makes it relatively simple for researchers to perform analysis on the survey results.
Survey questions are typically close-ended questions, which forces participants to select an option from a range of choices. Questions can be presented in different ways: examples include yes/no questions, ranked choice questions, or multiple choice questions.
When creating a survey, it’s possible to set up the research process to conduct a particular type of analysis, such as conjoint analysis or TURF analysis. Administering these types of research studies is complex, and often requires specialist technology and guidance from experienced market researchers.
Strengths of Quantitative Research
There are three key strengths to quantitative research techniques:
Data-Driven: Quantitative research is characterized by its ability to consistently produce reliable, data-driven results. For researchers, it can be relatively straightforward to analyze quantitative data. This is due to the structured nature of the raw datasets it produces. By conducting quantitative research, organizations can understand key issues, preferences , and consumer opinions in numeric form, giving them increased confidence to make informed decisions.
Scalable: Quantitative research can be relatively low cost to conduct, and better lends itself to being administered with large groups of respondents. Administering the same survey to 1,000 people is significantly easier to scale than organizing focus groups or individual interviews for the same number of participants. Because of the large sample sizes used in quantitative market research, the research often produces reliable results that show statistically significant trends.
Easy for Research Participants: It’s much easier for participants to respond to quantitative research studies than it is for them to participate in qualitative research. This leads to higher response rates, increased engagement levels, and more robust results. The internet has been particularly helpful in this, and millions of people now take online surveys every day in return for small incentives.
Limitations of Quantitative Research
While a powerful research methodology, there are a couple of limitations to quantitative market research techniques:
Research Scope: Quantitative research exists to tell us what respondents think about the research hypotheses, but it doesn’t tell researchers why they think that way. While researchers can obtain definitive answers on their hypotheses, oftentimes, they will lack the context required to better understand the ‘whys’ behind the outcome of the research.
Too Structured: Because all of the research follows the same rigorous structure, it may be impossible for researchers to explore interesting insights that individual participants share in the course of the research. The confined structure might make data analysis easy, but it makes it more difficult to be flexible in administering the research to adjust for patterns as they emerge.