Why Qualitative Research Is Crucial for Your Comms Strategy
I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months about polling during the U.S. election. Despite the methodology changes pollsters made after 2016, this year’s polls weren’t much better — predicting results that didn’t come to pass in battleground states and U.S. Senate races, even if they did correctly call the big picture — and it will be months before the industry has the data to understand why exactly things went wrong the way they did. It’s an interesting time — I can’t think of another occasion where so many people have focused on survey methodology and the ins and outs of quantitative research. This feels like a moment that evidence-minded communicators can capitalize on.
We live in a world where data-driven insights are everything. Spurred by Big Data and clients demanding “the right answer,” communications and marketing teams are partnering up with analysts and strategists, and spending more on surveys, analytics and data analysis. But that quest for statistical proof dilutes the important “why” behind the data’s “what” and smooths over nuanced learnings we could be using to make sure our communications are speaking authentically to the audiences we want to reach.
How do we get to the why? With qualitative research, a tool that can give marcomms professionals the nuanced understanding they need to better connect with their audiences. This year, qualitative research will be more important than ever. If 2020 was about surviving, 2021 will be about learning how to thrive. To best connect with audiences whose circumstances and priorities are changing week by week, brands must have nuanced, qualified context.
Quantitative research versus qualitative research
We live in a quantified world, but measurement isn’t everything. You might run a survey and find that 75% of respondents feel that technology is driving everything in life — that’s quantitative research — but it doesn’t tell you much beyond that. I’ve seen comms teams spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a comprehensive survey and end up with data that causes them to scratch their heads, trying to understand what respondents were thinking. A qualitative researcher’s job is to talk to respondents to find out how tech is driving everything for them, and what it means for their lives.
Qualitative research helps you learn the how and the why. It’s necessarily more hands on, and harder (often impossible) to automate, because it requires researchers to actually interact with respondents. Think visiting people (in person or virtually) in their homes to do an interview, shadowing them in the grocery store, or observing someone using their mobile device or an application. This kind of research helps you answer harder questions. How do customers use the product in ways you didn’t intend? Why do they quit the user journey halfway through? What moments surprise and delight them?
An example: A popular restaurant brand was experiencing a severe disconnect between corporate HQ and their restaurants and customers. Customers weren’t getting the service they wanted, turnover among restaurant staff was high, and restaurant management was stretched thin between unruly customers, replacing and training new staff — nobody was happy. The data was clear — the business was in trouble. What nobody knew was why.
Enter a team of qualitative researchers, who interviewed executive stakeholders and restaurant workers, then observed the behaviors of repeat diners through an ethnographic study. Their findings: Executives weren’t clear on who their customers really were, what they loved so much about the brand and what their expectations of the dining experience were. With those qualitative insights and anecdotes in hand, they were ready to make substantial changes to provide an experience that kept everyone happy.
Could this restaurant chain have arrived here with a quantitative survey? Probably, but they would have spent a lot of money, asked a lot of questions, and gone down a lot of dead ends before they found those insights. With qualitative research, it was as simple as having a conversation with another human being.
Qualitative research in 2021
Qualitative researchers work on a different scale than their quantitative colleagues. They must work closely with each respondent, adapt on the fly and learn to revel in the discomfort found in disparate perspectives. They must bridge the gap between clients and consumers not with numbers, but with stories, anecdotes and observations. Quantitative analysis doesn’t account for motivation or just plain old personal eccentricity. Qualitative analysis understands that people are strange, and individuals are, by their nature, unique — your customers aren’t only numbers to be crunched, they’re people.
So, how should brand communicators lean on qualitative research for insights?
For traditional PR and communications, quantitative research can be a great way to build a headline. Stats are attention-grabbing — 75% of millennials feel x about y, for example — but qualitative research unpacks that story. If quant gives you the headline, qual gives you real-life, nuanced examples to build the pillars of the story.
In 2021, brands have an opportunity to invest in and learn from qualitative research. We will be in uncharted waters when it comes to consumer sentiment as we emerge from the global impacts of COVID-19. As we slowly return to “normal,” consumer behavior could look very erratic and hard to quantify. We’re going to have new feelings and attitudes toward what we used to take for granted — leaving the house, going into the office or eating a snack on an airplane. Qualitative research is uniquely positioned to capture and explain those attitudes, and communications is uniquely positioned to drive action and shift behavior. The quantifiable will be important, but what will truly give marketers and communicators the upper hand is comprehending WHY their audiences feel the way they do and HOW they got there, because more than ever, understanding people’s beliefs is more important than measuring them.