Qualitative research in marketing: When to make the best of it.

I’ve been in the market research industry for more than 17 years. In these years, I find many of my clients do not really grab the essence on how to decide whether they need qualitative or quantitative research. When I teach marketing research as a subject in MM/MBA program, I start to realize where the confusion begin. Let me put it fairly: textbooks for marketing research are indeed not helping.

Major text books in marketing research are written by those who favor quantitative approach. There are biases when it comes to the role of quantitative and qualitative approach. Take Maholtra for example. He classifies research designs in two categories; exploratory and conclusive research. Later he equates qualitative as exploratory and conclusive as quantitative. Now, let me ask this question: If the objective of conducting research in marketing is to support decision making, who are going to do non conclusive research?.
No wonder the managers do not see the real value of qualitative research.

He goes on with the uses of exploratory research/ qualitative research as:
• Formulate a problem or define a problem more precisely
• Identify alternative courses of action
• Develop hypotheses
• Isolate key variables and relationships for further examination

It sounds very academic doesn’t it? Yet, this text book is used in many Magister Management program.

The fact is qualitative research has been used in marketing industry to helps managers make decisions. It has been proven as valuable tool. What we need to understand is more on the area where qualitative works can help.

Of course, I will not rely on what Maholtra has to say. For me, it is a mistake to differentiate the qualitative procedure as direct or non-direct. Furthermore, to say that FGD and Depth Interview as direct procedures while projective techniques as indirect procedure is also beyond help. Okay, enough with this nit-picking.

In my opinion, we should examine stages in marketing to find the best way to fit qualitative research. We ,then, can also link that with the marketing tasks.

Generally, in every marketing program, there are 4 stages that people go through, namely: Development –> Refinement –> Implementation –> evaluation.

These marketing programs can be anything from product launching, new prices policies, new communication programs or channel reposition. Anything.

Depends on the magnitude of the programs, these stages can be extended for a year or more. But, it can also be over in let say 3 months. Time and anticipated impact become vital elements. Just a reminder, typical qualitative job has 1 month project turn around while quantitative job is about 2.5 months.

In general, the development stage both in idea generation or
feedbacks from development stage to refinement stage require qualitative stages. To refine a program we need to know what works and what doesn’t and why. I do not need 500 people to tell me that my idea sucks. If I can see a consumer logic on why they like my idea or not, it should be enough for me as marketers.

On the other hand, there are times when we face program options which we know appeal to different kind of people. It is not about consumer logic anymore, but more on which one attracts more consumers. In this case, qualitative research can no longer help. Quantitative stage is a must. If we have no time nor money we just need to rely on our experience and judgment.

After implementation, as manager we need to do evaluation. There are two kind of evaluation that can take place. One that emphasizes on the merit of the program. And the one that looks for next development.

I understand that a program cannot be judged by the bottom lines alone. There are several factors that contribute to the success or fail of the program. If we need to locate what goes wrong and what works, we need to do the quantitative survey.

However, if we focus on the next development where we want to learn form the success or the failure, we do it through qualitative research. This can be a follow up research after conducting the quantitative stage or it can be a stand alone project.

Thus, stage of program is an important indicator on what approach that we need.

Sure, programs are derived from marketing strategy. The latter is a result of market sensing. In that case, we also need to understand the role of qualitative research in market sensing.

The usual way of doing market sensing is through Market dynamic monitoring, Brand tracking and Usage Attitude Image (UAI) Study which are largely quantitative.

In my opinion Market dynamic monitoring has to be quantitative. Be it retail audit, ad spend, audience measurement, consumer satisfaction, etc , it has to be conducting to represent the market. The same argument goes for Brand Tracking.

However, UAI study is a bit different. We need to understand what we gain from this study. Many clients conduct UAI study for market dynamic monitoring. In my opinion, this is wrong. Do not call it UAI study.

UAI study actually is a tool to develop/refine marketing strategy. While we need to monitor the market in shorter period, the UAI should only be conducted in about once every 3 years. The reason is clear, a product/ brand should not change their strategy often.
In that sense, it is important for marketers to employ three stages in this marketing strategy development.
a. Qualitative UAI
b. Developing strategic options
c. Quantitative UAI

As we know, marketing strategy starts with consumer needs and consumption context. We try to identify the segments, decide the target and create positioning which appealing to our target.

Understanding consumer needs and consumption context are clearly qualitative job. It is shame that the need of market segmentation (which dictates quantitative job) overshadow this necessity.

Actually, through qualitative research we can discover what we call as consumer/consumption typologies. Through a deep understanding followed by internal consistency, we can have several typologies that has different root in terms of need. Surely, we do not have the size of each typology but this is something that can wait until the quantitative stage.

Upon information and insight on this typology, the marketers can start to develop strategic options for each of typology. It also has to define how to decide the winning strategies and how to measure it. This is all second stage about.

The next stage, which is the quantitative part, is solely conducted to decide which strategy to go. It has to represent the market. That’s why we need quantitative research.

In short, UAI is not a quantitative survey asking respondents a lot of things from their need, behavior and attitude and hoping we can develop strategy from that.

To sum up, the best way to employ qualitative research is when we are in the stage of program development or program refinement. We also need qualitative stage as an initial stage in marketing strategy development.

Upon answering what is the right way to use qualitative research, the next question would be how to conduct the qualitative research optimally. But this is a subject for different entries, isn’t it?

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