The tools of modern marketing research are broken into two broad categories: qualitative and quantitative methods.
Qualitative research is used most often for the exploration of issues. It is the form of research best suited for asking “why?” The strength of this research lies in the extent to which it allows us to hear target audience members describe conditions in their own words and according to their own priorities. The limitation of qualitative research is that its results cannot be projected to larger populations with statistical validity. Qualitative research is not intended to include a truly random mix of individuals so much as it is intended to include an inclusive array of perspectives. The results of qualitative research, and the hypotheses these results create, should always be tested in a more statistically valid quantitative analysis.
Commonly used qualitative research methods include:
- Focus/Exploration Groups: Based on the group therapy method used in modern psychotherapy, this method can be invaluable in exploring and identifying feelings, vocabulary and priorities.
- Teleconference discussion groups: Sometimes the people you want to include in a group discussion do not live in the city, much less in the same time zone. Teleconference-style discussion groups make it possible for the limitations of time and place to be overcome, allowing the researcher to include input from not only a wide variety of target audience members, but also from a variety of non-competing geographic perspectives.
- Online discussion groups: Borrowing a little from online “chat” technology, online discussion groups, sometimes conducted as a private listserv, can be invaluable for bringing people together for a single discussion who simply could not participate otherwise because of geographic distance or time limitations. The downside of both teleconference and online discussion groups, compared to traditional focus groups, is that it is much more difficult, if not completely impossible, for even a highly trained moderator to read the nuance and body language of discussion participants.
- One-on-One Personal Interviews: Some persons and topics do not lend themselves to group discussion. They require the kind of intimacy, trust and examination of context than can only be achieved in a private interview. Some situations can be handled by in-depth personal interviews conducted by telephone. Most require face-to-face visits.
- Intercept interviews: Intercept interviews, such as those once commonly conducted in shopping centers and malls, were popular because they enabled researchers to make inquiries of a lot of people quickly and relatively inexpensively. While some intercept interviews continue to be conducted in controlled settings, mall interviews have largely fallen out of favor because malls no longer offer as much demographic and geographic diversity as they once did, and because many mall managers no longer want anything to stand in the way of shopping.
- Passive observation: One of our favorite methods, but one rarely used by many researchers, passive observation remains one of the most valuable methods for gathering reliable information and insight regarding target audience behavior. At Bonney & Company, we work with a team of highly experienced cultural anthropologists.
Where qualitative research is valuable for asking “why?” the strength of quantitative research lies in its ability to develop information that is statistically valid and projectable to larger populations. Quantitative studies typically offer the researcher an increased level of operational efficiency and the ability to conduct extensive and valuable statistical analysis.
The basic premise of survey research is that as long as you have a proper random sample, you don’t have to, as one researcher puts it, “drink the whole pot of soup to know what it tastes like.” This said, the most important aspect of survey research is making sure that you have a proper random sample. Samples developed from mall shoppers, intercept interviews in public places and club memberships, for example, are known as convenience or opportunity samples and should generally be avoided whenever possible because they are not truly random samples.
Clients should get into the habit of asking their researchers about completion ratios, the numeric percentage of the original qualified random sample among whom interviews could be completed. The higher the completion ratio, the greater the confidence one can have in a survey sample. The lower the completion ratio, the greater the risk that one’s sample is not representative.
In survey research, the larger the sample, the better, statistically speaking. Samples or subsamples of less than seventy-five observations are highly unstable. But a large number of interviews is not any better than a small number of interviews if the completion ratio is still low.
Commonly used quantitative research methods include:
- Telephone Surveys: Telephone surveys are likely the most common form of survey research practiced. Aside from the efficiency of being able to complete a large number of interviews in a short period of time, the primary advantage of telephone interviews is that the interviewer still has a relatively strong level of control, an important consideration so far as completion of the interview and achieving a high survey completion ratio are concerned.
- Mail Surveys: Mail surveys have become something of a lost art among many researchers. The beauty of a mail survey is that you can include an extremely large number of persons in the sample for little more than the cost of printing and postage. You can allow your sample members to complete questionnaires at their own convenience, and with plenty of room for additional comments. The downside is that you have very little control over who participates in the survey, making it even more important that the completion ratio be high.
- Online surveys: Online surveys are growing in popularity, though many researchers are still reluctant to use them in cases where representatives of the larger population is important. Online surveys are a great method for conveniently surveying large captive populations (e.g. employee groups, association members) who already use online media.