What is Qualitative Research and When Should You Use It?

Launching new products is a notoriously tricky business. Especially a new consumer packaged goods (CPG) food product. The marketplace is crowded with competitors, securing distribution channels is a slog, there are regulatory hurdles to leap, and new foods are expensive to advertise, sample and sell. With all the work to complete and roadblocks to overcome to bring a product to market, completing qualitative research before you decide to move forward with a project can help you avoid wasted time and money.

The Wrong Shape of Square

This point was brought home to me during a marketing workshop that discussed the launch of a new cereal product from Malt O Meal.

Malt O Meal was aware of these perils as they carefully prepared for the launch of Honey Graham Toasters, their new honey cereal shaped in crunchy shares. Malt O Meal’s marketing team was covering all their bases: taste tests, customer surveys, competitive analysis, and of course, focus groups to test their new advertising campaign.

But the focus groups were predicting disaster.

Group after group was nonplussed with concepts for Malt O Meal’s print advertising campaign. The ads, which showcased a beautiful matrix of the toasty, delicious squares on a white background were just not catching with shoppers. Their creative team tried everything to find a new twist that would work. Different sizes of squares. Fewer squares. More squares. Different textured squares. A different color background. None of it worked.

Until they made one, final change. And the change was literally a "twist".

They simply gave the squares a half turn to the right, changing them from squares to diamonds. And suddenly shoppers cheered their approval. They loved the ads. They were interested in the cereal. They’d be willing to try a sample.

This small change was enough to create a small breakthrough. And came from a human-to-human connection via qualitative research.

The Difference Between Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Sometimes we are so hypnotized by data, we gaze past our own humanity.

Qualitative research is the poetry that complements your data. It’s the bridge that helps you understand the emotions that drive behavior and the feelings that precede decisions. It's used to gain an understanding of people's reasons, opinions, motivations and thoughts.

Quantitative data, like surveys and dashboards, can tell you which markets are buying honey cereals, which age groups are likely to see your advertising and what your market share is. But it can’t as easily explain why people reason as they do.

Types of Qualitative Research

The most common types of qualitative interviews are:

  1. Focus groups - small group discussions lead by a moderator
  2. In-depth interviews - one-on-one interviews
  3. Ethnographic research - “embedding” yourself into the environment of your buyer
  4. Diary entries - written journal entries from buyers about their feelings and thoughts
  5. Video diaries - video journal entries from buyers about their feelings and thoughts
  6. In-Home-Usage Tests - Buyers use your product for a period of time and report their experience
  7. UX - interface usability tests that show how easily users can complete certain tasks

When to Use Qualitative Research

These qualitative methods help improve your products and marketing in many different ways:

  • Understand the emotional connections to your brand
  • Identify obstacles to purchase
  • Uncover doubts and confusion about your messaging
  • Find missing product features
  • Improve the usability of your website, app, or chatbot experience
  • Learn about how consumers talk about your product
  • See how buyers compare your brand to others in the competitive set
  • Learn how an organization’s employees evaluate and select vendors

While qualitative research helps you to properly define, promote and sell your products, don’t rely on qualitative research alone because qualitative findings can’t always be reliably repeated. Qualitative research is directional, not empirical.

Many marketers use qualitative research as a starting point at which to build a hypothesis for how they describe their product, how they position their brand and their overall go-to-market strategy. Then they can test this hypothesis with large-scale quantitative research.

Even in today’s data-obsessed marketplace, qualitative data is valuable - maybe even more so because it helps you establish an authentic human connection to your customers. If qualitative research doesn’t play a role to inform your product and marketing strategy, your decisions aren’t as effective as they could be.

Don’t let a simple half-turn to the right be something you miss because you never thought to ask the right questions. Qualtrics is a leader in market research software used by over 9000 organizations to gather qualitative data, get in touch to learn about how we can help your business.

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This post was originally published August 2018 and was updated in September 2019.

Justin Ethington

Justin Ethington is a contributor to the Qualtrics blog.

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