Saving Qualitataive Research for Last


By Robert Relihan, Senior Vice President

Traditional qualitative research methods like focus groups and individual interviews have often been conceived as a first step. I need to explore a new category. I need to develop hypotheses. Even, on a more rigorous and technical level, I need to pre-test a questionnaire. In all of these cases, qualitative research served to point a brand or product team down the path that led to a new product, positioning, or campaign.

Over the past few years, we have seen growth in methods that put us in immediate contact with consumers. Often consumers are in the moment of the experiences and behaviors in which we are interested. So, we have seen the mining of social media, the creation of online communities of users, and various forms of mobile data collection. All of these approaches have engaged marketers and given them exciting pointers to the future of their brands and products.

But these activities produce a wealth of observations and data. They are capable of stimulating a mound of hypotheses. It is possible to mine through the comments on a brand's Facebook page or listen to days of Twitter feeds and come away with directions going various ways. Now, what to do? How does the marketing team get the targeted direction it needs?

The answer may well be several well-designed focus groups.


  • The focus groups will permit exploration of each of those directions with consumers in real time. It is possible to hear how they view the strengths of each and the problems they see. The brand team is right on the spot with the moderator crafting rejoinders and alternatives, pushing the consumers to a place they might not have taken themselves.

  • While there can be a ton of conversation in social media, it may not focus on areas that are of most interest to the brand team. Focus group can force conflict and debate among the participants on those specific areas that can grow the brand or create the positioning.

  • And, ultimately, hearing all of this discussion face-to-face from consumers "in the flesh" will galvanize the brand team like no other exercise. In fact, when focus groups are conducted at the end of the process, there is much less need to observe the research niceties. Why not have the consumers and the brand team face off in the same room? Focus group steel cage?

So, savvy marketers will re-think how focus groups can help them in their development processes by saving the best for last.