What research do you remember most? While the statistics might escape my memory, what I do recall are the deep emotive voices of people telling us the story of who they are, what they believe, and how they feel, in their own words. In addition to memorable storytelling, qualitative research is our vehicle for getting beyond the obvious and uncovering truths. It is our means for making data more human-centric and for amplifying an inclusive view to decision makers and the C-Suite. No matter how much time has lapsed, I remember the nostalgia with which people shared how they became coffee drinkers, the way teen boys communicated self-expression through their footwear, how young investors thoughtfully weighed their spending versus saving choices, caregivers who struggled with decisions regarding their senior parents, and I smile each time I think of how kids and tweens described their perfect day in vivid detail. I remember what a difference those stories made.
Qualitative research methods are the means to uncovering deeper insights and truths. It’s been said that qualitative research has more in common with journalism than it does with market research, and I think that’s true—it is investigative and probing. Good moderating is not about uncovering the story but uncovering their story. The one your organization needs to hear, which may or may not confirm your hypotheses, but can open doors for real impact.
I worked for a CEO who used to say that even just one person’s story can be illuminating. Outliers can reveal valuable insights. For example, in research I conducted on loyalty programs, one person in the group began to talk about what they would like as a benefit. Unlike the usual perks provided to gold and platinum members, this person wanted benefits for their family, not for themself. They said ‘You know how much I travel, how many nights I spend in your hotel. I don’t need a free breakfast. What would be really great is if you sent a pizza home to my family instead.’ A-ha…a whole new area of off-property benefits was uncovered.
Moderating is far more than a list of questions or a scripted discussion guide–what comes off as natural and honest requires a quickly established trust between participant and moderator, allowing their authentic selves to emerge. Getting beyond the obvious involves effective moderating that includes timely probing—sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed. This can reveal true motivations and drivers, the rational and emotional steps along a journey, or the nuanced differences between personas.
Techniques such as interventions and projections, used judiciously, can unlock emotions and feelings that were previously unspoken. Projective techniques step back from first-person or direct answers by asking from a new vantage point, e.g. using conversation or thought bubbles, writing a letter to your younger or older self, or wearing a different hat when evaluating a new product. Journaling and deprivation exercises can shine a light on habits and needs that may not otherwise be exposed.
While qualitative research may seem low-tech to some (i.e. talking to people), qualitative techniques have always incorporated and expanded with technology. Qualitative tools began with “mother-in-law” research, advanced to recorded and one-way mirrored interviews, adapted to laptops and mobile, and now leverage apps and AI. The backroom can now offer suggestions and probes directly to the moderator, you can livestream an ethnography, and AI can rapidly code verbatim. My team and I often combine Human and Artificial Intelligence for interpreting a large amount of qualitative data, and for coding text and imagery.
Most qualitative researchers were well prepared for the pandemic, as we were already online, interviewing around the globe. I will share that we have had great collaboration with Discover.ai for internet scraping, Curator for livestreaming, Over the Shoulder for in-the-moment audio and video, Mural for digital, distanced workshopping, and more. Tools have expanded and become more sophisticated, but the core of qualitative research remains the same: empathetic engagement with target audiences to uncover relevant truths.
To vividly illustrate the value of qualitative methods, I like to share the following story. It’s an excerpt from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, a non-fiction book about a Hmong family living in northern California. The family’s son, a community college student, is asked to prepare a five-minute presentation, all in French.
The student’s chosen topic was a recipe for La Soupe de Poisson, or Fish Soup. You can imagine a straightforward recitation of ingredients, measures, method of preparing and cooking, in French. Instead the student shares something much deeper, demonstrating the powerful tradition of Hmong storytelling:
“To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is.
Continuing in this vein for 45 minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French.
He also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He concluded with a description of how to clean various fish, how to cut them up, and finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs. When the class period ended, he told the other students that he hoped he had provided enough information, and he wished them good luck in preparing Fish Soup in the Hmong manner.” 1
This engaging story has its parallel with qualitative research in that they both understand that “nothing occurs in isolation, things are connected in ways we might not initially perceive, and you can miss a lot by sticking to the point.”
Bringing this expansive and inclusive view to the C-Suite is imperative. Qualitative researchers have a responsibility to uncover consumers’ stories then translate and amplify their voices for decision makers. Without the depth of qualitative research, we do not fully discover who our customers are. They remain clustered in the shadows, rather than revealed as individuals whom we know and can intuit.
As qualitative researchers, we often talk about empathy. Being empathic demands focus, listening, and the demonstration of understanding and feeling for others. Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, even talked about empathy in her convention speech this past August, saying it is “the recognition that someone else’s experience has value too.”
At this time in our history, empathy is especially discussed and sought after, making it easy to find sources on empathy through a simple online search. You’ll likely come across definitions that include three kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
Compassionate empathy is especially relevant at this moment in time, as we witness the passion of protestors, or the needs of a teenager trying to e-learn in the solitude of her bedroom. Compassionate empathy is not blindly supportive, however. “It considers both the felt senses and intellectual situation of another person, without losing your own center. Compassionate empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to effectively respond to the situation with loving detachment.” 3 It is for this reason that compassionate empathy is most applicable to qualitative research. We must be able to understand and feel others’ stories yet remain objective about them. The action we must take after empathetically listening is to fairly translate and deliver their needs and wants to those creating brands and products/services for them.
As qualitative researchers, we sometimes create “empathy missions” that ask something of the decision makers themselves. For example, before performing our own in-depth interviewing of movie-goers, then reporting back our findings, we asked the C-Suite of a large cinema chain to head out to the theater themselves and talk to people. We wanted them to see their business, first-hand, through the eyes of movie-goers. They complied and learned a lot about their consumer and their product (not to mention gaining more empathy for qualitative researchers – bonus!). Empathy missions can alternatively force a participant to live with or without something for a length of time in order to immerse themselves in an alternative situation and deeply feel the effects.
All the examples above are human-centric at their core. Stories are after all, wholly human, and deeply felt. In a world of social media and near immediate online reviews, successful brands must create and evolve alongside their consumers. Like any relationship. By continuously seeking out and listening to their customers’ thoughts, opinions, and ideas, product developers and brand builders uncover authentic issues and needs, ideate desirable solutions, and adapt and re-design as needs or tastes change. This inclusive approach should be central to your entire organization, from junior analyst to CEO.
The Harvard Business Review article, “Use Your Customer Data to Actually Help Your Customers,” addressed this very topic from the perspective of measurement. They referenced what we’ve all seen in a typical brand tracking survey: measuring things that satisfy us—such as awareness, purchase intent, trial, repeat—instead of what interests the customer—such as understands me, anticipates my needs, makes my life easier. Authors Ucuzoglu and Hagel define the essence of customer-centricity as “using data to help people better achieve their own goals, rather than just using it to price or segment or target customers.”4
That’s why at CMB, our approach is focused on people before the brand. When measuring brand health and positioning, we ask: do I want to be associated with the kind of person, ‘the tribe’, that uses that brand? Which brands reflect who I am, help me to self-express? We measure the social and identity benefits that are conferred as a result of using a brand, not simply the functional benefits gained from using a product or service.
For Millennials and Gen Z especially, being human-centric goes well beyond asking how they think and feel. They require the demonstration of your commitment to humanity. Human development as a business outcome is fast becoming as important as return to shareholders. Programs for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or ESG (Environment, Social and Corporate Governance) are gaining attention in boardrooms everywhere. Per Robinhood Snacks,
“Sustainability is not anti-profit… There isn’t necessarily a trade-off. Check out Unilever’s Vermont-quisitions: Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation. Both build Earth-friendliness into their business models — and their mission-oriented brands let Unilever charge a higher price. Unilever’s CEO believes its anti-plastic pledge will be pro-spending among the Millennials and Gen-Z who hold companies to higher standards.”5
Like the ancient Roman god, Janus, we have looked backwards and forward. Hopefully, I have demonstrated the timeless value of qualitative research and convinced you of the imperative to amplify the voice of the consumer, to tell their stories, and to embed a human-centric approach throughout your organization.
Through qualitative methods, you have the power to bring your customer out of the shadows, and expose all in your organization to witness and come to know for whom—not just what—they are creating.
1 The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
2 Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence
4 Harvard Business Review, April 24, 2020, “Use Your Customer Data to Actually Help Your Customer”
5 Robinhood Snacks, Oct 8, 2019
Kathy Ofsthun is based in Boston and is CMB’s VP of Qualitative Strategy + Innovation
She can be reached at email@example.com