Qualitative research is used to gain insights into people’s attitudes and opinions and understand the reasons behind them. In other words, it’s about exploring not just what people think but why they think it.
To put this in context, it’s useful for a courier company to know that flexible delivery options are important to their customers. But it’s more valuable to know why this is important to them – for example, because their own customers are demanding next day delivery.
In B2B marketing, qualitative research can be used to gain important insights - to understand the buyer’s journey, to get reactions to new propositions, or to generate ideas for new products, to name a few. You may choose to conduct focus groups or one-to-one interviews. The method you choose will depend largely on your objectives. For example, to understand the buyer’s journey it may be better to speak one-to-one to a handful of customers or prospects. If you want to generate ideas for new products, focus groups will allow ideas to be developed organically through discussion and debate.
Here are eleven things to think about when conducting qualitative research:
1. Define your research aim and objectives
Clearly defining your research aim and objectives is a crucial first step in any research project. A research aim defines the purpose of the research, and research objectives are statements that indicate the specific topics or issues the research plans to investigate. For example, your research aim could be ‘To gauge appeal for a new insurance product for businesses’. Your research objectives may then be:
- To explore contextual attitudes and behaviours towards purchasing insurance
- To explore appeal, clarity and understanding of the product
- To understand motivations and barriers to purchase
- To identify improvements to the product
- To understand how the product could be effectively communicated
2. Create a discussion guide
Use your research objectives to create a ‘discussion guide’ to use in your interviews or focus groups. This is different to a survey, which is a script with structured questions and a list of responses. Rather, a discussion guide is a set of topics and open-ended questions used to facilitate the discussion. For each topic area, start with broad questions then include further questions that will drill down into the detail. The guide should be flexible. Think of it almost as a checklist of topics and key questions to cover off and let the respondent guide the narrative.
3. Remember, your respondents are helping you
Your buyers are likely to have very busy schedules, so you need to make it as easy as possible for them to take part. If you are conducting one-to-one interviews, let them pick a time that’s most convenient for them. If it’s a focus group, make sure it’s in the evening so it doesn’t intrude into their working day. Unlike consumers, business buyers are less likely to be drawn in by cash incentives. However, you may consider offering to make a charitable donation in their name.
4. Build a rapport
It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often making respondents feel comfortable can be overlooked. It’s important to make them feel relaxed so they are open and honest with you. Thank them for taking part and reassure them you are not selling anything, you just want to hear their views. And you may be speaking to a CEO or Procurement Manager but it doesn't have to be strictly business - ask them about themselves (but don’t spend too long delving into the names of their cat and three goldfish - remember they are busy!).
Use active listening to show your respondents they have your full attention. Give them time to think through their responses. And stay in the moment – don’t let your focus wander by worrying about what you need to ask next. Refer to things they’ve said earlier and don’t be afraid to challenge them if they contradict themselves. You will also learn a lot from paying attention to emotion and body language – do they get agitated, excited or exasperated when discussing a particular topic?
6. Ask ‘Why?’
This should be your follow up to almost every question. Start with a broad question, for example, “How do you find out about new products or services in your industry?” Then dig deeper by asking “Why?” Find out what motivates them to use the sources they do and why they use those over others. Don’t be afraid to spend time probing further if their answers are unclear or if you feel you haven’t got to the root of what is driving their behaviour. Usually the second and third questions are the most illuminating in a research discussion.
7. Be impartial
Be careful about how you react to responses. It’s ok to acknowledge them with cues such as “uh-huh” or “okay” but keep your tone neutral and avoid being overly enthusiastic or showing surprise. Your respondent could construe this to mean you agree or disagree with them. If they think you agree they may give you more of those type of answers, and if they think you disagree they may feel less comfortable being open and honest.
You also want to refrain from voicing out loud what you think they are telling you. It’s natural to look for confirmation that you have interpreted their views correctly, but you don’t want to put words in their mouth.
It’s vital to take an impartial stance when it comes to analysing your interviews too. Don’t be steered by any preconceived ideas and perceptions.
8. Pay attention to language
Pay attention to the language your buyers use; how they describe a problem they have and how they talk about industry products. As a business, you want to speak to your audience in their own language. You may pick up ideas for keywords or identify words and phrases to use in marketing messages.
9. Remember your objectives
Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Remember what you are aiming to discover from the research. It pays to have a copy of your research objectives handy so you can keep them top of mind. At the end of the session, you want to feel like you have fully answered your objectives.
10. Use an audio recorder
Naturally, there’s no way you’ll remember every single detail you discussed, even just a couple of days later. Use an audio recorder in every session so you can listen to them later. Your recordings will also give you access to real quotes. These will be invaluable in bringing the research to life for everyone in your business.
11. Be thorough in your analysis
Qualitative research generates a lot of data. Review your notes, listen to your audio recordings, and collate output of any tasks your respondents have completed. (Hint: A good tip is to write down 10 headline findings immediately after each interview or focus group while it’s fresh in your mind.) You want to compile all this data and identify themes and patterns. Ideally more than one person will have conducted the interviews or focus groups. This way you will be able to work together as a team to discuss and debate the findings.
Qualitative research is more than just ‘having a chat’. There’s a lot more to it if you want to get the most out of it. Hopefully these tips will provide you with some thought starters for ensuring you get as much insight as possible from your research.