OPINION19 February 2010

Can Big Research Companies Really Compete in Qualitative?

Many larger Market Research companies struggle with their Qualitative offerings. Yes, they offer strategic entry points to key decision-making moments in the marketing process and are high margin (at least when working properly). Yet Qualitative in its traditional form is hard to scale up, very “ad hoc” in its approach, dependent on a few talented individuals and difficult to integrate into the overall mix of larger Quantitative based business.

This leaves senior managers struggling to find ways to extract sufficient value from their investment in the units, and often results in Qualis in bigger businesses feeling left out and under-appreciated. Consequently, there is a widespread belief among many Qualis, clients, and even some senior MR managers that Qualitative is better handled by boutiques. Yet times are changing, and there exists a window where larger companies could regain the initiative and change the way Qualitative is understood and utilised by clients. They’ll need to take some risks and will have to forcibly confront the mythic characterisation of Qualitative research as some sort of free-form performance art. The effort though, will be worthwhile.

Three trends convince me that the time is ripe for bigger companies to rethink the way they approach Qualitative.

1. Online Qualitative. For bigger companies the key benefits of this are not the usually touted ones of speed, graphical capabilities, and cost (although these are useful) but operational implications. The advent of good Online Qualitative platforms provides scalability by making fieldwork, analysis, and recruitment easier to control and integrate into other research processes. Multi-market studies can be handled faster by a smaller team while removing the inconsistencies that have traditionally bedevilled cross-country Qualitative studies. More importantly (and this is a little understood benefit), online Qualitative substantially increases the pool of people who can undertake such research. People with good research and marketing nous, but who lack the traditional interpersonal “face-to-face” moderation skills required in a Focus Group setting can do just fine handling an online project.

2. Systemisation is Possible. Recently (at least pre-recession) various companies have put more effort into enforcing training standards, templates, output consistency, and unity of business practices on Qualitative units. Companies have set up branded international units to try and drive multi-country business and introduce syndicated services. At the same time “branded products” (e.g. Needscope, Censydiam, DeltaQual) have attempted with some success to put intellectual and analysis frameworks around the reporting of key types of “soft data”. Many of these efforts are still works in progress, but they show that with proper thought and planning, it is possible to introduce more systematic processes into Qualitative. This makes retention of experience/IP and integration with other services easier, a necessity for bigger companies.

3. Increasing Client Emphasis on Data Triangulation. Clients increasingly want rich “why data” that integrates with quantitative trend and usage information to tell a complete story. Some of the MR work I’m most proud to have been involved with combined data that was hugely quantitative (from household panels and retail scanning) with in-depth qualitative work specifically designed to uncover the meaning of trends and brand issues. Bigger companies are well placed to take advantage of this trend to design frameworks that integrate Qualitative insights into their regular work.

So if these three trends offer hope to bigger companies that they can get more out of Qualitative, what do they need to do? Firstly they need to make a real commitment to online Qualitative platforms and think about the training and structures required to make these work. Secondly they need to invest in development and thought on what sort of applications and services are best delivered via Online Qualitative (it is an area that is begging for a “killer app” in my view) and on how they can integrate all their Qualitative services into more cohesive overall offerings.

Almost as importantly though, they need to take leadership in confronting the Guru Mentality that bedevils Qualitative research in our industry. Look, good moderation is important – but it is basically high-level fieldwork, it is not the endpoint for good qualitative. It sometimes seems that the quality of a focus group is judged by the exuberance of the moderator and quantity of comments extracted from participants. Qualitative is reduced to a form of performance art where what you see is what you get and a great group is one in which a “Quali guru” puts on a great show and later tells a fine story about what he/she observed. It is like judging great opera by how catchy the ‘tunes’ were. I exaggerate of course, and many good Qualis successfully combine the “moderation craft” with design and analysis talents. But in general the emphasis is on the wrong part of the research process, undermining the value of careful analysis and reporting. This leads to quite a few reports that are little more than superficial and subjective “toplines” and causes enormous inconsistency in studies that cross time and markets. Not only is this bad practice from any half-decent theoretical perspective, but it focuses clients eyes on the rare “performance talent” of specific senior practitioners over the training systems, frameworks, and analytical consistency that are (or could be) the strengths of bigger firms. It’s in the interest of bigger companies to reposition this emphasis.

But if they did do all this, and revolutionised their approach, would this mean the demise of the smaller operator/independent expert? Actually no, in fact it would revitalise the whole Qualitative industry and open up whole new areas for the boutiques and free-lancers. But that’s another post!