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By Tamara Irminger Underwood


Market researchers often get asked about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. Simply put quantitative research reduces large amounts of data to numbers that can be analyzed and patterns detected. Qualitative research often involves talking with individuals, or small groups, and observing behavior. While there are different approaches and uses for both methodologies, there are similar elements between the two. Both research methods state a purpose, raise a question or pose a problem to be examined, define a research population to be studied, gather and analyze data generated by surveys or interviews, and distill and present the findings in a final report.  These different approaches allow the researcher to know and understand different things about the subject matter being studied.

When it comes to conducting market research, quantitative research is good for providing an aerial view of the issue/problem being studied while qualitative research provides a more granular view. Qualitative methodologies often employ in-depth interaction with study participants to learn more about their perceptions and the forces that influence decision-making processes. Qualitative research is sometimes referred to as “interpretivist” because it deals with “multiple, socially constructed realities or ‘qualities’ that are complex and indivisible into discrete variables,” according to Corrine Glesne in her book Becoming Qualitative Researchers.

Some companies try to conduct qualitative market research in-house thinking that ‘what could be so hard about interviewing stake-holders’. Harry Wolcott summed it best in his book, Writing up Qualitative Research, “Qualitative approaches beckon because they appear easy or natural. And were it not for the complexity of conceptualizing qualitative studies, conducting the research, analyzing it, and writing it up, perhaps they would be.” In our many years of experiences designing qualitative market research studies, we couldn’t agree more.

What makes Qualitative Market Research So Hard?

There are many important steps in designing a good, un-biased market research study. Let’s review some of the crucial steps involved:

  • What is the purpose of the study? Before any study can commence, it is important to first understand the question needing to be answered. It’s not enough for a company to say, “I want to sell more widgets.” The question that needs to first be answered is do consumers want/need these widgets, and if so, what would compel them to buy.
  • Recruiting market research participants. Before you can recruit people to participate in your market research study, you must first understand the target demographic. If the market for a widget is limited to females between the ages of 18-30, you must screen potential recruits who match this profile. A lot of time management is involved in the recruiting process, and it is easy to underestimate just how much goes into successfully recruiting for market research studies.
  • Designing un-biased studies. Probably the most value that hiring an independent market research company brings is the experience of designing studies that are structured in such a manner as to understand what drives behavior. When developing questions to ask in a focus group or in individual interviews, it is very common to inadvertently ask questions that yield answers that a company is hoping for. It takes a lot of experience and expertise to create question guides that allow the researcher to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind consumer behavior patterns.
  • Analyzing the data. It isn’t uncommon for market research studies to yield hours upon hours of recorded interviews and/or focus groups which must then be transcribed and coded. Analyzing the copious amounts of data generated requires a certain skill-set and patience. This is the step of the process where market researchers are distilling a lot of data into its essential themes.
  • Writing the report. Once the data has been analyzed it is then important to translate it so that it can be best understood by the company/person commissioning the market research study.

Over the years we’ve been called in by companies who thought it would be easy to manage a market research study internally through their marketing department, only to discover that it was costly and yielded little usable information to inform strategic decisions. If you’re looking to grow or develop your business, save yourself the headache and expense of trying to manage this internally and hire a neutral market research company that manage this crucial function for you.

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