In this guide, I will be elaborating on the points that we discussed, helping small business owners, entrepreneurs, and professionals to use these techniques to their advantage.
Whether you’re launching new products or growing a brand, this is the guide for you.
What Is Qualitative Research?
Before we look at the ways that qualitative research can help your business, we need to know what it actually is. One of the first things I asked Clark was how he would define his role and the work that he does.
Broadly speaking, qualitative research is the process of gathering information that can be used to advance a business and understand a product.
It’s the research you conduct to understand what products you should launch, what changes you need to make, and what things your business is getting right and wrong.
This process involves everything from customer surveys and focus groups to in-person interviews, all of which are designed to accumulate and analyze information.
Clark describes his job as “the business of finding aha moments”—the insights and ideas that help people to either grow their business or defend it against competitors.
He searches for things that meet his RCP formula, which means they are Relevant to the customer; Compelling to the customer, and Provocative. These are the ideas that ensure businesses, products, and services truly stand out from the crowd.
What Qualitative Research Should You Do?
Qualitative research is a multi-faceted industry.
When you think of e-commerce, you don’t just think about Amazon. Everything you need to know about online retail cannot and should not be condensed to a single Amazon page and a few cliched comments about consumer activity.
It’s the same story with consumer research.
To many business owners, the words “qualitative research” mean little more than a few superficial surveys and half-hearted focus groups. But when done properly, it goes much deeper and covers a wide spectrum of strategies and tools.
And as with any industry and any process: You reap what you sow.
Murray was kind enough to give us a rundown of his processes and even discussed some successful and noteworthy case studies.
What follows is a list of some of the methods he used and the ways you can adapt them for your business.
The Main Areas Of Research
Murray gave us his breakdown of market research and customer insights, noting that everything fits into one of three categories.
- Qualitative Research: Covers aspects such as focus groups and generally refers to data that can be observed but not measured.
- Quantitative Research: Includes surveys and other measurable tools and tends to be more focused on numbers and quantifiable data.
- Big Data: The systematic extraction and analysis of complex data sets, similar to what major companies like Google process every single second.
The approach is different, but the goal is always the same.
It’s about finding ideas and insights and using them to improve a business or product.
Murray describes these tools as being like three different appliances in the kitchen—the stove, oven, and microwave. They all do different things and work in different ways. Sometimes, you’ll need to heat something in the oven and then reheat in the microwave; sometimes you’ll start on the stove and finish in the oven.
You may use one, two, or all three. It depends on the project at hand. You wouldn’t cook a raw steak in the microwave and you probably wouldn’t heat a bowl of chili in the oven, but that doesn’t make these appliances any less valuable and they all work toward the same goal.
Qualitative research, quantitative analysis, and big data all provide consumer insights and can ultimately help you to gather the data you need.
During our discussion, I mentioned the Mad Men program, which takes place in the advertising industry during the 1960s. Times have changed a lot since then, but the image that many people have of marketing and focus groups comes from this program.
But these groups are about much more than critical consumers complaining about products in a smoke-filled room.
In fact, due to the pandemic, many focus groups are now conducted online.
Webcams have been around for several years at this point. They’re on our laptops, tablets, and phones, and programs like Zoom, Webex, Google Hangouts, and Skype have always been just a click away.
But for the average person, especially those in older generations, the idea of connecting to a stranger via a webcam was a completely alien and somewhat scary prospect.
The lockdown changed all of that, turning this software from something used by younger generations and remote workers into something that everyone was familiar with.
Let’s face it, without Zoom and high-quality webcams, 2020 would have been even more tedious.
In 2019, if you asked an older parent or grandparent to connect via Zoom or Skype, you’d need to clear a few hours in your schedule and arrange a phone call to guide them through the process of downloading and connecting.
In fact, for the many tech-illiterate family members, you’d need to buy them a computer/phone and pay them a visit just so you could show them in person (thus completely defeating the point of a video chat in the first place!)
During our interview, Murray reminisced about those early days, noting that many consumers didn’t have webcams and of the ones that did, most didn’t know they had them. He had to ship webcams to their homes and then guide them step-by-step through the installation process.
In 2020, everyone is connecting via video conferencing tools, from preteens joining online classes to seniors chatting with their grandkids. It’s ubiquitous, and this has made life easier for people like Murray.
Qualitative studies can now be conducted quickly, easily, and cheaply, which means they are accessible to a wide array of companies and can cover a broad range of topics.
Here are some tips for setting up your own online focus groups:
- Find the Participants: You can work with focus group companies to find participants and many of them will also conduct the research for you. If you’re a small business working on a budget, you can request assistance via your social media pages, email marketing lists, or ad campaigns. Look for a diverse range of participants covering as many relevant demographics as possible.
- Quality over Quantity: The best research is conducted with large groups of participants, but where focus groups are concerned, quality is better than quantity. You can get the results you need with a group of between 5 and 10 people, providing they are carefully selected with consideration to online behavior, demographics, and location.
- Set Goals: Establish clear and obvious targets. What do you hope to achieve, what is the purpose of the group? Are you trying to determine whether a particular product is ready for market and, if so, what questions should you be asking to get the answers you need?
- Choose the Technology: Most consumers are familiar with Zoom, but it’s just one of many video conferencing tools. Skype, Google Hangouts, and Webex can also be considered. Look at the features to determine which program is right for you, considering everything from consumer familiarity to screen sharing, total participants, and meeting length. You may need to pay for a premium subscription to get the best features.
- Plan Your Approach: Create a series of questions that address the most important topics and give you the information you seek. It should be interesting and fluid to prevent disinterest and drop-outs. Choosing a proactive, direct, and experienced moderator can help with this. Murray noted that researchers have been looking to police interviewers and psychologists to borrow techniques that promote critical thinking and allow them to get more information from focus groups. This shows you just how much work goes into planning an approach.
- Follow the Three “Es”: A focus group should Encourage, Engage, and Elicit. You need to encourage them to interact, engage them in conversation, and elicit the answers you seek.
- Record and Analyze: Processing information is just as important as gathering it. Record your focus groups, create transcripts, and analyze the data you collect.
How To Avoid Focus Group Mistakes
A mistake can prove incredibly costly when it comes to qualitative research. It could render your research redundant and initiate the launch of a product that no one likes or cares about.
Over 80% of product launches fail within the first 6 months, and most of these have been vetted by focus groups.
Sometimes, the researchers are at fault. Other times, the information simply wasn’t used or interpreted correctly.
For instance, the researchers may determine that a product is best suited for a $1 price tag, with all signs suggesting that anything higher than $1.50 just won’t work. The retailer, however, may determine that $1 isn’t enough to cover costs and that $2 is a more realistic price.
Just because a consumer loves a product, doesn’t mean they are willing to pay anything for it.
A focus group also needs to be given a hands-on experience with a product and should actually know what they are talking about.
If you gather 20 random people and ask them what they think about iPhones, 100% will express their opinions, but probably just 40% or 50% have actually used an iPhone, which means the other opinions are formed based on everything from online reviews to their hatred of Apple.
Hollywood is a great example of why focus groups aren’t always effective.
They use test audiences to determine whether a film will be successful or not and this dictates everything from the marketing budget to whether or not additional edits will be made.
But it doesn’t always work. In fact, sometimes it has disastrous results.
I Am Legend, a 2007 Sci-Fi flick starring Will Smith, is a great example. The film is based on a book of the same name by Richard Matheson and is considered a classic in the horror and sci-fi genres.
It spawned popular films such as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, and was notable for its twist ending, which is when the “I Am Legend” of the title starts to make sense.
But when the film was shown to test audiences, they found this critically acclaimed ending to be too depressive. They wanted an ending in which Will Smith saved the day and killed all the bad guys, allowing the credits to roll with a sense of satisfaction.
And so, they changed the film.
The result was a mess of an ending that made no sense, left several plot holes, and rendered the title of the film completely irrelevant.
If the focus group was correct, the film would have been a success and everyone would have loved the adapted ending, but that simply wasn’t the case, suggesting that the chosen group simply wasn’t a good fit.
Maybe they were Will Smith fans but not horror fans. Maybe they had no knowledge of the original story. Whatever the reason, this mistake led to a mess of a film that was panned upon release and is now best-known for having a decent lead-up and an atrocious ending.
A generalized focus group is good if you’re selling a product that appeals to the masses. But if you’re targeting horror and sci-fi fans who hate it when their favorite books are destroyed, you shouldn’t fill your audience with action enthusiasts. If you’re selling sugar-laden donuts, you don’t need a focus group filled with dieters averse to empty calories.
The ultimate goal of a focus group is to provide an accurate representation of your target audience. They are the people you are marketing to, the people who buy your products and recommend you to their friends, so think about your demographic and make sure you hire the right people.
You should also make sure your research is not influenced by the loudest member of the group.
Everyone has their own unique way of communicating. For every person that’s loud, proud, and willing to tell you everything on their mind, there are several who need a little more encouragement and are more deliberate in their approach.
That doesn’t make them any less valuable. In fact, you may find that the extroverted group members just say whatever comes to their mind and voice weak opinions just to fill the silence, in which case the carefully considered opinions of a quieter member may be more impactful.
The way that the louder group members influence others should also be considered and discouraged. It doesn’t take much for humans to slip into a mob mentality, and if the loudest people in the room are saying that the sky is red and the quiet ones are convinced otherwise, they may decide to keep their mouths shut or change their minds.
A survey is just a series of questions that you ask consumers. These questions are designed to elicit responses about a brand, service, or product.
Surveys are cheap, easy to produce, and if done properly, they are incredibly effective.
Surveys can be conducted as qualitative research and quantitative research. In the first instance, you’re asking open-ended questions. It’s about comments, feedback, and suggestions, as opposed to yes or no answers.
Where quantitative research is concerned, it’s a little more straightforward and focuses on simple, quantifiable data. You’re asking questions and you’re providing possible answers. Once the surveys have been completed, you can process them to determine how many people agree/disagree or like/dislike.
For instance, a small business may run a qualitative survey that asks the following question:
“What did you think about our services?”
In episode 17 of This Week With Sabir, I spoke with Gajan Retnasaba about ways that small businesses can improve customer acquisition rates. He discussed the importance of using open-ended questions like this, noting that they acquire information that you just wouldn’t get with multiple-choice questions.
In one example, he spoke about a software program that operated entirely through web browsers. The creators assumed that everyone would understand the irrelevance of Android vs iOS and Mac vs Windows, and so it’s a topic that was never raised.
But when they began asking open-ended questions, they learned that a significant percentage of their customers were genuinely worried that the software wouldn’t work on their Mac/iOS.
He also spoke about times these questions had been used to learn about payment issues, technical problems, and more.
It’s not just about websites, either. These surveys can help you to discover issues with your product, brand, and more.
As much as you think you know your business and your customers, and as extensive as your FAQs are, there will always be something you haven’t considered, something that needs to be addressed, and this is where these surveys are useful.
Quantitative research is a little more concrete.
In this example, you might ask the following question:
“What did you think of our customer service?” followed by a range from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest.
If you ask all of your customers this question, you may have 10,000 responses in a single month. Based on those responses, you may determine that 10% scored you as a 1 or 2, suggesting that there might be issues that need to be addressed.
In such instances, you can combine quantitative analysis with qualitative research, either asking more questions or leaving a box for additional comments. That way, you gain some insights into the issues that your customers have.
Alternatively, you could present a group of people with a new product and ask them to score it from 1 to 5. The results from this survey will tell you if you’re onto a winner or if you need to rethink your approach.
The good thing about quantitative research is that more people will respond to your survey and you don’t need to read every entry to understand the results. However, it has its limitations.
To get accurate results, you need honest answers, and that’s easier said than done.
If we go back to the previous example of asking every customer about their experience, the majority simply won’t care. If a response is required before they can advance, they’ll just click the first thing they see.
You also have a small percentage of consumers who leave a high score when they intend to leave a bad one, and vice versa.
Look at the user review page of any major company, filter by 1-star reviews, and you’ll see several consumers who leave the lowest score and have nothing but good things to say, suggesting a major error on their part.
That’s why quantitative research doesn’t always work, but as noted by Murray and mentioned above, the best research is often a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and big data AI.
After drafting a survey, pass it around the office or give it to friends and family.
They will tell you whether it needs work, is too long-winded, or simply doesn’t ask the right questions.
If it’s a long survey, spread it across multiple pages and make sure you record partial responses. Many users take surveys and fully intend to finish them, but then they get fed-up with the number of questions and give up. By front-loading the survey with the most important questions, you’ll get the most important data before they give up.
Keep It Honest
It’s easy to be swayed by bias.
Before you start digging around for customer insights, you’ll already have a good idea of what you want them to say and how you want them to respond.
Let’s be honest, if you’ve spent time and money developing a product, the last thing you want is for a group of consumers to trash it. If they do, it’s back to the drawing board.
It’s not just you, either. You also have to think about the people you’re interviewing and the people you pay to do the interviewing.
Interviewers don’t want to deliver bad news. They want to tell you something positive, something exciting. This is true even if they have nothing to do with the product and no investment in the research. After all, you’re paying their salary and it makes sense for an employee to seek the best outcome for their employers.
You should be somewhat dubious if a focus group goes exactly how you wanted it to go. That’s not to say that it’s all a lie. It does happen. Quite a lot, actually. You just need to conduct a proper analysis to ensure you have honest and unbiased information and are not simply seeing what you want to see.
What Can Qualitative Research Do For You?
If you don’t sell your products in traditional stores and don’t operate a brick-and-mortar business, what does qualitative research mean to you?
I posed this question to Murray during our interview, knowing that most of the people who watch This Week With Sabir are entrepreneurs and e-commerce business owners.
Murray stated that the first thing you need to do is to understand that your value proposition—be it your brand, service, or product—needs to be seen as relevant, differentiating, and compelling by consumers:
- Relevant—you fit into their lives easily and seamlessly.
- Differentiating—they choose you over the countless other brands and products in the marketplace.
- Compelling—you compel them to make a purchase and commit to your brand.
In this sense, the purpose is the same, as you’re trying to reach more consumers and sell more products or services. The difference is how your product is presented to those consumers.
Rather than trying to stand out on cluttered shelves, you’re trying to project your unique selling points from the confines of Spotify, Amazon, WooCommerce, or whatever platform you use.
Murray described traditional retail as a 3D experience, as it incorporates many elements and dimensions, and these are often lacking in e-commerce.
In a brick-and-mortar store, your customers can feel and smell your product. They can get an idea of its size and weight. If it’s a candy store, they can even taste samples.
None of this is possible with e-commerce. But there are ways around it.
When a person loses their sight, their hearing becomes more developed as their brain tries to make up for the limited sensory input. As an e-commerce company, you need to adopt the same attitude.
When your customers can’t feel a product and understand how soft or strong it is, you need to use images, video, and descriptive language to tell them.
What you lack in one sense needs to be compensated with another sense.
This harks back to something I dub the Uncertainty Principle, which I discussed in an interview with Matt Higgins.
All prospective customers have a list of uncertainties. As a retailer, you need to eradicate these before you convince them to make a purchase.
In a brick-and-mortar store, most of the work is performed by the product itself, along with a little help from the shop assistant.
If a customer wants to check the ingredients, they’ll look at the box; if they want to know the price, they’ll look at the sticker; if they have a question about potential benefits, they’ll ask the shop assistant.
E-commerce companies must replicate these benefits to eradicate those uncertainties.
Images and video provide accurate representations of the product; descriptions discuss ingredients and benefits; FAQs highlight elements such as shipping costs and delivery times, and Live Chat adds a final level of support for indecisive consumers.
In many ways, everything you do as an e-commerce business replicates the world of traditional commerce, just like every form of online marketing reproduces the methods used by generations of marketers.
This is something you need to keep in mind when searching for those consumer insights. Just because you’re working on a different level, doesn’t mean you can or should ignore the tried and tested research methods.
Qualitative Research On A Budget
You don’t necessarily need surveys and focus groups to get valuable customer insights. If you’re an entrepreneur on a budget, you can keep things simple.
In fact, you’re probably doing qualitative research without even realizing it.
When you show family members a product or talk about a service, you’re doing qualitative research. When you use their feedback to enhance that product, it’s a form of UX design (a term used to denote a process whereby a product is improved to enhance customer satisfaction).
Your “focus group” may be limited and it may consist of people who know you and love you, but they’re still potential customers and if you push them, they will give you honest feedback.
The trick is to interact in a way that will promote honesty and constructive feedback.
Inexperienced entrepreneurs often go out of their way to avoid negative feedback. They don’t want you to tell them that their idea needs work or that they should give up and try something else. They want you to praise them and tell them they are onto a winner.
But baseless praise won’t get you anywhere in this business. You need brutal honesty, as that’s the only way you will learn.
Imagine you sell tomato sauce that you prepare in large quantities at home. If you’ve poured your heart and soul into that recipe and have sweated over every batch, it’ll hit hard when your friends tell you that it’s too salty and watery.
Maybe it’s all the sweat…
But it’s better to get that information from a loved one months before launch than from a customer weeks after you’ve bottled $5,000 worth of product and sold half of it.
They’re not there to pat you on the back and pin your crayon-scribbles to the refrigerator door. They’re there to prevent you from making costly mistakes that could ruin you. So, beg for their honesty and listen to what they have to say.
As noted by Clark Murray, and as discussed already, there are other ways to conduct research and UX design on a budget.
You can host a focus group in your conference room or on Zoom. You can use online tools to conduct surveys with current and previous customers.
You don’t need a big budget to get results.
The $100.000 Question
At the end of my interview with Clark Murray, I asked him for his most valuable insight, one that can generate over $100.000 in value for all the business owners and entrepreneurs that watch this show.
As always, Murray exceeded expectations and delivered two gems: one tactical tip that can be utilized immediately and one strategic tip that focuses on long-term worth.
The first tip is to shut up.
When you’re talking endlessly, you can’t hear what others have to say. When in doubt as a research moderator, be quiet and let the interviewee talk.
You will listen more, learn more, and achieve better results.
Murray says that he has almost never left a focus group and thought to himself, “I wish I had spoken more”. He always strives to listen more than he talks.
This is coming from someone who has conducted thousands of hours of interviews with innumerable people!
The second tip is to start what he calls a T-Square panel, or a Tyrannical Troublemaker group. This is a group of people who buy similar products or services but have persistently refused to buy into your brand.
You should stay in regular connect with this group and listen to what they have to say. They are your detractors, your naysayers—the people who have bought into similar brands but refuse to commit to yours.
You can learn a lot from these people and while some of what they say can’t be changed (some people like Coca-Cola, others prefer Pepsi; some are just loyal to another brand) all of it is educational.
Murray touched on many pertinent points during this episode. For instance, he talked a lot about marketing and noted how very little has changed over the last half-century, despite the introduction of social media and the internet in general.
He used professional wrestling as an example, a subject that is very close to my heart.
Wrestling entertainment experienced a huge surge during the 1950s and impacted everything from sport and entertainment to marketing and personal branding.
If you’re not a fan, it’s easy to dismiss wrestling as little more than overacted, choreographed combat. But it’s a form of entertainment that touches all major marketing points.
Firstly, while WWE is all about big stadiums, pyrotechnics, and eye-watering salaries, it’s actually quite a cheap form of entertainment and it was even cheaper during the 1950s.
The organizers simply paid for a venue, used one or two cameras, and then gave the athletes a share of the spoils, all while reaping the benefits of ticket sales, merchandising, and TV rights.
Wrestling is also about drama and intrigue. The fans follow every story and get involved with every plot point. They want the wrestlers they like to win and the ones they hate to lose, and that creates a level of loyalty that any brand would kill for.
Throw in the virality potential of storylines and you have the perfect form of entertainment from a business standpoint.
It’s something that many businesses can learn from and something that has influenced a lot of modern entertainment.
In those early days, it was able to connect with the audience in a way that a lot of other entertainment simply couldn’t do.
If you go back 30+ years, the only way you could connect to your favorite sports stars was by following their latest mishaps in the tabloids or stalking them for an autograph outside the stadium. Wrestling gave audience members more of an insight into the lives of their favorite athletes. Sure, those lives were dramatized, but ultimately, none of that mattered.
Today, sports teams, film companies, and even book publishers all require their artists to connect with fans on social media. They actively encourage them to get their names in the papers and to open up about their social lives.
All of this is made possible by social media, but it’s something that wrestling has been doing since the 1950s.
Wrestlers are masters of personal branding because they know their audience. In that sense, they are experts in qualitative research and UX design. They might have a different name for it, but every time they feed off the audience’s cheers and tweak their storylines based on how their fans are responding, that’s essentially what they are doing.
I have discussed the power of personal branding on This Week With Sabir. If you want to learn more, I recommend taking a look at the episode with Nick Aldis, a professional wrestler and personal branding expert who transitioned from an athlete to an entrepreneur.
I discussed similar topics with Kristina Bucaram, and would recommend taking a look at that video/guide as well.
As always, stay tuned for more This Week With Sabir episodes and if you want to put any questions to my guests, make sure you watch the show live. It is broadcast every Wednesday (with only a few exceptions), and is available through Restream and YouTube.
About Our Guest: Clark Murray
Meet Clark Murray. Clark joined us on Wednesday, November 18, we learned from this phenomenal expert about qualitative research. Clark shares his insights and tells us about the 1000+ case studies from his experience. Clark is the Managing Partner at Churchill Group where he has conducted qualitative studies in 372 product and service categories for Consumer, Healthcare, and B2B clients…and has facilitated brainstorming-ideation projects in 229 product and service categories.