If you’re good with numbers and possess a fine scientific mind, quantitative research is your bag. If you see your future in telling stories and gauging emotions, then qualitative is where you hang your hat. Arts and sciences, ebony and ivory, chalk and cheese, qualitative and quantitative/ two sides of the same fence yet apparently completely incompatible – until now.
More and more research agencies are concluding that to provide the deepest insight and widest-ranging service, a measure of both qualitative and quantitative research in each project is the most comprehensive approach.
Mike Jaxa-Chamiec, head of expertise and development at FreshMinds Research, is a strong advocate. He says: “The benefits of combining qualitative and quantitative research are potentially vast, allowing you to balance inductive processes with rigorous testing that can give you conclusive answers. At its best, a quant/qual combination delivers on all vital aspects of research – exploration, explanation, and reaching conclusions through rigorous testing.”
However, it is well known that qualitative and quantitative research – and the people behind them – are very different beasts. How can they be reconciled to work together harmoniously?
Vincent Nolan, director of 2CV/Cello Research Group, argues that it is a challenge. “Making a qualitative and quantitative researcher work together is not necessarily going to be successful. It’s like trying to merge the creative and research silos. They are two different types, speaking two different languages. The start point for producing integrated research is to reintegrate those silos.”
Some agencies, such as 2CV, seat the whole team together in an open-plan space that they hope creates similarly open-plan thinking. Others feel the coming together is only truly important at key stages of the research project itself.
“We have department divisions, but the work on all client briefs is done collaboratively,” says Sarah Askew, associate director of research agency McCallum Layton. “We have the preliminary conversation and, because we come from the agency side and are not so wedded to the business problem needing to be addressed, we are better placed to say what methodologies suit and how best to apply them,” she says.
It seems the key driver behind integrated research is the fact that it directly addresses the business question. “You must approach any research from the perspective of the business decision,” insists Owen Jenkins, chief executive of business research agency Kadence. “What are your alternatives and which is best? If you don’t explore all your options how do you know you are making the right choice? Qualitative research is more exploratory; quantitative allows you to reduce the uncertainty. For the strongest decisions you need both in everything you do.”
However, how to proceed depends on the project. Karl Miley, senior research consultant at research agency Clear elaborates: “It’s dependent on the challenge you face. A simple validation of a concept could be a straight quantitative project but you can refine the survey prior to its use with a qualitative phase first.” (See Axe case study.)
Combining the two research silos into one project has obvious time efficiencies, as shown by sports fashion retailer JD Sports when it engaged Retail Eyes to undertake mystery shopping research to underpin its new customer service training programme.
“When it comes to training, analysis is very important,” says Retail Eyes marketing manager Simon Boydell. “We ask the mystery shopper quantitative questions, but then ask them to qualify their answers to bring deeper insight.”
JD Sports group training manager Phil Hill agrees: “We want the emotion from the customer to buy in to the brand. They may not have bought on this occasion, but they may still have had a good experience.” Numbers alone, he says, cannot provide that insight.
He believes the results are self-evident: “Our conversion rate has gone up by 8% in an environment where there is obvious footfall decline in the high street.”
The efficiencies in using the same participant to take part in the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the study also satisfies the research criteria that both sets of results must be comparable and reliable. Another great benefit is speed. High street retail is highly competitive with fast turnover.
“There is no point getting results two weeks after the study. Whenever we launch a promotion or sales technique, each store manager needs to know how his or her staff are performing and how to address any issues raised quickly,” Hill adds.
Retail Eyes’ Boydell believes combined research can produce meaningful insights that are also easily digested and actionable by the client within “48 and 72 hours of the visit taking place”.
While time and sample group efficiencies are clear, in these thrifty times is combined research less expensive than two separate commissions?
Kadence’s Jenkins admits that addressing combined research requires commitment, both financial and intellectual: “You’ve got to have the skill set to approach this and the budget to do well. If you don’t have the budget, you’ve got to ask if you’re doing either research methodology well. But a combined approach can be much more powerful than a single-approach report several thousand respondents deep.”
David Cousino, global category director, deodorants, at Unilever puts his money where his mouth is: “The initial financial requirements are slightly higher, but the actionability of such a report is even higher. There is less debate on the backend of a report on how to proceed and it usually reveals a way forward.” (See case study.)
2CV’s Nolan adds: “Obviously there is a need to make the budget work harder, but the integrated approach gives context to understand data and more intelligent insight all round.”
Case study: Axe
In its effort to launch market-leading men’s deodorant product Axe (marketed as Lynx in the UK) across South America and Asia, Unilever is undertaking an ongoing study of men’s associations with the product using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The aim was to understand how many men used Axe or were aware of it (quantitative) and then to discover their opinions of the Mating Game marketing strategy Axe currently employs (qualitative).
Karl Miley, senior research consultant at Unilever’s retained research agency, Clear, explains: “Beginning with a two-month period of extensive desk research and an upfront hypothesis, we then moved to qualitative range groups around the world to validate and uncover other areas to explore within men’s attitudes to the product. However, we also needed this to acquire a cultural overview. Using qualitative research helped us to understand the nuances and ensure that the Axe brand was talking their cultural language.”
David Cousino, global category director of deodorants at Unilever, adds: “Clear worked on a segmentation that brought to life the Axe user for us by examining the functional aspects of a body spray with the emotional impact of the Mating Game. Beginning with a standard habits and attitudes survey, we then looked at how men interact with women in general. Having these two studies running in tandem helped us understand the why behind the what.”
Cousino also explains that reporting the research as a whole rather than in qualitative and quantitative silos helped Unilever’s marketers get a handle on the business question in hand. “The reason why many marketers understand qualitative research is that it’s open to interpretation,” he explains. “Quantitative research is embedded in statistical analysis and many marketers aren’t well versed in reports featuring endless charts. They need to be woven into the story. That way quantitative becomes much more participatory for them.”
Cousino believes that Clear’s integrated approach has made for a much smoother and more efficient process. “Due to the integrated process, Clear reconciles both types of information, and what would normally take a couple of weeks to achieve happens much faster.”
Mike Jaxa-Chamiec, head of expertise and development at FreshMinds Research, offers his nine top tips for best practice in market research.
1 Keep overall research objectives in mind. There is a significant risk that the qualitative part of the research will take you sideways.
2 Use the qualitative phase to think laterally and generate ideas or viewpoints. Preconceived ideas (tested in the quantitative phase) defy the purpose.
3 Keep an open mind not only about concepts and findings, but also about methodologies.
4 Getting the sequence right is important, the flexibility of the mixed approach allows you to run qualitative and quantitative research concurrently where appropriate, but anything is possible.
5 Collaborate with clients all the time.
6 Combined approaches require more thinking time.
7 Recruitment and sampling needs to be top notch. You need the same profile of people to participate in your qualitative phase and respond to your quantitative survey.
8 Don’t be too wedded to any particular methodology
9 International projects add an additional layer of complexity. For example, in-depth one-to-one interviews with women could be very difficult in orthodox Islamic countries.