Just a few months into my research career, I moderated focus groups for the very first time. On a cold night in Oldham, I found myself discussing clothes shopping with women over the age of 50. As a young researcher, I was worried that I’d be out of my depth and would struggle to relate to people I had nothing in common with. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was quite the experience. That was the first time I fully understood the power of qualitative research.
It’s often been argued that qualitative research is the poor relation of quantitative studies due to its supposed lack of robustness. But I think the tables are beginning to turn, and we’re facing a situation where quantitative research is becoming increasingly unfashionable and misunderstood. This is particularly evident when it comes to studies which seek to understand mainstream culture – something of vital importance to marketers.
As much as I value the role of qualitative research, I believe this is a major problem for the marketing industry. Before I explain why, I think it’s worth exploring the reason for qual’s ascendancy.
Speaking to Marketing Week at the end of June, Google’s vice-president of marketing for EMEA, Yonca Dervisoglu, argued that “qual is maybe even more important today than it was before”. This is quite a commonly held view and is backed up by ESOMAR’s annual report which found that spend on qualitative research is growing faster than the research industry as a whole.
Citing the explosion of data sources, Yonca argued that it’s easier to get insight from qual research. On the surface, it’s hard to disagree. We’re living in what I call the era of ‘data spaghetti’ – with access to a vast mishmash of data, it’s increasingly difficult to untangle and identify what is and isn’t useful.
However, I think there’s more to it than just data overload. If you can bear to cast your mind back to the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, commentators argued that the remain campaign’s obsession with statistics and GDP was no match for the emotion of vote leave. The need for greater human understanding has been a core element of the marketing discourse ever since, and the industry has become increasingly obsessed with emotion and human storytelling. Statistics just don’t cut it anymore.
When it comes to understanding culture, the industry is increasingly using qualitative research to do things it’s not designed to do.
We have also witnessed the emergence of a false dichotomy with many believing that only qual can provide the deep human understanding (emotional), and quant is just about generating hard facts (rational).
Throw in some poorly designed and biased quant thought leadership studies, and it’s no surprise that qual methodologies like ethnography have flourished over the past few years.
So why am I concerned?
When it comes to understanding culture, the industry is increasingly using qualitative research to do things it’s not designed to do. I’m seeing a number of studies which don’t even pretend to adhere to the basics of how to conduct qualitative research properly. Extremely small sample sizes, no sampling considerations and no attempt to be even remotely representative.
How can anyone conclude that society thinks x or y based on ethnographic samples of 10 people? Sadly, that’s exactly what’s happening. These studies are being positioned as the lens with which to understand culture and society on a broad level. What’s even more worrying is that the trade press and marketers seem to accept these studies at face value without any scrutiny.
The usual refrain is that it’s much more engaging to hear real people’s stories and that’s enough to make the research valid. Sadly, this is symptomatic of an industry that often thinks speaking to a few people at the local shop constitutes market research. Of course hearing people’s stories is important, but it must be done properly and methodically.
Quite rightly there is a lot of talk in the industry about representation and hearing from diverse voices. But here’s the thing, representation of issues is mainly a problem for qualitative research. It’s becoming increasingly trendy to exclude big metropolitan areas and seek out people in places that aren’t commonly used for qual research. How can excluding regions of millions of people from our sampling constitute representation?
The only way to cover the full diversity of the population is to do research at scale, and the simple truth is that you can’t understand culture without quantifying it.
Quantitative research is every bit as powerful as good qualitative research. If all you want from quant is ‘x% say y’ then this wouldn’t tell you much. But that’s an oversimplification of what good quant does. Used properly, quant isn’t a blunt and simplistic topline count. By applying the right frameworks, it provides a deep and statistically representative understanding of issues shaping people’s lives.
In a business environment where senior leaders increasingly require data to inform decision making, it’s vitally important that we don’t lose sight of the power of numbers.
Andrew Tenzer (@thetenzer on TikTok and Twitter) is the co-founder of consultancy Burst Your Bubble and the former director of market insight and brand strategyReach.