To appreciate the value of doing qualitative research, it may be helpful to start by contrasting it with quantitative research.
Quantitative research gathers data from a variety of sources and then analyzes it to provide a straightforward, numbers-focused understanding of the “what” concerning a certain topic. This type of research is often used to make business decisions when the stakes are highest. Quantitative research can help you answer such questions as:
- Was there a trend in our retention rate over the last five years?
- What does it cost our organization to service the needs of a member for one year?
- What happened to total membership figures the last time we increased dues?
Qualitative research, on the other hand, is more about the “how” and “why”. Rather than focusing on numbers and statistics, the goal is to gain a more holistic view of a topic. By its nature, qualitative research is looking into respondents’ views and opinions, and is designed to answer such questions as:
- How do members view our professional development offerings?
- How well do members understand their benefits?
- Which parts of attending in-person conferences do members miss the most, and the least?
Understanding the different methods of qualitative research
Many people tend to think that qualitative research means holding focus groups. While that’s certainly a popular method, it’s actually just one of many, each with its own focus, processes and limitations. Here are descriptions of some of the most commonly-used approaches to gather qualitative insights.
Focus groups. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the focus group concept. Researchers assemble a group of 8-10 people who all have insights or concerns about a given product or topic. Then a moderator guides them through a structured discussion, carefully gathering insights into those aspects of the topic that matter most to the organization commissioning the research.
Group dynamics can affect the process and results of a focus group, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, the group may start to brainstorm ideas that build off each other. On the negative side, you only have a limited amount of the participants’ time, so you have to keep the conversation moving along in order to make sure you touch on all the topics about which you wanted to hear the focus group’s thoughts. Fortunately, a skilled moderator will keep an eye on the clock, and keep the discussion focused and productive.
In-depth interviews. Another popular method for doing qualitative research is the in-depth interview (IDI). As its name implies, this style of research is typically a one-on-one conversation between a person with insights or opinions about a topic and the interviewer.
Depending on the focus, an IDI could include specific yes-or-no questions to establish basic facts, or more open-ended queries to gain insights into how a topic is perceived. Especially when conducted with a number of different subjects, IDIs can give you a deeper and more balanced view of a topic in a short amount of time.
Variations on the IDI model include interviews with two or three individuals at the same time (known in communication circles as dyads and triads, respectively). These offer some of the same depth of insight into respondents’ views produced by IDIs, as well as some of the group dynamics that characterize focus groups.
Bulletin board focus group. Like in-person focus groups, in this approach you begin by inviting a group of potential participants to share their opinions on the topic being researched — but in this case, in an electronic bulletin-board environment. This type of discussion can be set up in a number of ways, depending on your needs. For example, you can design it to support interactivecommunication, where participants see others’ comments only after they’ve finished, or not at all. Alternatively, you can design the platform for blind communication, where participants see others’ comments only after they’ve finished commenting, or not at all.
Should you conduct qualitative research in-house?
Choosing to have internal staff conduct your qualitative research is always an option, but you should proceed with caution. When your research team is comprised of your own staff, it’s a common syndrome that the research will tend to confirm what you thought you already knew. If that happens, the same blind spots and questions you had previously may remain — and the results of the research could be significantly less valuable to your organization. Another advantage of using an external partner to moderate focus group discussions is that participants will often be more forthcoming when talking with a third party, and share the type of candid insights that will be most helpful to you.
One additional insight about the value of qualitative research is that it can be done either by itself or in conjunction with quantitative research to achieve more significant insights.
Here’s a case in point. Several years ago, we conducted a multi-year, multi-mode research study about a major dietary initiative of the American Heart Association (AHA). In the fourth year of the study, we evaluated the initiative’s longer-term impact. We started by recruiting consumers to a members-only online community, and over six months, we engaged with the respondents using quick polls, discussion topics, content links, and behavior diaries. Then we used baseline, interim and final surveys of respondents’ attitudes and beliefs to assess the overall effectiveness of the campaign.
The study’s combination of qualitative and quantitative results identified a number of specific challenges that needed to be addressed before AHA could roll out the initiative to a broader audience. Perhaps most significantly, our client was able to use the findings to secure funding for two additional years of study, allowing it to further refine the program’s targeting and content for future outreach efforts.
The answers are out there — the question is how to find them
In our experience, most of our association clients recognize when they need additional qualitative insights into a topic. In some cases, however, they’re so eager to collect results that they jump ahead to kicking off a focus group study before fully considering their options. This instinct is understandable, but it can result in the organization potentially overlooking other approaches that could be easier and more productive — and possibly even cost less to accomplish.
For this reason, we encourage clients who are seeking qualitative research to focus first on what their objectives are, rather than on the specific process to be used to gather the insight. Then we can work together to develop an effective plan that will produce the insights they need to move forward.
To get Vault involved in your organization’s qualitative research efforts or to set up a call, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com.