There are already lots of articles out there exploring what it takes to be a great qualitative researcher, so why on earth do we need another one?
Well, the problem with many of those articles is that they focus exclusively on the skills required to actually undertake research moderation and in reality, moderation (most typically of focus groups, depth interviews and online communities) typically accounts for no more than 25% of the qualitative researcher’s working week.
In this article we’re going to include the often ignored 75% of the role!
But firstly – what exactly is qualitative research?
Before jumping in to a detailed description of the qualities required to be a ‘super-qualie’, it’s worth spending a bit of time considering what qualitative research actually is – and its role within marketing.
Qualitative research involves the non-numerical and creative exploration and assessment of people’s attitudes, opinions, feelings, priorities and behaviours. It’s conducted either in-person or online.
Within a commercial context, qualitative research agencies are typically commissioned to conduct research capable of informing the development of a client’s brand (e.g. Nintendo), product or service (e.g. a new soft drink or music app), marketing communication (e.g. TV , press or online ads, direct mail campaigns or billboards) or customer experience delivery (both online and bricks and mortar).
However, in isolation, qualitative research simply delivers interesting qualitative findings. It is the expert analysis and interpretation of those findings within a wider context that may enable them to be turned in to powerful insights capable of changing the dynamics of a marketing campaign, a brand, or an entire business.
The wider responsibilities of the qualitative researcher
For many qualies this catalytic process is what the role of is all about.
Yet, within the researcher’s working week there will typically be a lot of other ‘stuff’ that needs urgent attention, much of it rewarding in its own right.
- Research design
- Proposal writing – including costing
- Client relationship management
- Research scheduling
- Discussion guide generation
- Respondent recruitment specification
- Stimulus material generation
- 3rd party supplier relationship management (e.g. recruiters, facilities providers)
- Analysing the output and writing the debrief
- Presenting the debrief to the client
To make it easier to identify the full range of attributes required to be a super-qualie, the above list can be broken down in to 5 distinct areas:
- Managing relationships (e.g. the relationship with the client and with suppliers)
- Managing project logistics (e.g. client management, 3rd party supplier management)
- Managing the research (e.g. project design, discussion guide and stimulus material generation, moderation of research)
- Analysing the research findings and compiling the presentation
- Presenting to the client
In the remainder of this article we’ll take a look at the core, qualitative research attributes required in each one.
1. Managing relationships
At the end of the day, the key thing to remember is that, as a research supplier, its all about the client. This means that the researcher’s ability to manage that relationship is key.
For starters, it requires great communicationand relationship skills, combined with a natural sense ofauthority if the client is to feel they are in safe hands.
However, to really stand out in the area of relationship management the researcher also needs to be proactive, helping the client stay ahead of the competition by regularly bringing to their attention the latest research thinking, relevant new research methodologies and news pieces.
2. Managing project logistics
Unless the research agency has staff dedicated to managing project logistics, the role of project manager will typically fall to the researcher as well.
For any given research project this role may involve:
- Managing the development of appropriate research stimulus material
- Specifying and recruiting research respondents via a recruitment agency partner
- Booking of suitable research facilities (e.g. bespoke research viewing facilities, hotel meeting rooms or private homes) in which to hold any face-to-face research
- Arranging video links for research clients who are unable to attend but wish to accompany the face-to-face research in real time
- Sorting out the means by which research respondents will be paid for their participation in the research
- Ensuring that all aspects of the qualitative research conform to GDPR regulation and the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct
Such tasks require the researcher to be highly organised and have a real eye for detail, particularly as that individual may well be running 2 or more projects simultaneously, meaning the logistical tasks really begin to pile up.
When this happens, the ability to compartmentalise each separate project becomes a sanity-preserving skill!
3. Running the research
For our super-qualie running the research isn’t just about moderation! Its highly likely that our qualitative hero or heroine will also be responsible for identifying the appropriate qualitative methodology at the outset, costing it and then writing the research proposal around it:
Not surprisingly, the researcher’s ability to identify the most effective, qualitative research approach is critical to the project’s success.
Not only will the qualitative approach determine the project’s overall cost, it will also decide the extent to which the research is ultimately able to address the strategic and commercial objectives of the client.
It requires experience, judgement and real understanding of which sort of approach will resonate most the client on the part of the researcher.
Moderating the focus group, depth interview, online community…..
Whether the focus of the client’s business is B2C or B2B, both the qualitative research agency and researcher will typically be expected to have a good grasp of the subject matter – particularly if it is technical in nature.
However, to actually run the research session effectively and get the most out of it, it is an altogether softer set of skills that are required, including:
i) Natural curiosity
It’s a fairly obvious one, but if you aren’t the sort of person who is interested in others, what they think and why they behave the way that they do, then this isn’t going to be the career for you!
Similarly, if you find it difficult to accept, cultures, points of view or lifestyles that may be different from your own then walk on by!
ii) Approachability and empathy
The success of any form of qualitative research depends on the willingness of participants to contribute (and keep contributing) to a qualitative discussion in a way that is honest, thoughtful and constructive.
This can be particularly challenging if the subject matter is complex or in some way sensitive.
To encourage respondents to keep on contributing under such conditions the moderator needs to have an ability to put people at their ease and voice thoughts and opinions they might not normally feel confident expressing.
Ironically, the greater the moderator’s success in getting respondents to open up, the harder it can then be to then keep the discussion on-track – particularly if it is on a topic that the moderator also finds engrossing!
An experienced moderator will keep the project’s commercial objectives in his or her mind at all times, to ensure that conversation doesn’t become an enjoyable but irrelevant distraction.
In projects that address socially or culturally sensitive topics the moderator will often find that the views of the respondents are completely at odds with his or her own.
Whilst such situations can be extremely challenging it is up to the moderator to maintain total objectivity, revealing no bias whatsoever.
Sensitivity is crucial. Not just sensitivity in terms of managing individuals and groups, but also in terms of being able to pick up on sub-texts, body language other the non-verbal nuances which can reveal a very different story from the one the respondents are actually telling.
Moderators need to be resolute in different ways.
For example, in a focus group situation, individual respondents may occasionally monopolise the conversation and prevent others from voicing their thoughts and opinions.
On such occasions it is the job of the moderator to tactfully ‘manage’ that individual’s contributions. If not, the whole dynamic of the group can be ruined for the rest of the session.
Very infrequently it can also be the case that a particularly disruptive individual must be asked to leave the group prematurely. This obviously requires an approach that combines resoluteness with high levels of tact!
vii). Mental dexterity
Whatever the form of qualitative research being undertaken, the moderator will have prepared some form of discussion guide designed to ensure that all the research topics are covered appropriately.
However, when the research is actually underway it may turn out that sections of the guide lack relevance as the discussion takes a different turn.
In these instances the moderator needs to be able to swiftly identify the issue and be prepared to go ‘off-piste’, in order to steer the conversation towards more relevant, fertile (but potentially unprepared) subject matter.
viii) Boundless energy
The qualitative researcher’s job is a physically demanding one, meaning that stamina is required!
In addition to spending a full day at work, qualitative researchers will often find themselves moderating research sessions in the evening – possibly up to 11.00 pm. During exceptionally busy periods this can happen 3-4 days per week.
Many agencies will have time-in-lieu arrangements to compensate their qualitative researchers for working such long, anti-social hours.
4. Analysing the research findings and compiling the presentation
Qualitative research is an inherently messy business and its probably at its most messy at the beginning of the research analysis phase!
Analysis of the research findings
When the research fieldwork has finished the moderator must start to comb through possibly hours of research recordings, transcripts or web pages in order to identify and isolate the relevant, clips, comments and insights.
At this point the researcher’s greatest asset is arguably his or her ability to see the wood for the trees, finding and extracting real insight from a tangled mass of (often contradictory) qualitative data.
Once extracted, the researcher’s next task is to work out if and how these insight ‘fragments’ fit together, the story they and what that story means in terms of the client’s strategic and commercial objectives.
The approach must be systematic, whilst the moderator will need to apply an eclectic blend of social and cultural awareness, interpretive skill, objectivity and commercial-mindedness if they are to create order out of the research chaos!
Composition of the research debrief
No matter how compelling the researcher’s insights, conclusions and recommendations might be, if the debrief isn’t able to convey them with simplicity and impact their power is undermined.
Story-telling becomes key at the debrief stage, as does the researcher’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of the debrief audience, to understand what their debrief priorities and expectations will be and then to compile the debrief with that understanding clearly in mind.
This will avoid any focus on the superfluous or merely interesting, at the expense of what is actually relevant and important.
5. Presenting to the client
Typically, a debrief presentation slot will last 1-2 hours. It will involve the client’s core project team and may also include more senior client directors who haven’t had hands-on involvement in the project to this point.
Unfortunately, a presenter who lacks confidence in front of an audience can do much to undermine the power of the research and its findings and it is up to the research agency to ensure that more junior researchers aren’t exposed in this way.
Presenting skills will be learned over time, but there are several practical steps that junior researchers can take to increase their confidence – and the quality of their presentation. These include:
- Learning the content of the debrief inside out
- Anticipating the real needs and expectations of the audience so they can identify any obvious questions or objections – and prepare for them
- Ensuring the first five minutes of the presentation are pacey and engaging. It is during this short period of time that many in the audience will be evaluating the quality of the research – and the style of the presenter.
- Using respondents’ quotes and video footage to help substantiate more challenging points made in the debriefing. It’s very hard to argue with the end customer!
If you are reading this article because you are considering a career in qualitative research you may be feeling daunted by what you have just read.
If so, please don’t!
The reality is, with such a long and eclectic list of left-brain-meets-right-brain attributes required to be a super-qualie, no one is going to tick all the boxes, even after years of experience.
However, If you find that are endlessly curious about what makes people, cultures, and brands tick, then a career in qualitative research might well be the one for you.