While there are many important decisions to make when planning a market research effort, one of the most crucial is whether to conduct qualitative or quantitative market research.
In brief, quantitative market research refers to the process of collecting large amounts of data through surveys, questionnaires, and polling methods. Conversely, qualitative market research involves determining customer motivation through close observation –– typically in a small group or face-to-face encounter.
What makes deciding between the two even trickier is that many of the people conducting market research –– either for their employers or as consultants –– do not have in-depth expertise in both methodologies. As such, they stick with the one that they are familiar with, regardless of whether it is the best option. Even if their practice integrates both quantitative and qualitative methods into their approach, there still may be a bias toward certain strategies and tactics -- which ultimately renders the outcomes anywhere from less-than-optimal, to outright misleading.
The only way to avoid heading down the wrong road –– and undermining the market research effort and investment –– is to objectively determine whether a quantitative approach, qualitative approach, or integrated approach (and if so, in what proportion and for what purpose) is required.
Below are some high-level guidelines to direct this critically important decision.
The purpose of quantitative research is to glean reliable, standardized facts and statistics to guide key business questions, such as “Is there a strong market for our product?” or “How many of our target customers care about this benefit?”
Often, primary research quantitative data is captured through surveys and questionnaires. Quantitative data collection methods typically rely on close-ended questions to generate insights. The pool of research respondents must be sufficiently large, with attention paid to ensure the necessary audience representation.
For example, exclusively using mobile surveys to capture quantitative data is likely to disproportionately filter out people not on mobile panels, while conducting surveys by calling landline phones is likely to disproportionately filter out the nearly two-thirds of households that entirely or mostly use cell phones.
But capturing data is just one piece of the quantitative research puzzle. To leverage it as actionable and reliable business intelligence, it must be organized, analyzed, and communicated to decision-makers (e.g., executives, board members, marketing directors, R&D leaders, business owners, etc.). Most organizations –– and virtually all small businesses –– do not have the resources, technology, or expertise to do this in-house.
The purpose of qualitative research is to go deeper into understanding insights into customer motivation and emotion. In this sense, if quantitative research is mainly about the “what” of customer behavior, qualitative research is about the “why." This approach can be useful for revealing aspects such as why customers like or dislike a brand, why they like particular marketing messages and dislike others, and what motivates actual consumer behavior.
There are many ways to conduct qualitative market research, such as focus groups, online bulletin boards, and in-depth interviews. There are advantages and drawbacks to various strategies and tactics, but experienced moderators know how to handle each methodology for optimal outcomes. Because the pool of respondents is smaller, it is essential to make adjustments to avoid bias or end up with plenty of raw information but precious little actionable insight.
3 Questions to Help Make the Right Decision
In addition to the information shared above, it is helpful to ask these three questions as part of an informed decision-making process:
- Is the purpose of this market research to test a hypothesis or to explore perceptions?
To test a hypothesis, quantitative research gives you the sample size necessary to uncover agreement or disapproval. Qualitative research can allow for detailed and open-ended learnings about perceptions without leading participants to a black or white decision.
- Should the study results simply measure opinions or is an in-depth understanding of why customers have certain opinions the goal?
To measure opinions, quantitative research is the right choice. If an in-depth understanding of perceptions revealing conscious, or even unconscious ways individuals reason through and come to their conclusions on a matter, then qualitative research is the best bet.
- Will the key insights from this study be used to extrapolate an understanding about a larger audience or is some kind of map of an individual participant's experience more helpful?
If the goal is to reach a critical inference about a larger audience, then you need quantitative research. If the goal is to map out the nuanced experience of an individual, then qualitative research is required.
Integrated Market Research
Typically, a robust and complete market research effort involves quantitative and qualitative methods, since they both offer valuable perspectives and can be combined to generate actionable insights. The right mix is based on the unique needs for business decision making, desired impact, timeframe, scope, and budget. There is no one-size-fits-all answer or template and the approach should never be based on what a market researcher or consultant is familiar with (or simply knows how to implement). The determination must only be based on what the business requires and what the integrity of the market research project demands.
To learn more, contact the Communications For Research (CFR) team today. We will help you better understand the differences and distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research. Our goal is to guide you to the optimal approach for your business objectives and research needs.