Why Qualitative Research Still Matters in Marketing

Humans are more than data, so use more than data to understand them.
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How well could someone get to know you based solely on data that exists about you?

Sure, some marketer could glean your age, sex, race, location, health, income, even interests. They could get a relevant coupon in your hands at just the right time or fashion a message you’d probably be interested in hearing. But would you say that person really knows you?

Certainly, you believe that you’re more than the sum of your statistics. Like most humans, you have a soul or consciousness or some animating principle that separates you from the beasts.

Your feelings are more complex than a word cloud of your social media posts. Your actions are not guided by a pre-deterministic regression of your preferences. An infinite series of decisions and life experiences conspired to make you the discrete soul that you are, to say nothing of genetics, parenting, environment and beyond.

Therefore, relying solely on data to make marketing decisions is like relying solely on someone’s internet dating profile for marriage. You can’t just know someone; you have to understand them.

What Is the Importance of Qualitative Research in Marketing?

Let’s not forget what makes marketing effective. It’s not just about finding someone. It’s about understanding what makes them, well, them.

Why do they do what they do? What could make them change?

Picture your target persona and see if you can answer questions like these:

  • What does she wish people knew about her but don’t?
  • Why does he make the irrational decisions he makes—even with perfect information?
  • What in life makes her feel purpose?
  • When has he changed behavior in a big way, and why?

You may not know your consumer as well as you should.

If you believe that understanding what drives people is important and you believe that a person cannot be fully understood by his or her data, then you necessarily believe in qualitative research. But I’m guessing you’re not doing a whole lot of it.

It’s become trendy to forgo that aspect of discovery. You’ve probably uttered a sentence like the following recently: “Between the segmentation research we have and search and social data, we have enough information to build a strategy.”

We write off qualitative because it’s unbecoming. It’s old-fashioned, expensive, difficult and hard to measure. We’ve gotten ourselves all excited about the prospect of not having to meet our consumers face to face to market to them. As marketers, we think we can skip dating and jump right to marriage. But that’s not how it works.

The more brands try to replace qualitative research with her younger sister, the more they find their marketing goes wanting. CMOs at major brands still consider generating meaningful consumer insights their No. 1 priority when it comes to building a relevant brand.

Despite unprecedented levels of data, we’re still impatiently pounding the table with our fists, exasperated that consumers aren’t paying attention or doing what we want them to. Why? Because we don’t really know our consumers anymore.

It Does Pay to Talk to Real People

Not to divulge my age, but I learned how to create strategy in the now old-fashioned way. I suffered through performing qualitative research in the flesh.

I spent a week of my life in the desert heat of San Bernardino, California, standing in Walmart parking lots, asking seniors about their prescription drugs.

I went door to door in Philadelphia, armed with little more than a $10 gas card, to ask suburban moms about their dinner routines.

I stood for three days inside a theme park surviving the shrill screams of kids on coasters to badger Hispanic families about their leisure time.

I sat through 10 focus groups in one day in Portland, Oregon.

Despite the monotony and discomfort, I learned how to listen to my consumers and to ask the right questions. I got a taste of their lives. I saw what they looked like. I sat in their living rooms. I learned how to feel empathy, not just write the word in a brief.

If you’re going to truly understand your consumers, you must suffer too. You’re not getting away with not spending far too many hours cramming M&Ms behind the two-way mirror. Or the humiliation of stopping people on the street. Or asking strangers to tell you what’s in their pantries.

Humble yourself and go learn something.

Try Qualitative Research for Yourself

Lest you think this is the outdated ranting of a nostalgic planner, ask the original zealots of tech and data-driven marketing. In a recent article, Gartner said: “Marketing leaders continue to struggle to consistently deliver effective content marketing because creating content that is engaging and effective requires deep customer understanding. Much of this knowledge can only be acquired through qualitative research methods.

Just try it.

Experience the insight-generating power of asking an actual question of an actual person and watching how they react.

Discover how those insights suddenly, almost eerily, reveal themselves in your data, bringing new context to your understanding of your consumers—and what’s necessary to influence them.