November 20, 2019 by Insights

Towards a revival of qualitative research?

AEDEMO – The Spanish Association of Consumer Research invited us to share our vision on the possible revival of qualitative research.

In the following article by Ingrid Bortels we invite you to discover if we are actually facing a revival of this type of research.


Last months I have been travelling a lot over Europe and got the chance to have lunch or dinner with different ex-Unilever & Mondelez colleagues that have worked with me in the Marketing or Consumer Insights departments. Apart from the nice talk about family and shared friends we also had our business chat moments. The “Aedemo” question, whether we are in front of the revival of qualitative research, was fascinating me so I introduced the question in almost every professional lunch or dinner. Opinions were diverse and I will share most of them in a minute, but let’s start with the underlying fact if we speak about a revival of qualitative research.

A Revival of qualitative research unfortunately implies that qualitative research was dying?

Was qualitative research dying?

There are many definitions of what qualitative research is, and everybody will see it through its own lens, but when I think about qualitative research I think about deep strategic understanding, understanding the WHY or the true insights behind the observations. While quantitative research will give us a statistically validation of the WHAT, qualitative research will shed the light on the WHY. Understanding the WHY behind the facts allows us to build a solid and consistent long-term strategy for our business and our brands.

Over the years we have seen different evolutions;

Globalisation reduced the freedom of local marketeers to develop local brand strategies or innovation funnels. So far, big brand strategies are developed at a global level and as good as possible executed at a local level. This has led to a decrease in the need of big explorative & holistic strategic studies to understand better the consumer & its evolving needs.

Marketing & consumer insight teams and their respective budgets have been under tremendous pressure over the last 10 years. Budgets have been reduced significantly, marketing & research teams got smaller and younger managers had to take much more responsibility on their shoulders. As a result, managers have less time & budget available, knowledge & intuition reduced within the companies. With this evolution we moved into an era of more validation (less exploration) & cheaper research.

At the same time is the world around us changing at light speed. This automatically requires a more agile way of working, especially in marketing and research. There is no time anymore to work months on a brand analysis or the famous yearly brand plan, nor there is much time for strategic deep research. What for some is pure excitement, for others the technological advances generate stress to remain on top of the changes, let alone stay ahead of the changes and impact they have on the day-to-day of our consumers & the consumer journey. The pressure has become so big that many managers today clearly prefer a fast Yes/No answer rather than a need for understanding the reason why something works or does not work. The rise of community panels (E.g. Zappy) and DIY online tools like Google Survey, made it for marketing and insights departments very easy to do quick & cheap quantitative research.

Most of the quantitative research process is easy to automatize & visualize. Automatization of quantitative research has led to more accuracy, faster, cheaper and better visualised results. As such, the new forms of quantitative research became an ideal instrument to answer the actual needs of marketing and research departments. That also explains the explosion of demand for these solutions at the detriment of qualitative research.

What happened with qualitative research? Technological advances made it indeed possible for qualitative research to become more flexible. We moved from FTF to more online qualitative research, an increased penetration & speed of transmission of smartphones allow more consumers to share more videos and pictures on the spot (in the heat of the action), etc. But the added value & core of qualitative research, being excellent human moderation, human intuition and holistic interpretation, is still today very difficult to automatize. Saving time or cost has been slow and difficult in qualitative research till recently.

Nevertheless, the pressure of doing cheaper and faster research also applied to qualitative research. The attempt to answer this new need in qualitative research, has been too often at the expense of the quality & depth of the results. This is a pretty sad evolution as there nothing as rich for a brand as working with great strategic qual researchers that work with a lot of passion & truly understand your brand & consumer. When they bring in their cultural knowledge, dive deep into the consumer mind and go for the extra mile, this is when true “Aha moments” are born.

Coming back to the question if the demand for qualitative research has been decreasing, I believe yes, be it for different reasons.

Can we expect a revival of qualitative research?

Can we expect a revival of qualitative research?

We see some 1st signs that global companies are decentralising again and giving back power for brand & product development to the local teams. We even see an increased support of local jewel brands. This will allow local teams again to do explorative strategic research in which qualitative research plays an important role. Still budget & time pressure remains.

I am a super fan of new technology and it is super exciting just thinking about how technology will further change research. Already today, the information coming from machine learning, beacons, geolocalization, AI, etc. allows us to obtain lots of facts & unravel many business questions. I would like to believe that the more “Big Data” we have, the bigger the need will be for qualitative research. Or said differently, the more facts we have, the bigger the thirst and need should become to understand WHY things are happening.

Finally I also see AI helping qualitative research to become cheaper and faster, e.g. today AI allows a cheaper & faster recruitment, even of the smaller targets. This is usually an important cost factor. Google translate & AI offer today good quality & real time simultaneous translation from-and-to any language. In many countries the cost of a person translating simultaneously is nearly as expensive as having a good moderator.

The new generation of AI systems is blurring the frontier today between qualitative and quantitative research.

In the case of social listening, the AI tool goes through a mountain of social media posts, photos, videos, comments, searches and press coverage in search of patterns and connections. They deliver fantastic additional insights on our brand and target. These are qualitative data getting quantified.

Where it really gets cool is in the case of tools like Remesh, they provide qualitative conversations at a quantitative scale in real time. A single moderator asks open-ended questions about a specific topic to an entire online community (100-1000 persons) without losing the opportunity to deep dive into parts of the conversation and ask the individual consumers for more information on the spot.

In other words, I see a super bright future for qualitative research & great strategic qualitative researchers that embrace the new technologies, combining the best of both worlds. Platforms like Aha Online Research & Remesh allow us nowadays to use the most advanced technology while using our best qualitative researchers. It is not all perfect yet, AI can’t read sentiment yet, cultural subtilities are difficult to spot, etc. but the direction we move into feels very good. 

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