Listening to people: still relevant in a digital age?

When online survey tools are readily available and sometimes free,David Bain 09-0065LD-041 and when social media offers rapid qualitative and quantitative responses, it can be easy to dismiss traditional market research methods, such as depth interviews and focus groups, as out of date. In reality, both online and face-to-face (or telephone) methods have their place, but how do you choose the right methods for the right situation?

Our Research Manager, David Bain, has some thoughts to help you decide:

  • How much do you already know about the issue youre looking to research? If you want to conduct a customer satisfaction survey or find out what stakeholders think of your brand; have you ever researched these issues before? If not, then do you know what is important to your customers, partners, or employees? How will they evaluate your service, and how will they judge your brand?We usually suggest talking to a small number of stakeholders, in depth, right at the start, to get a feel for this, before developing questions for any survey research. This helps to ensure that a survey asks the right questions, in the right ways and therefore that it really does measure what it sets out tomeasure.
  • Who should we talk to? In research among organisations (rather than consumers), there is often a decision-making unit rather than a single decision-maker – therefore more than one person has an opinion that the researcher needs to know about and understand.When we consult secondary schools, for example, we are conscious that the job titles of staff who help students with their university applications vary from school to school. In some cases, talking to the Head of 6th Form has given us the insights we needed, in others we have held mini-groups with several teachers and careers advisors. Sending an emailed survey to heads of sixth form, however, simply would not have worked the response rate would have been low and there would have been no guarantee that the questionnaire would have reached the right respondents. The first rule in market research, therefore, is to ask the right people. Depending on your product or service, those people may or may not be easy to target through online panels, email lists or social media.
  • Reading between the lines: There is nothing like body language and the importance of what someone doesn’t say. Depth interviews and focus groups capture this and allow a skilled interviewer or moderator to qualify what is actually being said – or not said! For instance, in one recent Marketwise Strategies project, for an online information service, it was essential to be able to discuss in detail the potential content, functionality and pricing model for the service. Pricing, in particular, was complex and depended on the skill of the interviewer and their ability to probe and confirm participants answers (or lack of answers) as the discussion developed.
  • Serendipitous responses: Great ideas can come from discussion in an interview or focus group, that would not necessarily be encouraged by a multiple choice questionnaire. Sometimes we have presented product prototypes that were designed to be used in a certain way, then found that potential customers have responded with: “Okay, but have you thought about using it like this?” Research that proceeds too quickly to quantitative measures, rather than exploring the possibilities qualitatively, can miss opportunities.
  • Do they need to touch and feel the product? If you are researching a completely new product or service there is no substitute for being able to give someone a sample to turn over in their hands, or showing them a visual outline of the service model. We found this when talking to architects and engineers about a new type of recycled building material the range of comments that people were able to make about its weight and texture, from actually holding the material, would not have been possible if they were simply viewing images online.

If you have previously researched the same topic area, among the same group of stakeholders, and are clear that you now need, for example, to track customer satisfaction or brand awareness, then you might opt for a short, sharp online survey with a large number of respondents, that you can repeat annually. If, however, your needs are less clear cut, then we hope that the ideas above will help you to evaluate the options.

A general rule…

Think about the questions that you want to ask. If it is how often, how many, how much, how satisfied; then a survey might be just right. However, if you want to know why do our customers think this about us, or how do our customers behave, then you might get far more value by listening to what they have to say through qualitative, (often face to face or telephone) research.