Introduction to Market Research Methods: Part 1

It’s no secret that seeking customer insights via market research is vital when releasing new products or services, and, truth be told, expected nowadays. Customers want to be part of the development process and know that they have influence with the brands (or products) they care about.

A simple Google search will reveal any number of cases where customer insights were not collected, and brands were left scrambling to “pick up the pieces” of poorly received products or services, trying to explain to customers why they missed the mark by not seeking their input.

And in a highly connected, social media-filled world, even if products do well, it’s easier than ever for consumers to know whether a company values their voices or not. There are a variety of ways to gather these valuable customer insights, and this series will focus on getting impactful insights from your customers using qualitative market research methods.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

While qualitative research may be a familiar term, traditionally referring to non-numerical data collection, it’s important to understand everything that can fall under this umbrella and what exactly it means for the research. Website provides a simple list of the most common forms qualitative research can take:

  • Observations: recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered.
  • Interviews: personally, asking people questions in one-on-one conversations.
  • Focus groups: asking questions and generating discussion among a group of people, typically through interaction with a moderator.
  • Surveys: distributing questionnaires with open-ended questions.
  • Secondary research: collecting existing data in the form of texts, images, audio or video recordings, etc. You may be surprised at how willing respondents are to share this form of data with you, especially nowadays.
  • Ideation or brainstorming sessions: using consumers to generate ideas and solutions to problems, often discovering unmet needs or pain points that can be used for future product or service development.

Ethnography is another well-used qualitative approach, where researchers can fully immerse themselves with a group of people to understand their culture and what makes them “tick.” It stems from the field of anthropology, where those studying a particular group of people will fully immerse themselves into the culture, often by living with the group and observing for long periods of time.

Of course, you may not find many market researchers signing up to go live with the consumers whose insights they are looking to seek, and it’s not necessary in today’s digital world. Online studies can certainly be designed, with the right questions, to understand groups’ history, needs, and desires. Who better to guide the development team than a researcher who has gotten to know the group best?

In its simplest form, quantitative research is the opposite, encompassing those studies that focus on collecting numerical data. While this series will not take a deep look at this type of research, it’s important to understand the forms it can take, and how they differ from qualitative forms but can also be used in conjunction with them to fully understand and “tap into” consumers. also provides a nice, succinct list of the most common forms of quantitative research:

  • Experiment: controlling or manipulating independent variables to measure its effect on a dependent variable.
  • Survey: distributing questionnaires with closed-ended questions (scales, polls, etc.).
  • Systematic observation: identifying a behavior or occurrence and monitoring it in its natural setting.
  • Secondary research: collecting data that has been gathered for other purposes and expanding or comparing results to further the research. Sometimes these are referred to as longitudinal or tracker studies.

With that, let’s look at quantitative surveys a little more closely, since they are most relevant to our goals here:

  • Customer satisfaction surveys: respondents answer a series of questions meant to show their opinions about a company, services or products provided, and general company perceptions. They can be short and sweet (we’ve all taken the “how was your experience today?” questionnaire) or run over and over like trackers to measure performance and perceptions over time.
  • Max Diff or conjoint surveys: respondents are exposed to a variety of attributes such as flavors, adjectives, or other categories, to determine which are most desirable among customers or potential customers.
  • Messaging or packaging surveys: respondents are shown messages or packaging and asked a variety of questions about what they see and think.
  • Pricing surveys: respondents are asked to rate how much they would be willing to pay for a product or service. Seasoned researchers might know these as Van Westendorp studies, often used to find the “sweet spot” for pricing new products or services.
  • Persona and behavioral surveys: a technique used to evaluate and categorize a customer base into different groups so you can better understand the different personas or target groups among your customer base. Sometimes this is particularly useful when the same group is used over and over for studies, such as with online communities, which we’ll talk about later.
  • Longitudinal studies/ Tracker studies: closed-ended questions meant to be repeated over a span of time to understand shifts in behaviors or perceptions over time.

You may have noticed what appears to be overlap in these two categories, and you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, best practice is usually to have a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methodologies when during research. This ensures thorough, robust results.

Plus, for the most part, consumers actually like responding to questions in a variety of different ways. Some may not want to articulate themselves in interviews or focus groups; they may find they are best able to express themselves with closed-ended polls and scales.

Or they may enjoy reacting to concepts and pricing without always needing to discuss why they feel the way they do. This is particularly true with “flavor” research in the food/ beverage industry, where open-end questions may just result in you hearing things like “I just like it because it like it” over and over.

A mixture of qualitative, projective methodologies and quantitative, close-ended questions can be the best way to get at the information you need, and not tire out respondents. Fatigue will frustrate participants and lead to poor results. These methodologies can also be used one after another as well.

For example, you may need to start with exploratory, qualitative research to understand a certain subset of your customers, then run findings through quantitative research methodologies to validate results, ensuring they are applicable to more than just specific groups.

Gathering Qualitative Insights in a Modern, Digital (and Pandemic-Ridden) World

Once you are on board with the idea of gathering customer insights and empowering the voice of the customer with market research, understand that qualitative approaches can be conducted in-person or online. Many “old school” researchers still believe in-person is the only way to go, but this is becoming less and less feasible in a digital (and post-COVID-19) era.

If designed correctly, online results can be just as (or more) effective, and respondents can participate mostly on their own schedules. An important consideration in these times may be an online community. Online communities thrive on qualitative methodologies.

Some of the biggest companies, Google, Microsoft, and more have started using online communities to listen to the voice of the consumer and create loyal, engaged audiences. Jono Bacon, author of People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Teams discussed at length how these larger companies have harnessed the power of communities to gain insights and build lasting, powerful relationships with consumers.

How Can Online Communities Impact Your Business?

Despite the evidence from Jono Bacon and others about the power of online communities for businesses, it can still be hard to get internal teams on board with the idea. Let’s wrap up Part 1 of this series with some succinct, easy to remember ways online communities can be advantageous to your company. Keep these in mind when it comes time to approach the idea of an online community with internal stakeholders and interested (or seemingly non-interested) parties.

  • You have an engaged audience ready to provide feedback – Having an online community means you have a group of dedicated, engaged consumers, always available who are ready to provide on demand insights and inspiration into what they need and what motivates them.  They may or may not be loyal to any brand, but they are loyal to the idea of engaging with you and answering your questions to help you understand who they are, what they prefer, and what makes them tick. Why? Because it means you are actively involving them and should be able to be released products and services that better meet their needs and desires. And, as we’ve discussed, just inviting them to be part of the process can go a long way.

    Tangible rewards for their efforts are also important, and incentivizing community members is key. Rewarding through gift cards/ promotions/ deals is one way, as is sharing how customer feedback is being used (sometimes called “closing the loop” in communities). This, and a trusted relationship with an online community moderator, ensures e-mails are opened and questions are answered. Whether it’s a full qualitative study or a quick 24-hour poll, you can expect results quickly.

  • Cost savings – It should come as no surprise that an online community can save companies tens of thousands of research dollars annually.  When tasked with an initiative, ad hoc research is very pricy – there is sample to pay for, platform costs, moderator fees, programming fees, costs for analysis/reporting, etc.  This can quickly add up.  And it’s not just a one-off – EVERY TIME a new initiative comes up you incur these costs again.  In a community all of this is built in; one upfront cost for the community is all there is.  And, as ad hoc qualitative research in particular can be very costly, the savings quickly add up in an insight community.

    Also, with an online community you can reach multiple groups/ segments at once, which can significantly accelerate timelines and result in even more cost savings. By conducting multiple studies (to multiple key groups) in tandem, you can quickly tap into your online community resource and get answers. Since all online community members are all pre-screened, it is easy to slice and dice data by known demos. As a result, online community research is done in roughly 4-6 weeks, versus the 3-6 months customary for in-person qualitative research.

  • Build stronger relationships with important stakeholders – It goes without saying the things we’ve already talked about, reduced costs and increased speed, will appeal to “higher-ups” and key stakeholders. Perhaps just as importantly, though, an online community inherently involves many people within the company, from top to bottom. While creating an online community may meet some initial resistance, there is a lot to be said for getting key stakeholders on board early in the process. Doing this successfully means when questions come up that “need answers yesterday,” the community is top of mind for everyone as a tried-and-true option with proven ROI.

    Having a community also means involving customers, or potential customers, earlier in the product development process, which reduces risk and makes product launch success less of a guessing game for management. There’s no denying the appeal that should have.

  • Build stronger relationships with customers Finally, an online community allows you to reach out to customers often, building trust and loyalty. As Jono Bacon puts it:

“What if you discovered a blueprint that could grow your brand’s reputation and loyalty, dramatically reduce customer service issues, produce content and technology, and cement a powerful, lasting relationship between you and your customers?”

Even if a company or product ultimately “goes another way” from online community research results, customers value simply being invited to the process, sharing their opinions, and empowering them to join in.

The next few chapters outlined in this series will seek to help you further understand the importance of qualitative research, and how to execute these types of projects, with some case studies.

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