What is Qualitative Research?

Marketing research has traditionally been divided or classified into two types: qualitative and quantitative.

The distinction is based on general assumptions about the number of people interviewed.

Quantitative research refers to studies involving 'a lot' of people. It uses statistical average techniques such as mean ratings, and statistical tools such as sampling error and standard error to analyze data. There is no stated number of people who must be interviewed to make a study quantitative, but samples of 100 or more are usually considered quantitative.

This leaves qualitative research, or studies involving a small number of individuals, such as focus groups or in-depth one-on-one interviews. The primary tool in qualitative research is the focus group, but it can also include modern variations on the focus group idea such as online focus groups and teleconferences. Finally, qualitative researchers can use one-on-one interviews to delve deep into various topics.

The Focus Group

When most people talk about qualitative marketing research, they are usually talking about focus groups.

A focus group is a roundtable discussion session. It usually consists of 6-10 individuals who come to a central location to sit around a table to answer questions from a trained moderator or facilitator. The moderator has an outline of questions, usually three to four pages in length, which cover all the topics she wants to discuss during the session.

Generally, the respondents in these sessions, called participants, do not know the sponsor of the research, and sometimes they may not know the topic in advance. This to avoid pre-existing bias, or prevent the participant from trying to give answers to please the client.

Focus groups are usually done in pairs, in a series. For example, a study could consist of two groups in Atlanta, or two groups in Atlanta followed by two in Chicago. If you do multiple groups, and discover the same points in all groups, it is more likely that the conclusions you draw will be relevant to the larger market.

Other Types of Qualitative Research

One-on-one Interviews: Instead of bringing ten people together in a two-hour focus group, researchers can spend 20 minutes interviewing ten respondents individually.

The in-depth interview produces more comment from each participant than the group environment, as well as provides individual comments uninfluenced by group reactions. Such interviews can also be conducted over the phone.

Observational Research: Rather than interacting with respondents verbally, researchers simply observe how consumers make decisions about products in the store, or even go to the home and watching how respondents perform certain actions.

In one study, a qualitative researcher went to twelve homes to see how they connected a new modem. Not one person was able to hook it up properly. Although the study only included twelve interviews, researchers were pretty confident that there were problems with the product and with the installation instructions.
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