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GuidesMarket researchA comprehensive guide to qualitative market research

A comprehensive guide to qualitative market research

Last updated

3 April 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

There are many ways companies can serve customers better and earn more revenue. However, there's one key way to grow your business to the next level. Market research is an invaluable part of any business strategy, providing you with the insights to plot the course of your operation. Market research can help you:

  • Grow your business

  • Understand the needs of your customers

  • Launch a new product

  • Expand into new markets

  • Meet any lofty goals you set for your business

The two research methods you can use to glean these insights are quantitative and qualitative. 

Quantitative research provides you with hard data you can use to find the size and scale of customer sentiment, discover causal relationships between variables, and support generalizations about macro-level populations.

Qualitative market research is an open-ended research method that looks at the reasons and motivations behind customer behavior, at the micro level. Qualitative market research gives you actionable insights you can use to improve everything from your customer service strategies to your products and services.

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What is qualitative market research?

Qualitative market research is an open-ended research method that studies people's behavior and motivations within a specific market. While quantitative research is about hard numbers and analytics, qualitative market research takes a more generalized approach. It focuses on small sample sizes to encourage in-depth analysis of individual customers’ experiences.

The conversational nature of qualitative research is designed to encourage in-depth discussion. For businesses, qualitative market research is a powerful way to understand customers' points of view, as well as their pain points and desires.

Why is it important to do qualitative market research?

Whether you are a CEO or a project manager, the thoughts and feelings of your customers should matter deeply to you. Through qualitative market research, you can identify the needs of your customers in a more nuanced, in-depth way than is possible with quantitative research. 

Depending on the questions you pose, you can also get a feel for how customers perceive your marketing messages and communications, as well as more broad perceptions of your company as a whole.

If you're planning on launching a new product or service, qualitative market research can help you refine the launch and even make improvements. By using the feedback and insights from your research to make changes leading up to the launch, you are more likely to increase your revenue and receive glowing reviews.

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Advantages of qualitative market research

There are many advantages to qualitative market research. It's flexible, so you can adapt to the quality of information you receive. For example, if the available information isn't providing what you hoped, it's easy to change direction and collect more data using new questions.

Qualitative market research also helps you gather more detailed information than most quantitative data. While quantitative market research gives you metrics, qualitative market research allows you to better understand the subtleties within the data.

Long-term, qualitative market research can reduce customer churn. By conducting regular qualitative market research, businesses can better understand what consumers want (and what they don’t) and learn whether they are fulfilling their needs. This reduces customer churn and helps build a stronger relationship between a business and the people it serves.

Disadvantages of qualitative market research

The most notable disadvantage of market research is that it’s time-consuming. Depending on the scope of the research and the amount of people dedicated to the project, it can take weeks or even months to complete. If you're working on a tight timeline, or if you have limited resources to dedicate to research, it might not be feasible.

Qualitative market research can also be expensive. While much of the cost will depend on the size and scope of the project, you might also need to hire additional people to help you complete the research.

If you compensate participants for their time (and experts advise some sort of compensation), that's another expense to consider.

Finally, qualitative market research is highly subjective, as the conclusions are drawn by individual researchers and their interpretation and analysis.

Eight qualitative market research methods

The most common methods for qualitative market research include focus groups, individual interviews, and observations. However, many other methods should be considered as viable options for your market research.

Social media analysis

Social media has become an important part of many people's lives, with millions of people around the world interacting with their favorite platforms on a daily, even hourly, basis. Social media analysis can, therefore, be a powerful way to gather and analyze information.

If your brand is active on social media, take the opportunity to solicit responses from customers who follow you. This can be via a survey feedback form or some sort of direct response from customers.

You can also perform content analysis on social media, scanning comments left by consumers on your posts and checking for frequently used words.

For the most in-depth responses, consider gathering insights directly from the people who follow your pages and regularly interact with you.

Lifestyle immersion

If customer comfort is one of your top priorities as you conduct market research, lifestyle immersion might be the best option.

Lifestyle immersion is a research method that allows the researcher to observe the customer in their natural environment. By observing the participant in a natural setting, you can see their unguarded behavior and learn more about their needs and motives.

Focus groups

Focus groups are a popular method for conducting qualitative market research. Focus groups are typically comprised of 6–10 people, along with a market researcher who functions as a moderator.

During the focus group, participants are encouraged to share their unguarded thoughts and opinions on a product, service, or marketing campaign.

Traditionally, focus groups were held in person, since verbal and non-verbal reactions are an important part of measuring responses. However, web-based focus groups have been gaining popularity in recent years, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online focus groups tend to be more cost-effective and convenient for most participants.

Observations

Observations, also known as shop-alongs, involve researchers following participants as they walk through a store. The goal of observations in qualitative market research is to gauge customers’ interactions and reactions to things they encounter, including products, displays, and advertising.

Observations don't require the market researcher to physically accompany participants. Typically, the researcher will observe from a distance or watch a camera feed.

Individual interviews

Individual interviews are a highly personalized method of conducting market research. These interviews are in person, over the phone, or through video-conferencing software.

They tend to be most successful when held as part of a free-flowing conversation that puts the participant at ease and makes them feel comfortable sharing their unfiltered thoughts and opinions. The interviews can be structured or unstructured, depending on the nature of the questions and your overall goals for the project.

Include plenty of open-ended questions in your interview outline to keep the conversation moving. Pay attention throughout the interview to see how the participant responds to the questions and if they seem uncomfortable or ill at ease. If they do, switch gears to make the conversation more relaxed again.

Diary or journal-logging

A diary study, also known as journal-logging, is a research method that aims to collect data about user behaviors, activities, and experiences over a set period.

During the designated reporting period, participants are asked to keep a diary and record specific information about the activities you want to analyze. The data is self-reported by participants when the reporting period is up.

Diary studies can be useful for gathering information about users’ habits and thought patterns. They can also effectively capture attitudes and motivations. However, it can be challenging to recruit dedicated users, since diary studies require greater involvement over a longer period than more traditional market research methods.

Surveys

Surveys are a popular method of conducting market research. A powerful form of primary research, surveys are endlessly customizable. They can be done:

  • In person

  • Over the phone

  • Via email or other online delivery method

If you opt for an online survey, test the software ahead of time, so you can be sure everything works properly and displays well on mobile devices.

It's also a good idea to run a test survey with a smaller group. This allows you to refine your questions and eliminate any confusing wording.

Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research involves observing participants in their natural environment, primarily how they go about mundane tasks such as cleaning their house or preparing a meal. Unlike observations, ethnography can involve a variety of approaches, including diary studies and video recordings.

The goal of ethnographic research is to understand the social dynamics, beliefs, and behaviors of participants through direct observation and participation in their daily activities. Ethnographic research can take place over an extended period, from a few weeks to a year or more. It's versatile and is best done with the assistance of an experienced ethnographic researcher.

An example of qualitative market research

One of the main benefits of qualitative market research is its flexibility. No matter what your goal is or what outcome you're hoping for, you can design an effective study.

One example of qualitative market research using a focus group is a cereal company wishing to update the packaging of one of its most popular products. After producing several design concepts, the company opts to commission a series of focus groups to gauge responses to each concept.

During the focus groups, with the help of a moderator, participants discuss each design, evaluating the pros and cons. Based on the feedback received in the focus groups, the cereal company can move forward with the design most appealing to their customers.

Best practices for qualitative market research

While qualitative research is flexible, there are still best practices to follow. Regardless of which research method you choose, consider these tips when crafting your approach and designing the questions.

Accurately identify research goals

Before embarking on any market research, you should know your end goal. Think about the specific questions you want answered, including the nature of the product or service you wish to refine or develop. Outline your goals and share them with every project stakeholder, including managers and the CEO, if necessary.

Understand your customers

Knowing your customers is vital for accurately targeting survey participants. Your business should have a customer profile that includes basic demographics such as:

  • Age

  • Shopping habits

  • Occupation

  • Location

Use this profile to create questions that are useful for your study. When crafted thoughtfully, your questions will identify needs that aren't being met and meet study participants where they are.

Choose the most appropriate research method

There are many ways to conduct qualitative market research, but not all of them might be right for your unique needs. Think about what method will give you the optimal results and work best for the study participants you wish to recruit.

Focus groups are an ever-popular research method, but it isn't always possible to dedicate time and energy to moderating one. A survey or series of observations might be more effective, depending on your available resources and goals.

Use open-ended questions

The goal of qualitative market research is to gain thoughtful responses from participants. Use open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no response. The idea is to maintain an open dialogue, even through vehicles such as surveys or focus groups.

Test out questions on yourself and your team members before launching them to participants, so you can be sure they make sense and give people the chance to truly share their thoughts.

Tips for qualitative data analysis

Qualitative data analysis is rarely a linear process. Since qualitative market research often doesn't result in hard numbers, be flexible in your approach to analysis.

After you finish your research, organize and collate your responses into one location for further analysis. If you have audio or video files, allocate time to transcribe the data, whether that means bringing in a transcriptionist or guiding your team members through the process.

As you go through the responses, become familiar with the data. This will help you better understand your customers and identify any potential gaps in the research. Always involve other stakeholders in the process, not only along the way but also once the final results have been collated. This promotes transparency in the project and improves communication across the board.

FAQs

Are customer surveys qualitative?

Customer surveys are one method of market research. They can be made qualitative or quantitative, depending on the nature of the questions. They are one of the most popular forms of qualitative market research because they are versatile and highly customizable. Surveys can be done in person or through web software, such as email.

What are qualitative marketing objectives examples?

While quantitative objectives are usually specific and measurable, qualitative marketing objectives are more subjective. They tend to be conceptually broad, such as "we want to learn more about how our customers rank our service compared to our competitors,” "we want to increase brand awareness," and "we want to improve customer satisfaction." It can be helpful to have qualitative and quantitative objectives for your market research, depending on the nature of the project and whether it's related to a specific product or service.

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