When I was in academics in the early ‘90s, debates (still) raged over the value of soft versus hard sciences, with all the semiotic implications such terminology invited. The “lab-coat wannabes” (as we affectionately called them) in our department were very clear—quant was king and qual was unworthy fuzziness, only employed by those who wished to overthrow the king. Neither they nor their results could be trusted.
When I moved into market research in the mid-to-late 90’s, quant and qual lived in relative harmony, albeit a very siloed harmony. Focus groups and mall intercepts were the way to go if you needed to show your respondents something or talk to them in a more exploratory fashion. In the market research world, unlike academics, sometimes the very same researcher would do both quant and qual. It was shocking! It was, however, very much an either/or situation. The idea that qual could be used to create better quant always sounded good, but was often impractical given the cost and time involved in a dual approach.
Enter online research. The early years were a bit rough. We weren’t entirely sure who we were talking to, but we knew we wanted to show them images and ads. It was great and surveys got fancier as the online programming knowledge in the industry grew. Problem was, there was no way that online open-end responses were ever going to compete with focus group transcripts. The richness, the insights just weren’t there. iModerate tackled this problem with technology, by connecting to respondents in real-time and having one-on-one interviews. In effect, recapturing some of the richness lost in the move to the online world.
Hard to believe that was 10 years ago. iModerate moved beyond the technology to focus on the insights, developing a theoretical underpinning to the approach. In the industry itself, adding some qual to the quant is easier than ever. A quick search of Greenbook’s “hybrid market research” category yields 66 companies.
So where is the industry now, and where are we going? We know we are going mobile. In fact, many insist we’ve already gone there, done deal. We know we are going Big Data and Voice of the Consumer. (Although, in this instance, it feels a bit like we are in a crowded, noisy bar, nodding and smiling b/c we can’t quite hear what is being said; hoping we don’t look as foolish as we feel.) Our industry is at a crossroads where it is not just about hearing the voice of the consumer—it’s about understanding how to listen to that voice. We may have evolved enough to where we can finally use quant to inform our qual—but in a whole new way. We can take the methodology of quant—the repetition, the tracking, the longitudinal nature of it—and apply it to a qualitative approach. Online tracking, continually visiting consumers and having the same basic conversation while making adjustments for events, trends, new learnings—this is what’s going to allow us to truly listen to and understand the voice of the consumer.
Here’s one final reminiscence to illustrate the point. Back in 1998, during the launch of a new focus group facility, one of the first clients was a fast food chain. It was exciting to hear respondents talk about wanting healthier options—it felt like a real finding, qual work in action (what can I say, we were young). The fast food executive’s response? “Yeah, they always say that, but nobody buys the salad.” I think of that sometimes in light of the fast casual revolution and wonder if that executive ever does. To me, this is the best example of something that can’t be seen in a single set of interactions, or measured on a “likelihood to buy” scale. Salad=healthy. People want healthy. Give people salad. But, people didn’t want to buy the salad. They wanted to feel better about what they were eating. They wanted to feel better after eating it. They were in the process of evolving tastes and transitioning needs. Defining and redefining what choices best fit their changing environment. That’s not something that can be captured in single conversation or a 7-point scale. Qual with a little quant—that’s our future. I can’t wait to see what it brings.