For my conference paper, with other researchers I interviewed 26 clients in six countries: France, UK, China, Australia, Brazil and the US.
The key trends in qualitative research methods, according to these clients, were:
• more online qual, eg panels and communities;
• more behavioural focus (observation, user-generated content);
• other forms of face-to-face than focus groups, eg workshops, direct interaction between clients and consumers (‘co-creation’ methods).
However at its heart the qualitative inquiry was still based on core skills such as curiosity and empathy:
“The fundamentals have not changed. The basic skill is (still) about wondering why people do what they do.” (UK client)
“be wide-eyed and curious”. (Australian client)
Of course, in the world of qualitative research methods, one method is disproportionately represented, which is the focus group discussion.
Focus groups as partial conversations
Focus groups were first used in 1941 by Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton at Columbia University to examine the impact of media on people’s attitudes towards the involvement of the United States in World War II.
If you believed what you heard within marketing services nowadays, you’d think that ‘doing focus groups’ was to marketing what ‘using leeches’ was to modern medicine.
So when Diageo launched its 2012 Consumer Planning Team manifesto ‘Say No to Focus Groups’ what it really meant was, ‘say no to doing qualitative research badly for the wrong reasons’.
The qualitative inquiry clearly lends itself extremely well to face-to-face conversations, which I would call our spiritual home in methodological terms, the source of our power and purpose.
But qualitative researchers have become so associated with focus groups that this gets in the way of clients seeing the real power of the qualitative inquiry.
A focus group is actually well suited for tackling issues within the client agenda, for which it was designed (waging war being perhaps the ultimate client agenda).
A focus group is well suited for tackling issues within the client agenda, for which it was designed (waging war being perhaps the ultimate client agenda). But focus groups are less well suited for exploring consumers’/citizens’ interests.
Being so closely associated with focus groups makes us like gardeners who are only ever seen working in a greenhouse. Isn’t it time for us to explore further the garden outside the greenhouse, then hop over the wall and take a walk on the wild side beyond?
I think this is what clients want us to do, to be braver and bolder and to go where our skills take us, to get further into consumers’ experience. So after Rome I decided to do an experiment into research using ‘real conversations’.
“In today’s two-way conversational world with brands and consumers … we need a variety of things to say (and) … we need to relinquish some of the control in brand communication.”
So if the new marketing agenda is all about a genuine conversation with consumers, in order to find out what is worth saying and sharing, how can research tap into ‘real conversations’?
There is a range of conversation types, from completely natural (‘wild’) to those that are more familiar, structured and artificially-induced:
1. conversations overheard/eavesdropping
2. naturally-occurring conversations
3. invited conversations with real people
4. loosely structured, invited conversations with respondents
5. tightly structured Q&A with respondents
‘People’s history’ is a hot topic right now, building up a picture of society from naturally occurring or invited real conversations, as in the BBC’s Listening Project which is based on StoryCorps in the USA.
Studs Terkel, ‘the world’s greatest interviewer’, was a famous gatherer of people’s stories across America. He believed that "everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say”.
In Don’t Log Off, journalist Alan Dein talks to random people on the internet and has some surprisingly intimate and deep conversations.
Spurred on by such activities, I set up an experiment last summer in Borough Market, called the Listening Post. Where could an unplanned, impromptu conversation with members of the public possibly go?
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED IN THE NEXT, FINAL EPISODE!
(This post is based on AQR's In Depth paper, Autumn 2012)