Can Big Research Companies Really Compete in Qualitative?

Many larger Market Research companies struggle with their Qualitative offerings. Yes, they offer strategic entry points to key decision-making moments in the marketing process and are high margin (at least when working properly). Yet Qualitative in its traditional form is hard to scale up, very “ad hoc” in its approach, dependent on a few talented individuals and difficult to integrate into the overall mix of larger Quantitative based business.

"Follow Me To The FGD Room!" Can bigger MR companies ever make a go of Quali?

This leaves senior managers struggling to find ways to extract sufficient value from their investment in the units, and often results in Qualis in bigger businesses feeling left out and under-appreciated. Consequently, there is a widespread belief among many Qualis, clients, and even some senior MR managers that Qualitative is better handled by boutiques. Yet times are changing, and there exists a window where larger companies could regain the initiative and change the way Qualitative is understood and utilised by clients. They’ll need to take some risks and will have to forcibly confront the mythic characterisation of Qualitative research as some sort of free-form performance art. The effort though, will be worthwhile.

Three trends convince me that the time is ripe for bigger companies to rethink the way they approach Qualitative.

1. Online Qualitative. For bigger companies the key benefits of this are not the usually touted ones of speed, graphical capabilities, and cost (although these are useful) but operational implications. The advent of good Online Qualitative platforms provides scalability by making fieldwork, analysis, and recruitment easier to control and integrate into other research processes. Multi-market studies can be handled faster by a smaller team while removing the inconsistencies that have traditionally bedevilled cross-country Qualitative studies. More importantly (and this is a little understood benefit), online Qualitative substantially increases the pool of people who can undertake such research. People with good research and marketing nous, but who lack the traditional interpersonal “face-to-face” moderation skills required in a Focus Group setting can do just fine handling an online project.

2.  Systemisation is Possible. Recently (at least pre-recession) various companies have put more effort into enforcing training standards, templates, output consistency, and unity of business practices on Qualitative units. Companies have set up branded international units to try and drive multi-country business and introduce syndicated services.  At the same time “branded products” (e.g. Needscope, Censydiam, DeltaQual) have attempted with some success to put intellectual and analysis frameworks around the reporting of key types of “soft data”. Many of these efforts are still works in progress, but they show that with proper thought and planning, it is possible to introduce more systematic processes into Qualitative. This makes retention of experience/IP and integration with other services easier, a necessity for bigger companies.

3.  Increasing Client Emphasis on Data Triangulation. Clients increasingly want rich “why data” that integrates with quantitative trend and usage information to tell a complete story. Some of the MR work I’m most proud to have been involved with combined data that was hugely quantitative (from household panels and retail scanning) with in-depth qualitative work specifically designed to uncover the meaning of trends and brand issues.  Bigger companies are well placed to take advantage of this trend to design frameworks that integrate Qualitative insights into their regular work.

So if these three trends offer hope to bigger companies that they can get more out of Qualitative, what do they need to do? Firstly they need to make a real commitment to online Qualitative platforms and think about the training and structures required to make these work. Secondly they need to invest in development and thought on what sort of applications and services are best delivered via Online Qualitative (it is an area that is begging for a “killer app” in my view) and on how they can integrate all their Qualitative services into more cohesive overall offerings.

Almost as importantly though, they need to take leadership in confronting the Guru Mentality that bedevils Qualitative research in our industry. Look, good moderation is important – but it is basically high-level fieldwork, it is not the endpoint for good qualitative. It sometimes seems that the quality of a focus group is judged by the exuberance of the moderator and quantity of comments extracted from participants.  Qualitative is reduced to a form of performance art where what you see is what you get and a great group is one in which a “Quali guru” puts on a great show and later tells a fine story about what he/she observed.  It is like judging great opera by how catchy the ‘tunes’ were. I exaggerate of course, and many good Qualis successfully combine the “moderation craft” with design and analysis talents. But in general the emphasis is on the wrong part of the research process, undermining the value of careful analysis and reporting. This leads to quite a few reports that are little more than superficial and subjective “toplines” and causes enormous inconsistency in studies that cross time and markets.  Not only is this bad practice from any half-decent theoretical perspective, but it focuses clients eyes on the rare “performance talent” of specific senior practitioners over the training systems, frameworks, and analytical consistency that are (or could be) the strengths of bigger firms. It’s in the interest of bigger companies to reposition this emphasis.

But if they did do all this, and revolutionised their approach, would this mean the demise of the smaller operator/independent expert? Actually no, in fact it would revitalise the whole Qualitative industry and open up whole new areas for the boutiques and free-lancers. But that’s another post!


13 Responses to Can Big Research Companies Really Compete in Qualitative?

  1. This was really well done and shows strong thought leadership. Commitment, investment, and integration are the keys to more value and better research! Very useful….

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks Cathy: I’d really like to see mid/large size companies commit to some decent investment in their Quali – both in terms of strategic thinking and R&D. There’s a ot of added value not being realised.

  2. Fiona Cameron says:

    An interersting and timely discussion!!

    My belief is that while there will always be space for boutiques and individual brilliance, qualitative research is strongest when skilled, talented people are supported by systems, quality assurance, knowledge discipline and training offerred by organistions prepared to invest in their product.

    Thanks for getting the discussion going!

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks Fiona: you pretty much sum it up. I’d only say that it’s not just good Qualitative that is nurtured when such investment is made, but that the mid/large companies who do such investment will find that the revamped Quali will nurture them in turn. Quali, done right, could be much more central in driving MR business and client satisfaction than it generally is.

      • Fiona Cameron says:

        Yes indeed. An analogy I like that the qual unit is the MR industy’s “handbags”.

        When women start buying premium brands (LV, Gucci, etc), they often start off by buying a handbag. If the handbag performs, they then move on to other items. Qualitative resarch has a similar door opener/brand builder quality.

  3. Matt Foley says:

    Great post! There are ways to build a systematic process around qualitative that doesn’t rely on the performance art of a guru moderator. However, the boutique approach that dominates the qual side of the industry keeps many large players away from even thinking of ways to better integrate qual into their process. Even if larger players stepped in, the boutique aspect to the industry wouldn’t necessarily go away. It would just cause people to rethink the way they approach qualitative (as you noted).

    Thanks for summing up this important, yet under-addressed, issue in a single blog post 🙂

  4. Great post! As a “quali” that has worked in both large and small firms; and with both offline and online modes – I cannot agree more. Unfortunately, I think leaders of large MR companies see qualitative as a relatively small market (compared to quantitative) and associate it with lower profit margins (again, compared to quantitative). It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the “potential to build a relationship.” However, with better technology and a blending of qualitative and quantitative methods, I think these leaders will start to see their firms simply as problem solvers (regardless of method of solution).

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks Ben/Matt for your pertinent comments. The margins on traditional Qual in the US are probably a bit lower than in most of the world, but in many cases the margins on Quant (at least ad hoc) are even lower! Moreover, if you have a decent Quali unit in a large company then at least as Q4 approaches and you find yourself missing targets you have something you can go out and push hard with reasonable hope of converting to revenue before the year runs out! I think the market size issue is also a bit of an excuse – worldwide it is both big, growing and strategic in terms of client contact – a lot of the “new trends” in MR that are getting a lot of coverage and being discussed in strategy meetings remain way smaller. I think it often just seems too ad hoc, and “messy” and time consuming to deal with. As both of you imply, part of the answer is adopt much more “data-agnostic” approaches to research and try and think about how all your methodologies can be pulled into a set of cohesive solutions to business issues. When you do that you find that Quali can make a huge contribution: not just as a method, but because the skills Quali people learn (synthesis, finding themes, facilitation/workshop expertise etc.) can be wonderfully useful in generating new insights into quantitative findings.

  5. Steve August says:

    Great thinking Alastair. I think the key idea is triangulation – how the pieces of qual, quant, BI and social media fit together to create a true picture of what is going on. This also means that quali’s need to speak quant and vice versa, and all of us should be versed in BI and social media.

  6. Neil Doyle says:

    Hi Alastair – Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    I think your criticism of the guru model is very fair. I would go even further and say the problem is not just with the fieldwork component but even more so with the analysis and presentation. We have all met the great storytellers whose reports though dazzling, somehow seem disconnected from what happened in the groups. Don’t let the data get in the way of a good story!

    Where we might disagree is the role of the individual analyst. For me, the greatness of qual is that leap from ‘what they said’ to ‘what this means for the business’. To make this leap every practitioner has their own smorgasbord of analytical frameworks liberally stolen from a wide range of disciplines; marketing/ ethnography / semiotics/ feminism/ grounded theory/ discourse analysis/ cultural studies/ behavioural psychology etc to name just some. A multi-disciplinary perspective and the ability to apply, typically resides with an individual talent not the system they work within.

    I think the danger of systemising qual is the tendency to focus on a single approach rather than a more fluid, eclectic model. I understand the business reasons for wanting a unified model; IP sits with the company rather than individuals together with efficiencies around branding/ propagation/ training/ etc. But by doing so, we risk losing the essence of what good qual is all about.

    For me, the way forwards would be creating a culture that supports and develops individual researchers. So the challenge becomes not so much about building systems but more about managing talent. From my experience boutiques are more successful at building that kind of ethos than large companies.

  7. Anjali Puri says:

    Great discussion, Alastair. As a ‘big agency quallie’ myself, I definitely see the value of qual belonging in a large organization. Triangulation is the key here, and that is true not just from a client perspective but also with respect to developing and refining qualitative thinking. Being aware of the ‘quant’ dimensions of the issues we are researching helps keep things in perspective and keeps us from going off the edge in terms of the leaps we take or the implications we draw from our data. I have found that working closely with quant colleagues has helped me ground creativity with marketing realities – and that could only come from have the bigger perspective that, for example, panel or audit data provides.

    I am not sure we can get completely away from qual gurus, though – even with processes and ‘models’ in place, although models do help get beyond the clamor for senior moderators and the preoccupation with what goes on in the focus group. But good qual will always be much more dependent on good people than quant is, and the need for senior people in the system will continue to make it difficult to scale up qual beyond a point. The solution is to not evaluate qual as an independant revenue stream but to look at it in terms of what it can do for the rest of the business – and use senior qual resources selectively in areas where they would yield the maximum value.

    I do agree with the importance of online qual .. not so much in terms of traditional focus groups done online, but in terms of using the digital space imaginatively. There is so much exciting work we see today in digital ethnography and social media, and this is really where the future of online qual lies

  8. Good, clear insights Alastair. I’ve often wondered about the standard of qualitative research at larger companies. Let’s face it, QR is booming and the bigger agencies will need to secure their stake in this industry or the work will all go to the boutiques and independents. I think this is what is happening right now as there appear to be a significant increase in advertised roles in recent months.

    However, there is a staggering amount and variety of technology available to smaller outfits and independent consultants, and I think this threatens the middle management in larger companies. If you don’t use something ‘off-the-shelf’ then there are plenty of software developers around!

    As well as the points on triangulation, I think the other key thing is recruitment and as long as your participants match the research you can achieve the best insight for your client. Yes, there are some amazing things happening in the world of apps and I definitely agree the qualitative arena is crying out for something.

    Martyn (also at

  9. great article. I became more and more excited to learn about qualitative research
    best regards

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