Why In-Person Qualitative Is More Important Than Ever

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Say you wanted to have a heart-to-hearty with your partner about the future of your relationship. Would you text her to tell you how you feel and see how she responds? Would you call her during a five-minute break from work to check that “Have the Save the Relationship Talk” conversation off your to-do list as to not interfere with watching Monday Night Football when you get home? Or maybe you’d just send her a questionnaire via email.

“My relationship with you is important to me! Please take two minutes to fill out the following questionnaire to answer a few short questions so I can better understand how to be with you.”

Really? When the stakes are high and the future of a serious relationship hangs in the balance, wouldn’t you want to set an environment and tone that would best set the stage for deep, meaningful conversation? Both parties should feel comfortable and respected. Most important, they’d want to feel as if they are truly being seen and heard.

It’s no different in marketing, which at its most basic level is about relationships between consumers and brands. If you want to have a deep, meaningful conversation, it’s best to do it in person. Not online. In person, face-to-face.

People want to talk. With great regularity, respondents come up to me at the conclusion of interviews or focus groups to say, “That was like being in therapy.” That’s the point. Your snack chip or software might not rank up there with climate change, fear of nuclear disaster or economic stress, but it does play a role in the lives of your customers. They not only want to tell you all about it, but most are also ready to reveal who they are in the process.

Respondents are the stars of the show in qualitative research and they love it. How often does anyone in their lives sit down with them for an hour or two just to find about how they feel? Seldom or never so it seems. Make them the center of attention and they’ll tell you their secrets. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard! Respondents tell me things their spouses and best friends don’t know. When you get people to tell you their stories – related to your product or not – you’re going to understand them on an entirely different level.

It’s just not the same as taking a survey, especially from those annoying emails we get after nearly every commercial interaction, from buying new tires to going to the doctor.

This week I ordered a small accessory, a magnetic clip to attach my phone to my MacBook so that I could use it as a camera for Zoom meetings. I had to pre-pay and make an appointment at my local Apple Store to pick it up. A day later, I got an email:

“How’d Francisco do? Rate your shopping experience at the Apple Store. Select your rating, then continue taking the survey.”

How hard is it for a guy to pick up an item that’s been pre-ordered and pre-paid, sitting in a marked space for pick up, and hand it over to a customer who has checked in and directed to a designated waiting area? Apple is not only being disrespectful of my time, they are misguided. Rather than ask me about Francisco, they might want to know how much my relationship with their brand erodes every time they relentlessly question every single interaction I have with it.

Want to know what I really think about your products and services? Maybe ask nicely and offer to compensate me (not a drawing for a $5 Starbucks gift card!) for my time. Even then, I’d still have to sit by myself in front of my device of choice and slog through a list of questions that can be boring or confusing. Not really fun and highly impersonal. I’m just another number, not a human being, wading my way through questions like a junior high school student who can’t wait to finish his homework.

Contrast that with sitting across from a real person who looks you in the eye and demonstrates real interest. In which situationWhere are you going to be more likely to spill your guts?

Moreover, as a marketer and a human being, I’m generally more interested in feelings than in the facts turned up by quantitative work and big data. If you’re Hilton, actively scrubbing travel websites, blogs, customer email, etc., it’s wonderful to know that you’ve got a problem with rooms not being as clean as they could be in Baltimore or unfriendly front desk hosts anywhere. Those data are great to discover, but it’s kind of the equivalent of your partner sending a text saying that he’s running late. Important information, but it’s not going to reset the relationship if things have already gone south.

Innovative technology and scholarship have blessed us with an ever-growing, wide range of effective research tools. I have a great appreciation for insightful quantitative work and my work over the years has leveraged the benefits of well-designed and well-analyzed metrics. Still, it’s always critical to match marketing needs with the best tools for the job.

If you’re going to tackle the big issues of understanding the relationship dynamics of customers and brands, it’s qualitative work that’s going to make the biggest difference. It gives you the why in very personal terms. Ever heard of a marriage counselor or therapist opting for questionnaires over talk? Showing that you care will almost always generate deeper, more authentic, truly human insights. There is no better way penetrate the aspirations, fears, values, and practical needs of your customers as deeply as possible.

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