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Qualitative and Quantitative Market Research

Rod Davies, Orient Pacific Century - October 2000

Qualitative and Quantitative Market Research: Where the twain meet...

I am often asked to explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research.

The standard answer of course is fairly simple.

Quantitative research deals in numbers, logic and the objective, while qualitative research deals in words, images and the subjective.

Quantitative research focuses on the left brain - objective, comfortable with logic, numbers, and unchanging static data and detailed, convergent reasoning rather than divergent reasoning. Qualitative research deals with the right brain - the hemisphere accountable for processing data as words, emotions, feelings, emotions, colour, and music.

The right brain gets us into trouble; the left brain reasons our way out...

The traditional empirical quantitative technique in market research is the survey questionnaire, administered to a stratified or random sample of a population, enabling us to draw inferences about the behaviour of a whole population from a smaller (and less expensive!) number. The emphasis is on breadth and representativeness.. confidence levels and significance tests and all that... and algorithms to decide the size of sample you need to survey to achieve a certain level of confidence in the representativeness of your conclusions. The census of course surveys all in a population, and the national census data available in many countries samples in theory the whole population.

Many researchers who have been around for a long time had their training and grounding in quantitative analysis. Usually they have a background in social science disciplines (Psychology, Economics, Sociology), which by their academic nature, borrowed techniques from the physical sciences, designed to collect data on natural or physical objects but lacking in the ability to measure the complexity of human (and consumer) behaviour.

But the emphasis on breadth meant that results from quantitative surveys were left lacking in providing the depth required for management questions relating to such subjective issues as customer perception of a product, brand or service. Traditional survey questionnaires are weak at eliciting follow up data from respondents, as they usually require responses pre-categorized by the researcher. Question stemming allows for some deeper data elicitation, but there is a practical limit to the detail of a questionnaire, both limited by field staff competence and respondent patience.

Often managers greeted the receipt of such surveys with the response "So what?". They answer questions related to such issues as market share, predicted revenue, statistical trends and past behaviour of customers well, but decision makers were often left with a hollow feeling. Statistics are good stuff to convince shareholders and internal stake holders that all is well, but they generally don't do a good job at answering questions about human behaviour, perceptions, future behaviour, and involvement with a product. Human beings are complex, subjective, and seemingly precipitous animals, and traditional techniques often don't cut the mustard.

As a result of the need for companies to obtain richer data about their customers, prospective customers, and the market as a whole, qualitative research and it's "killer application" - focus groups, became more in demand.

Other qualitative data collection techniques include depth interviews, in-situe (or spot) interviews, observational techniques such as the mystery shopper, and a host of others best summarized by any introductory market research or advertising research textbook.

Problem fixed yes?

Well, no actually...

While data collection techniques more appropriate for management questions relating to customer motives and perceptions, brand perceptions, and involvement are now better developed, data analysis methodologies have not kept up. The new "So what?" reaction from management is in response to the often very subjective and confused summaries of the mountain of data collected.

For what we are looking at now is not so much mountains of figures, but pages upon pages of focus group or interview transcripts, and millions of feet of videotape. By it's nature qualitative research output is subjective, rich, and unstructured.

Just like the most powerful advertising engages both the left and right hand side of the brain, so the most powerful research must also do the same. Running quantitative research alongside qualitative research offers a synergy whereby objective data can provide a structure to analysis of subjective qualitative data.

Generally quantitative and qualitative research are presented as two separate entities - never the twain to meet...

Yet the smart market researcher these days knows how to combine both kinds of data to provide the most useful and strategically significant reports.

(Next month's column delves further into techniques for merging qualitative and quantitative data.)
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Rod Davies is principal of Orient Pacific Century Market Research, which specialises in market research in Asian markets. Market Research Graffitti is a regular column on issues of interest to the market research community. Contributions are very welcome here.