Listening to What’s Said and Unsaid: The Value of In-Person Qualitative

Listening to What’s Said and Unsaid: The Value of In-Person Qualitative

We live in a world where technologies like mobile apps, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming commonplace, and the world of marketing research is certainly not immune to it. For instance, mobile surveys using apps to collect data rather than via web connections are becoming more prevalent. IoT technologies like geofencing can trigger survey invitations to respondents based on their location and collect real-time feedback during a customer experience. Online surveys are starting to use AI features like chatbots to probe respondents on specific details to their open-end responses. Even focus group research can now be conducted online, often providing time and cost savings over in-person qualitative research.

However, despite all these technological advances, in-person focus groups and in-depth interviews account for the highest proportion of qualitative methods being used (41%), according to the latest GRIT report. Why is it that so many companies are still conducting what might be considered ‘old-fashioned,’ face-to-face qualitative research? It has to do with the fact that in-person research delivers immense value when it comes to tapping into consumers’ emotions and uncovering ways brands can deepen personal connections with their consumers.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Research suggests that up to 55% of communication is through body language, which means a lot of insight might be missed during phone interviews or online discussions. Online discussions through Skype or WebEx add a visual component, which helps, but these platforms are not something that most consumers are used to, particularly those older than Millennials. As a result, respondents may not behave as naturally as they would in person. Also, depending on camera placement or quality, non-verbal cues can be missed, like someone crossing their arms or tensing up when they disagree with a statement. One of the essential benefits of body language is to alert the observer when there is a disconnect between stated information and true, underlying feelings.

When done well, in-person discussions make sure respondents feel comfortable sharing their true feelings, even when they are contrary to others in the group. Experienced moderators know to pay attention to respondents’ body language as much, if not more, than the words that they say. Often, these visual cues are what prompt the moderator to probe on a key discussion point leading to a deeper understanding. For example, if a new concept description is read during a focus group, a moderator may notice a respondent shift slightly back in their seat with a skeptical look on their face. Even if all the comments given by the group are favorable, a skillful moderator can gently probe into this potential hesitation to identify red flags that might have been missed if the research had been conducted through a different methodology.

More natural group dynamics

Anyone who’s been on a group conference call with people you’ve never met before knows they can be challenging. Without the benefit of visual cues, participants may find it hard to find the right time to jump in and share an observation or ask a question. Even in online focus groups, where respondents are on web cameras, it’s not always easy to sense when people are trying to talk, which can stifle the group dynamics that give focus groups their richness.

With in-person focus groups, participants can engage more naturally with each other as well as with products or other stimulus being tested. Visual cues observed by the moderator can be extremely telling. For instance, noticing how easily or awkwardly respondents handle a product prototype, or facial expressions when watching advertising concepts can help a moderator draw out important feedback that might otherwise be left unsaid. When conducting projective techniques to elicit brand associations and perceptions in positioning research, recognizing natural group consensus, or lack thereof, is an important part of assessing the feedback. In each of these scenarios, the value of the research outcomes and the effectiveness of the business decisions based on the findings are enhanced by incorporating non-verbal communication.

Engage the Back Room

But not all the value from in-person focus groups happens on the respondents’ side of the mirror. True learnings can emerge from the clients’ side when everyone is engaged and actively listening. To make in-person research most effective, observers can be given the assignment to watch and listen for emotional reactions to new ideas, unexpected or surprising feedback, confirmation of current hypotheses, celebrations, red flags, or opportunities for follow-up questions. Discussing with the moderator what was seen and heard, soon after the research, will maximize the value of the research and lead to a deeper understanding of the consumer experience and new opportunities for growth.

Find the Right Solution to Fit Your Need

The variety of qualitative research techniques available means that there is a solution for every research need and budget. However, whenever feasible, consider incorporating in-person qualitative research, particularly when your objective is to better understand the emotional aspects of consumers’ reactions and perceptions. Qualitative studies that explore the feelings and motivations underlying consumer attitudes and behaviors benefit most from in-person research. Capturing the full spectrum of verbal, and non-verbal communication can bring a depth and richness to the research, identifying insights that might not be otherwise uncovered.


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