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In the second of a two-part series, Edward Appleton looks at why qualitative research is undervalued and how we can improve its value perceptions.

Social Media Misses

Many qualitative researchers, even companies, don’t use the simple (and
free) digital opportunities offered by the likes of LinkedIn to raise the
profile of what they’re doing professionally.

On an industry association level, the AQR in the UK does a great job a
mobilizing on events, training stuff, but does it really have a co-ordinated effort
to raise the profile of what it does, via Social Media or otherwise? Of
reaching out to the marketing community? Comments welcome.

Business Acumen – is
that with a c or a k?

It has to be said that many great researchers aren’t great business
people, which was historically a drag on focused growth.

Quallies however are often self-employed, they run their own shops, are mindful
of costs, payment terms and conditions, with a strong bias towards action. So
they are (or should be) business savvy.

But not many have worked on the client side – and so lack a first-hand
understanding of how larger organizations tick.

Relationships with clients do exist of course, including to higher up
echelons – but often on an individual level.

Permeating a client side company with qual inspiration is an
organizational effort that is challenging particularly for one (wo)man bands.

So qual often remains in the category of “explore, understand” – and
lacking the (wo)manpower to really follow-through.

Quallie = Softie?

Which brings us to the core of the piece: qualitative research is perceptually
still at the soft end of things.

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At worst, there are still perceptions of qual being unreliable,
subjective, flaky, with reports (notably in the US) being prefaced by a sort of
health warning – “careful, this is only qual!”

It’s a strange thing – the economic relevance of framed narratives, storytelling
should be clear – messages that go viral are hugely powerful, influencing even
at a government level. It’s not restricted to YouTube, just think of the impact
of Greta Thunberg and the #FridaysForFuture movement.

To borrow from the online blurb on Professor Robert Shiller’s new book
“Narrative Economics”, the stories people
tell affect economic outcomes.

That’s the essence of
what good qual does – sifting, decoding and re-telling stories from all across
the customer and influencer base, framing business challenges in such a way
that clients see things differently, from their customer perspective, warts and

So it really belongs at strategy level.

How to get there? Some thoughts.

Thoughts for a
bulked-up Qual Presence

  • Having powerful voices on your side helps – the academic community
    undoubtedly is influential, best-selling books help.
  • Getting beyond a narrow qual
    perspective is also useful, adopting a joined-up
    – working with all sorts of data sources to fuse them together,
    making broadly informed business recommendations. Is qual full of the type of polyglot
    people to deliver on that? We need more. Larger agencies can take a lead here.
  • Defend our space – we also need to put our brains to work on finding our very own
    human-inspired solutions and approaches to compete differently with the larger
    consultancy firms who are entering the qual space. What really characterizes a
    brilliant qual person – beyond individual charisma – what are the precise
    competences and skills? Can we find our own language that builds bridges from
    the naïve consumer perspective to company-specific jargon and acronyms?
  • On another level: the descriptor “qualitative research” is potentially
    – unqualified, it pigeon-holes suppliers to legacy perceptions: focus
    groups and in-depth interviews. And of course the word “qual” focuses on the
    approach (qual = smaller numbers) rather than outcomes.
  • Maybe pushing AI-powered tools helps reposition qual, as some tech-based
    companies are currently doing – using AI to “scale qual” is an interesting
    avenue, making it quicker, easier to access on a global basis, possibly cheaper
    on a unit level. But is that really qual – which is surely about the power of
    small and thick data?
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Many topics – for future blog posts perhaps. I will rest my pen.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

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