Last week I was luck enough to join Bigeye, a US-based creative agency, on a podcast to explore qualitative marketing research agency tools and techniques for creating engaging online focus groups.
We talked about how qualitative research differs from quantitative and the benefits of asynchronous market research online communities, or MROCs, compared to in-person research. We also discussed the differences between North American and European approaches to marketing research and the continuing impact of COVID-19 on consumers’ lives.
If you haven’t heard it then here’s the transcript. I hope you enjoy it.
Bigeye: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Bigeye VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. In today’s technology-enabled advertising and marketing industry, increasingly focused on big data, artificial intelligence tools, and applications of machine learning, the role of human-based insights is still important. Writing in the Market Research Society’s Yearbook, John Gambles of Quadrangle Research Group describes what he sees as the symbiotic relationship between research and data. Quote: “Data give us the hard numbers to put against a research-derived understanding of people and their behaviors. Data are brilliant in answering the who, what, and how much questions relating to behavior, but only research can get to the why. Research – and particularly qualitative research – enables us to explore and explain the motivations, expectations, attitudes, value sets, and beliefs that sit behind and drive people’s behaviors; and from this, to work out how we can best impact their future behavior.” End quote. To discuss the role of qualitative research in the development of advertising and marketing communications, I’m joined today by Stephen Cribbett, the founder of two research firms: Further, and Versiti. Stephen is also an advisor and investor in Signoi, a data analytics platform. Stephen has pioneered technology-enabled qualitative research and human insight. With over 20 years experience in building consumer brands, working as a brand and design consultant, Stephen has helped build such prestigious retail and consumer brands, including Shell, Harrods, Orange, Emirates, Logitech, Phillips, and KPN Telekom. We’re also joined by Terri Sorenson, Further’s Client Success Manager for North America. Terri provides support, training, guidance, and inspiration to Further’s clients. With over 10 years of marketing experience, including time spent working with research companies like J.D. Power, Escalate, MMR, and Kantar, Terri provides customer service of the highest caliber. She works throughout client projects, finding the most effective ways to use Further’s technology to engage consumers in research Welcome, Stephen and Terri to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Stephen Cribbett: Hello, Adrian!
Terri Sorenson: Adrian, I’m happy to be here.
Bigeye: Stephen, you’re the founder and CEO of Further. Could you explain what the company does?
Stephen Cribbett: We tend to think that we put ourselves or our clients in the real world. So really that’s giving the agency staff that we work with or the corporate clients that we work with a really in-depth look, and emotion into the lives of consumers and their everyday lives and the complexities and the context, the really shaping the way that they behave. The way that we do that is really combining technology but also research and engagement skills and techniques to understand why people are doing what they’re doing. Obviously what they’re doing first and foremost, and trying to unpack that in terms of the sort of conscious and unconscious thinking and behaviors. So, what is the kind of difference between the emotional response and the rationalized response? And rather than directly asking clients questions, why they do what they do, it’s actually using our social psychology skills of the teams that we’ve got and obviously the technology that we deploy to understand those behaviors. And a lot of that really feeds into the development of new products and services or essentially the new brand propositions.
Bigeye: What led you to found Further?
Stephen Cribbett: So my background was actually in design and branding. so I worked with a number of very well-known agencies and consultants here in the UK. and what I sort of felt over the years and, and this I think is a sort of a bygone era really, but a lot of the strategic work that they were doing, wasn’t really informed by consumer insight. It was creative thinking, but creativity in its purest form back in those days. So there was often a Creative Director that headed up the agencies and it was just their ideas. It was almost like commercial art back in those days. and I, and I felt there was kind of a better way to exist as an agency. That consumer insight needed to be something very foundational in all of the work that was being done. So after spending probably about 10 years of my career working in that space, I found myself involved with an innovation consultancy here in the UK. And this was really at the time when social networks were just emerging. I mean, I can really remember the time when this whisper of Twitter was kind of floating around and people were like, “well, what is this thing? What, what, what does this mean for the future?” It was very new, it was fundamentally changing the way people were connecting and communicating. And from that moment on, what we decided to do at that time was to use some of these social networking behaviors and obviously the technologies that were available at the time, which was very limited bearing in mind. So I think there was a platform called Blogger that we kind of hacked together and used to start to have conversations with consumers. And these were often very advanced consumers because the mainstream consumer wasn’t using Twitter and we weren’t using these social networking platforms at the time. So it was a way of reaching out and engaging these early adopters to understand what they were doing in their lives, how they were using the technology. And of course it was a fantastic alternative to jumping on an airplane and traveling all the way around the world, at great cost, and, and with a great carbon footprint, to understand their lives and lifestyles. And so that was really the start of it. And that’s what led me to developing Further as a business harnessing that technology and then making that technology more widely available to lots of other researchers and strategists around the world.
Bigeye: Right. It’s interesting, you characterize that as a technology-driven company, but I know you call Further a human insight company. Why that positioning statement?
Stephen Cribbett: Technology really is just an enabler. It’s a tool. and the same goes for our technology. You can use it in many, many different ways. And so what we found is we spent as much time training researchers on how to use it and training them in this new world of online qualitative research as we did just licensing the technology. And so fundamentally at the heart of this is understanding how to collect the data, how to analyze that data, and how to identify what is real human insight, what is something that is going to change the direction or the decision making that business is on, or that might lead to a new way of thinking. And so for us human insight, it’s very much about people. It’s about the relationships they have with products and services and environments and other people.
Bigeye: I once had the pleasure of speaking with Wendy Gordon, I think she’s considered the doyenne of quantitative research in the UK. Now she shared with me that throughout her career, she had observed a consistent client bias toward quantitative data and a corresponding distrust of qualitative insights. Has that been your experience?
Stephen Cribbett: Well, I know Wendy. I mean, that’s a great way to frame it. I think the human insight for me, or qualitative insight or consumer insight, is fraught with difficulty. It’s fraught with tension and challenge. I think we have to grapple with clients often. I don’t mean that in a sort of hostile relationship, but I think you need that tension to really unearth the kind of insight that gives clients the ability to move forward and understand what’s next or what the opportunity is. I think qualitative research for me is seeing a real Renaissance in the last five or so years, certainly as a response to big data, which has left clients still wanting and still searching for the answers. It hasn’t got anywhere near telling them why people are doing what they’re doing. It’s given them the ability to see what they’re doing, but in a way that lack of training has meant that they just keep coming back, wanting to know, “Why is that happening?” So for us, definitely it’s a good time to be in qualitative research and online qual in particular. And I think real insight, which on the qualitative spectrum can come from an interaction with one person, there’s never a better time to be doing it.
Bigeye: Terri, what are the most common misconceptions prospective clients have about qualitative research as opposed to quantitative?
Terri Sorenson: That’s a really good question. So we find, especially in the online space, that there is the misconception that an online qualitative research study is lower in costs and reduced time. The costs, if you’re traveling, of course, there’s no travel costs in an online qualitative research study. However, the costs for recruitment, the cost for time, for your moderators, for analysis, all of that is still applicable. And I would even say sometimes the amount of time a researcher puts into an online qualitative research study is possibly more because you’ll find participants in the studies that share quite a bit of detail and their responses are quite in-depth. So there’s increased time to go through those responses. As well, another myth or misconception I would have to say is that online qualitative, there is reduced effort in their moderation. So from the researcher’s perspective, it’s not a start and hit go and everything just comes in. You need to be engaged in those online qualitative studies, just as much as you would be if you were in-person and to allow – to really get out those insights from the participants that are taking part in this study. So again, being engaged, and being present within the online environment within your online qualitative study allows you to establish rapport with your participants and really get to know them in order to dig deep into those insights.
Bigeye: What types of projects is quantitative research especially well suited for?
Stephen Cribbett: I mean a lot of what we do and, and I think this is where qualitative research in the online version works really, really well is exploratory research. So the ability to spend time immersing oneself within consumers’ lives, over a short period of time, is exceptionally strong. And that means for us that we can often get through two or three different phases of work, starting with some exploration and consumer immersion, then developing some ideas and, and testing and evaluating those ideas with consumers. that works really, really well. I would say as an alternative to doing focus groups where you’ve got a very limited amount of time with the consumer, often highly scripted as well, online qual gives you that space and ability to meander, with consumers and to go off-piste. And so again, the skill of the moderator in that instance is to be prepared for that and to follow the ebbs and flows of the conversations and the dialogues that are happening. so I’d say the exploratory research is really, really good. I know Terri has been working on a couple of different areas recently as well, that I think, the online qual, lends itself to particularly well.
Terri Sorenson: Yeah, so recently we’ve seen an uptick in in-home product testing. So there’s been a lot of focus on getting to see that product in the home environment then immersing with the consumers or the users over that short given period of time, say a week with the product. Getting to know their perceptions of, initial reactions and what the experience is like over that given time. So that’s one area we’ve seen a bit of an uptick in, as well. We do see a bit, customer experience type of research, finding those gaps in the service that companies or brands are offering, are another great usage of online qualitative solutions.
Bigeye: Can you tell us a bit about what the platform offers researchers?
Terri Sorenson: So Together is an activity-based platform. Researchers are able to engage with the consumers and the participants in a variety of different activity types. They can be activities such as a blog or a markup kind of activity for a concept test. They can track participants with daily habits through diary activities. you can send them on shopping missions, have participants upload photos of their experience in the store or photos or videos as well. So there’s a variety of activities that the researcher can engage with the participants in. There’s open discussion forums, collaboration or co-creation type activities, and participants can come up with their own new ideas for a product. And then, you run with that as the researcher to further develop what it is that the participants or these consumers are looking for. It’s a great way to allow the group as a whole to collaborate together. We also have a small bit of quant in our world of qual, allowing them to dig deeper into some concept testing, using survey-type activities as well. And then, from a researcher’s perspective, we have some analysis tools built in the backend that allow them to – when they’re uncovering those insights – be able to tag and really interact with that data for their future analysis.
Bigeye: How do clients monitor the research as it’s taking place?
Terri Sorenson: Yeah. So the Together platform allows you as the data is coming in, allows you, of course, to see the responses and everything taking place. You can then, as a researcher, you are able to then what we call probe the participants or join in the conversation with the participants. As well, you can at any time of course, download the transcripts and work with it offline if you wanted. And you can also invite your end clients to come in and view the discussions that are taking part within the platform as well.
Stephen Cribbett: Probably the simplest way of describing the platform – it’s like a professional Facebook platform. So you log on and see these conversations happening in real time. You see all of the data, the videos, the events and the moments that are being shared, and it is quite exciting. Often it can be quite addictive once you start looking into those. And, we get to see all manner of things taking place, and sometimes some really interesting relationships starting to form within these communities as well.
Bigeye: Now, for anyone considering undertaking the very first online qualitative project, do you have some top tips for success that you could share?
Stephen Cribbett: Oh, good question. First and foremost, I think it’s important not to think like this is an alternative to a focus group and just lift a focus group discussion. So, we try to encourage the clients or the researchers that are using the technology, not to over-script all of the interactions and the task and activities with the clients. I think it’s important to allow that space and time for your participants to go off-piste and to share things outside of the realms of the project, because often that will shape their thinking and their approach. So those are really important. I think also when you are incentivizing and rewarding people for their participation, of course, these research respondents, they get paid some money to participate in these activities, but I think you need to go deeper and think about some of the more social and emotional rewards and incentives to participation for these people. You should recruit them on an attitudinal basis rather than just kind of the demographics. So think about how they might be interesting and interested in the project itself. What can they bring to the table that you might not otherwise get. And think about how to encourage them to interact and hang out with each other sometimes because that does lead to the sharing of different thoughts, different attitudes, and perceptions. So I think those are some of the sort of the very top-line tips alongside just being creative. I think a lot of the time that we spend with our clients is helping them think creatively about what’s possible with the tools that they have at their disposal, rather than seeing the technology is a barrier. See it as an enabler and think differently about how you might elicit the types of responses that you want. But Terri, I know you spend a lot of time guiding clients on these things and giving them the kind of, quick start programs that we have. What would you see as the most pertinent advice that you gave on a daily basis?
Terri Sorenson: Yeah. So on a daily basis, I would say, that the best advice is to know your technology and trust in your technology partner. Part of that is because yes, we offer an online qualitative platform, but we are invested in what we do here at Further, and we help our clients to learn the technology, to use it to its best advantage in order to gain their insights. Take time to learn that technology. So, play around with the software before you begin developing your guide, know what tools are available to you. And as Stephen said, one of the most important things is to be creative. Don’t just design a question-answer response type of research study. Because in all honesty, you can do that in an online survey. Get creative with your research design itself.
Bigeye: Further has offices in the UK and of course, North America. Do you see any significant differences between European clients’ approaches to market research and the way North American clients work?
Terri Sorenson: So from my perspective, the research methodologies are quite similar. A large number of our clients do global research. So what’s being done in the UK versus the US are very similar in their approach. I do believe there’s a bit of cultural difference between the actual research design, compared to London and the US. And by that, I mean, I see a lot more fluid or holistic approach to research design from our London clients compared to a more rigid or structured approach to the research design in the US. Meaning there’s a lot more of the direct question, direct response type approach versus allowing research design such as when wanting to uncover their feelings or perceptions about a particular experience or brand. Creating and designing the activity in a way of, “Here’s some things to think about. Then we would like you to share your experience with this” compared to, “Alright. I want to know, when did you last use this? How was that experience with it?” Those direct, question-answer responses. So I feel like there’s a little more of a human element when it comes to the London clients, whereas I find a lot more desire for automation, quick responses from the North American clients.
Stephen Cribbett: I think what we’re seeing at the moment is there is an appetite, specifically as well for a lot of the North American clients to go through this kind of learn, test, and develop sort of process really that’s sort of three-stage approach. So they seem more willing to be using online methods to cycle through that really quickly with far-reaching audiences. And that’s really exciting for us. I think a little bit more of the work that we do in Europe at the moment is just purely on that kind of initial phase, that learning or insight phase. I’m not sure at the moment whether that’s just a cultural shift or that’s just by happy accident by the type of clients that we work with in the different regions.
Bigeye: Bigeye is an audience-focused agency and a lot of our engagements start with segmentation studies and the creation of personas, typically based on customer segments. I know you recently worked on a project for a UK-based pet insurance company called Waggle. Did you use Together for that?
Stephen Cribbett: Yeah, we did. And, and pretty much all of the work that we do, we use Together either standalone or combined with other methods. Most of the projects that we do will have some form of online qual. So for that particular project, which was a great piece of work actually, because it was a very disruptive insurance technology company that came to us, wanting some help, at a very, very early stage of their development.
Bigeye: How did you recruit the participants for that study?
Stephen Cribbett: I’d say the majority of the projects that we work on, we tend to do what’s called qualitative recruitment or “free findings.” So we don’t use panels. We tend to need to find people with very specific behaviors. So we have to look a little bit harder for them. So we work with specialist fieldwork companies who will go out there and through databases and calls and interviews with people find those customers or those consumers for us. Sometimes we combine that with screening customer data lists that they’ve got. So they might feel confident they already have the people in the database that they want to talk to. But I think for the Waggle project, we wanted to talk to almost non-customers as well as a smattering of customers and bearing in mind, this was a very young business. At the time I think it was a minimum viable product when we started working with them and they only had about 70 different customers. So we had to recruit non-customers who were prospective buyers of their insurance products and services.
Bigeye: What kinds of tasks did you set within Together for the participants?
Stephen Cribbett: Because of the subject matter, it was really to understand the journey through kind of owning pets, and dogs in particular. I think it was a focus for us. So this was looking at Millennials who were making a very conscious decision not to get married sometimes or not to have children, but to retain a little bit more independence in their life, but to have a companion alongside them. So fascinating subject matter and some really interesting psychology behind that. So, like most projects, we tend to do what we call icebreakers or tasks which get the consumer to introduce themselves, talk to us a little bit about their lives, their lifestyles. We might get them to show us around their home using video ethnography. They might introduce us to their pets if they had some pets, obviously some of them weren’t pet owners, but they were at an early stage of doing some research into different types of animals or, or even just looking into whether or not they should have a pet. So we would do those ice breaking tasks. We did some word association tasks that invited participants to write down a series of words that they would associate with being a dog owner. So that’s a really nice way of eliciting kind of uncrossed, unconscious thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes we get them to use diaries and journaling exercises for those who did have pets to detail their journey and experiences of ownership of dogs, including the highs and lows on a regular basis. And sometimes those really simple journaling exercises uncover a huge amount and they get their participants to reflect on things that sometimes they don’t stop and think about. So, those tend to those kinds of direct sizes tend to form a lot of the projects we did. We did some projective techniques. We put the dog owner in the shoes of their dogs and we said, “What would your dog say about, you as the owner? How do you think they would describe you?” And they’re really fun, they get people really enjoying the activities. And again, this is this idea of thinking slightly differently. And then from that we developed some ideas and we developed a proposition, and then we tested that proposition with them through group discussions, getting them to rank and rate what they liked and disliked in both a qualitative and quantitative aspect. And then very much at the end – and this is a really good type of exercise that works very, very well online – we got them to record a message to the CEO of the company, asking them to tell them what they thought of their proposition. So it’s very personal, then it becomes very human. And sometimes the way they articulate that message to them. It’s fascinating and really loaded with insight. So that hopefully gives you a bit of an example of the different ways we go about it.
Bigeye: How long were participants engaged with the research study?
Stephen Cribbett: In that particular instance, I mean, that was all done in five days. So you can cycle through this quite quickly. Really all you’re asking for is somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes of the participants’ time a day. And that, and that’s obviously what they’re recruited for on the basis of and incentivized to take part at that level. And often they go well beyond that. With a subject matter like dogs and pets, you can imagine people love to talk about it and love to talk about their experience, and they’re excited about it. When you get a very sticky subject like that, it’s amazing how long they will talk or what they will share with you. I mean, sometimes, if they’re just writing down their thoughts, people will write essays, they will go to great lengths and really enjoy doing it. It’s often a very cathartic experience for the participants and we get them thanking us at the end for, enabling them to share these things with us and to, to open up their own minds and think in different ways.
Bigeye: In what ways should researchers approach the analysis of data in online qual?
Stephen Cribbett: That’s a good, good question, actually. Don’t wait for all of the data to be collected and then start to do your analysis. We talk and encourage people to think about what we call rolling analysis. So, follow the threads and the discussions and the data that’s being collected on a daily basis, and tag it as it’s coming in. And, you could pre-agree with your team what those tags are as a taxonomy, but actually you could develop a folksonomy as the project is evolving. So you might have your own personal tags that you’re using to organize and cluster the data as it’s being collected and then have a sort of more pre-agreed structure to that, that you can use as well. But I’d say what tends to happen if you’re doing rolling analysis, obviously you’re covering a lot of ground over the course of those five days. It sometimes depends on the nature of the data that’s being shared. So if it’s video intensive – if you’re asking the consumer to share a lot of video with you – and film, that can take a little bit longer to cycle through that. And so we might also be doing transcriptions, we might be doing some automated analysis on the transcriptions as well. That’s something that happens from time to time. But one of the things we find with call researchers is they’re different. Everybody has their own personal way of dealing with this sort of volume of data and analysis. And that I think is really exciting for us. That’s why we’re always learning new things from our clients. And hopefully our clients are learning things from us and we’re able to share all of these learnings, with the sort of the researchers and the strategists and the marketers that we work with.
Bigeye: Terri, what are some of the most common types of research assignments you find yourself handling right now?
Terri Sorenson: A lot of concept testing is going on right now, brand proposition statement testing as well as in-product home placement research, design studies. So, yeah, we have a lot of diary-type studies where, with COVID-19, we’re learning how are people adjusting to this? How is this impacting them? Not only in terms of work, but more of their mental functioning or ability health, their physical health. We have a project that’s launching next week that focuses on what masculinity means in terms of COVID-19, which is going to be a very interesting research study. And I’m looking forward to observing it from my point of view. They’re looking at how does this impacts beyond just being locked down at home, what’s the bigger consequences of COVID-19 and whether it’s shelter in place or lockdown and how it’s impacting culture and society as a whole. And we’re also seeing a lot of food and beverage companies right now conducting online qualitative research. Again, as when you’re thinking of with COVID-19 in mind, we’re staying home or cooking more. So researchers have really kind of jumped in, or brands, on what are they doing? How are they, are they changing their habits? What are those habits that have changed in terms of their home life and their relationship to food and cooking?
Bigeye: Finally, if listeners would like to learn more about Further’s research services or the Together online qualitative platform, where can they find resources?
Stephen Cribbett: So we’ve got a whole series of downloadable resources on our website. Adrian, if you go to www. go-further/resources, there’s lots of downloadable templates that researchers can customize to launch and use on their projects. We also publish a lot of thoughts and findings on our blog as well, which you’ll find on our website.
Bigeye: And of course we’ll include a link to those on our website too. Stephen and Terri, thank you both very much for being our guests on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Stephen Cribbett: Thank you.
Terri Sorenson: Thank you, Adrian.
Bigeye: My thanks to our guests this week from Further: founder and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Cribbett, and Further’s North American Client Success Manager, Terri Sorenson. You can find a transcript of our conversation along with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Bigeye. Until next time, goodbye.