Five signs you’ve got a nightmare qualitative research client (and how not to be one)

Published 21 Jan 2021 12 minute read

Online qual
Online qual

We’ve all been there. You get an enquiry about an online qualitative project from a new client and you eagerly take it on. However, from the first meeting, you start to notice the red flags. The more you talk to the client, the more you realise that this project is going to be difficult and you are at risk of going over time, over budget and disappointing your client. This is usually nobody’s fault; it is often a mismatch of expectations and reality, and there are steps you can take to prevent these situations arising.

Here’s five warning signs to watch out for, together with tips to turn your nightmares into dream projects.

  1. There is no written brief. If the client says “We want to build a research community” or “We need to do some qual,” but can’t really tell you why, a great way to focus their minds is to ask them to write a more detailed brief. Sometimes clients haven’t thought further than having an always on source of insight available for whatever projects may come up later on. They may also not have considered the difference between asynchronous and real-time research methods, so a brief will help you to recommend the most appropriate approach.

    A brief protects both client and supplier as it ties down the objectives of the project, prevents ‘scope creep’ and gives you a way of judging whether the project has been a success. We have a template here that shows what should be included in a research brief.

    It’s also important to ensure that all of the stakeholders’ views are included. If you don’t have all the stakeholders in the room for the scoping meeting, you can be led astray by the opinions and assumptions of those that are present. Circulating a written brief is a great way to get everyone to sign off on the project.

  2. The brief is too prescriptive. The converse is that sometimes clients have a far too prescriptive idea of how to conduct the research. If they have specified that the sample needs to be people aged 25-30, who only own one dog, and whose dog only eats dry food, you may wish to challenge them. It’s not just that they may not be aware how difficult that demographic will be to recruit, but more to the point, they may not have thought through exactly why it matters.

    A conversation in advance, may open them up to the insight they will get from including a wider pool of participants. For example, they may not have considered that owners of dogs that eat pouch food would have a lot to contribute about why they don’t buy dry food; that owners of more than one dog might have different issues around feeding; or that other age groups might also be relevant.

    Similarly, if they have given detailed descriptions of the activities they want the group to complete, they may be open to a more fluid way of going about the research. For example, if they have said they want participants to measure out exactly 50g of dry food for their dog, then count how many individual pellets are left after they finish eating, then answer a list of 30 questions, you could suggest that participants just film their dog having dinner; a more creative qualitative approach may yield all sorts of unexpected findings and will be of more value in the long run.

  3. The brief doesn’t fit how people live. A common issue we encounter is that while successful brands are constantly seeking to understand how they and their products fit into people’s lives, they don’t always consider how the research itself can work withi the context of their audiences lives. In the dog food example above, it’s unlikely that people will want to change how they feed their dog – and different dogs will require different amounts of food anyway. It’s also unlikely that people will want to poke around in their dog’s bowl, counting up kibble. But taking some video of Dave the dachshund wolfing down his dinner is the sort of thing that people do anyway – so they are much more likely to find it a fun and enjoyable research activity which will engage them in the project

  4. There is no budget. This sounds obvious, but it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Sometimes clients have unrealistic ideas about how easy it will be to put an online research community together, and about how much investment in time and energy it will need to keep it going.

    If your client says “We want a community that we can dip into from time to time over a year” and they think this will be cheap to achieve, you’ll need to have a conversation early on about engagement and how to keep a community active and enthused.

    The flip side of this is that the client may not have a real sense of the value that they can derive from an online community. When they understand just how much research they will be able to conduct, and how much insight they will gain, they may be able to divert resource from other projects – whether that is money to pay a supplier or people to actively moderate and create content for the community.

  5. They aren’t open to your suggestions. This one actually is a deal breaker. Research should be a collaborative process between client and supplier – and great research always involves trust. Everyone has assumptions and preconceptions but if neither side is willing to be challenged or to take on suggestions at the outset, this suggests that this project may be more trouble that it is worth.


The good news is that most of these challenging situations can be turned around. And often, the process of taking a step back and discussing these issues will make for even better research, and a better more collaborative ongoing relationship than if the problem had not arisen.

It’s important to note that if you are the client in this situation, these tips will help you think through your project and build a more productive relationship with your supplier. But also remember that it works both ways. Be wary of a supplier who will take on a project without a brief, who doesn’t challenge your brief, or who is overly prescriptive and unwilling to be flexible in their approach. After all, dream clients don’t want to work with mediocre suppliers either.

If you have a nightmare project on your hands, (or even a dream project) we will collaborate with you to get the very best results.

You can take advantage of a FREE discovery call so we can help you understand how online qual can work for your project in practice.

Over the last decade we’ve worked with over 400 agencies and brands running everything from foundational studies, new packaging or product tests to co-creation workshops – we love online qual  and we know you will too.

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