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How to write a great qualitative research brief

From speaking to researchers across the land, it's clear that it is fast becoming the norm for clients not to have a written brief.  Sure, they know what they want to achieve, what their objectives are, but they don’t always know how to get it down on paper and write a qualitative research brief (or they’ve not got the time!).

I’m always the first to put my hands up and offer to help clients write their briefs. It takes the pressure off them and means that you are more immersed in the project and their business, so it’s a win-win.

Great Qualitative Research Brief - Insight communities
I’m going to share with you my thoughts on what makes a good qualitative research brief (for both online qual and face-to-face) and why it’s so necessary to get it right (in case that isn’t obvious enough). Start with the wrong brief and you’re heading down the wrong path from the get-go. Not only will you set the wrong course, but you’ll probably cost the project incorrectly and even propose the wrong methods. There's a handy briefing template you can download at the end of this blog that will help you focus on key points.

Before I dive into the specifics, here are three key things to consider:

Framing and re-framing
First and foremost, the brief frames the client's problem or challenge, and it establishes the fundamental question(s) they want answering. More often than not, research briefs are framed through the lens of the business, when in fact, they should be through the lens of the consumer. Reframing is perhaps better to be done by the researcher/agency as they can see outside the business more readily than the client. The phrase, ‘wood for the trees’ is poignant.

Short and simple
Research briefs don’t need to be long and exhaustive. In fact, the shorter and more precise the better. This often shows the brief has been thought about and refined. A shorter brief also makes it easier for stakeholders of all kinds to ‘get it’.

Take the right tone
Like any written document that has its readers, a qualitative research brief needs to adopt the appropriate tone, be it a formal business one or a more relaxed consumer-friendly version. Most businesses are jam-packed with technical jargon so handle this with care and remove where possible so that everyone can be sure of being (and staying) on the same page.

OK, now to the details. Here’s what your qualitative research brief should include:

Some background
Provide a summary of the primary business the client is in, and clearly explain why the business exists, what its mission and vision are, and what the competitive set are. You should also look to include information about which markets the study should explore.

What research pre-exists and is shareable
We sometimes call this a 'research amnesty’. It is vitally important we have sight of any pre-existing research so as not to duplicate any findings that already exist. No matter what form the research/insight is, throw it at us and we’ll read through it to create a detailed picture of the business/brand.

Research objectives
This is where you set about describing what the core research task is. For example, the research objective might be to find out what your customers think of your recently launched product or service. Set out specific research objectives to clarify the key questions you need to answer and the information you need to gather to address the challenge.

Now you’re starting to motor and get into the details around the questions that need to be answered, or the spaces you’re going to explore. Remember, qualitative research helps understand why people do what they do, so write the objectives through that lens and think about the behaviours, motivations, thoughts and feelings you want to understand.

Business objectives
Driving their research objective may be a more strategic business objective that is framed differently. Quite simply, it outlines why you are being asked to do this. For example, does the research support modifying a service or product or intended to deliver growth?

Stakeholder team
Which parties/departments (internal and/or external) will be involved with and have a vested interest in this research study. They might be a sponsor, collaborator or a third-party that needs an actionable outcome. Detail their requirements and comment on their level and method of involvement.


Target audience to research
Who do you need to talk to?
Are they current customers, lapsed customers or those of a competitor? Are demographics relevant, such as age, gender, income, occupation, location, company size, etc? Is social profiling relevant, or their personal attributes and proficiencies?  

The target audience could include:
  • Who you want researched and how many (sample size)?
  • Source: Will the client be providing a customer list, or do you need to recommend the best way to source  respondents such as panels, free-finding or social media?

Based on the objectives, which qualitative research methods are best deployed and why. Are you proposing a combination of methods as is usually the case? Should the research be conducted face-to-face, by telephone or even online?

Consider internal milestones such as meetings and decision-making deadlines.

Timescale could include:

  • Timescale for the procurement process, the start of the research and when you want the findings
  • Whether you want to receive top-line findings in advance of the main findings
  • Leaving time to receive a draft set of findings for you to review before receiving the final deliverables.

Do you have a specific research budget in mind, including incentives and recruitment?

Can you provide guidance on the available budget, even if it is only a ball-park figure?

The budget might look to include:

  • An indication of available budget; stipulate whether or not this includes VAT.
  • A breakdown of how recruitment and incentives.
  • Payment terms (if standard)

Deliverables (what/how/when)
Do you want the findings in a written report format or as a presentation? You may want to have both or to have a meeting with us to discuss the findings.

Deliverables could include:

  • Your preferred format for the findings - for example, a report in Word or a presentation in PowerPoint, hardcopy and/or electronic, etc
  • Do you want the researcher to present the findings, either in-person or remotely?
  • Is there anything else you expect the research team to provide?

If there are any pre-existing hunches, assumptions or hypotheses then now is a good time to share them with us. If they come out part-way through the project they may result in a re-brief and re-costing exercise, which is something to be avoided.

Materials the client will provide
Provide a detailed breakdown of the materials, assets and stimulus that the client will provide.

Examples might include:

  • Visual brand identity assets
  • Market reports/intelligence
  • Information about competitors
  • Stimulus materials
  • Concepts and mockups

What does success look like?
Cast yourself into the future and imagine you are looking back at the successful project. What made it so successful, what was so good about it. Did it make you ‘famous’, if so why?

What does failure look like?
What are the failure factors of this project and what would team it unsuccessful? Another way to think about this would be to ask the question ‘Why might this project fail?'

Client contacts and roles
Who are the immediate client team responsible for running this project, including day-to-day contact details and email addresses. It’s also a good idea to address what time/input the client has to invest in the project as you may find they don’t want to be involved in the way you hope.

There you have it. There's more things to consider, and more detail to get into, pending the size/scale/risk of the project, but this will get you started.

There are many mistakes you can make in delivering qualitative research (online or in-person) and research community to be mindful of, especially how you see through consumer's half-truths, so beware.


If you have any questions, or have a brief you'd like help with...

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