Research is serious business. It is, inarguably, the foundation upon which virtually every effective marketing and marketing communications program rests.

Indeed, whether you're working from a $1,000 change purse or a $10 million dollar war chest, trying to target the right audiences with the right message about your product or service without first doing effective, well-designed research would be unprofessional and irresponsible.

But the most-effective research isn't necessarily the most rigidly designed. In fact, a loosely designed program—whether qualitative or quantitative—may not appear as "scientific" at first glance, yet sometimes can do far more to reveal real truths than more carefully crafted and comprehensive research programs.

That's because no research protocol ever designed is a match for the complexity of the human brain or the quirks of human personality. As a result, qualitative research that never deviates from a specific set of questions, or quantitative research that doesn't give respondents an opportunity to expand their answers, often results in a scientific-seeming, but actually superficial, understanding of your marketplace.

In short, rigidly designed research doesn't allow anything to fall between the cracks—because there are no cracks. Yet it is the stray answer, the unexpected insight, and the uncategorizable response that often creates the greatest opportunity for genuine insight on the part of the marketing professional.

If you are relatively new to marketing research, whether you're outsource it or doing it yourself, here are five ways to ensure that one-on-one or small-group interviews—and, if you have the ability to ask follow-on questions, small-scale quantitative research as well—has plenty of "cracks" in it; you'll then be able to collect the insights that fall between those cracks and put them to good use.

First, before you do a one-on-one or small-group interview, write a very specific list of questions you want to ask. Then, when the interview starts, put the questions away and simply engage your interviewees in a conversation about the topic area. If they get the sense that you're not grilling them and not subjecting them to a rote questionnaire, they're more likely to loosen up and give you real responses and unexpected insights. And don't fail to follow up. Interviewers who are focused on following a questionnaire are usually so anxious to get to the next question that they fail to ask the unplanned-for follow-up questions that provoke the genuinely interesting answers.

At the end of the discussion, pull the list of questions out to make sure that you've covered most of the major points; if there's time remaining, ask some of them. But more than likely, you'll have covered them in the course of the conversation anyway—or discovered that they were bad, or irrelevant, questions to begin with.

Second, start from the bottom up. True, when you begin a research program you'll need to speak to senior executives to get the lay of the land and to understand who you should be talking with and what the goals of the research should be. But when you begin the research in earnest, start by speaking with people on the front lines of an organization—and, in particular, the salespeople—before you head either outward (to the target market) or upward (to the C Suite.)

This gives you the freedom to ask a lot of fairly basic questions without worrying that you'll be wasting the time of senior execs or busy customers. It's not that front-line personnel have a lot of time, either, but most of them are flattered to be asked about their jobs by someone who seems to really care about their answers.

Third, don't worry if those "basic questions" might make you look uninformed about the subject matter. After all, if you were completely "informed," you wouldn't need to be doing the research.

Furthermore, the research process is never, at any stage, about you or what you think might make you look good. It's about insight. And sometimes the most elementary questions—of the sort that others fail to ask because "everyone" knows the answer—are the ones that yield the most surprising responses.

Fourth, try silence every once in a while. After an interview subject gives you a response that you suspect might be rote or superficial, don't say anything at all. Let several uncomfortable seconds of silence pass. People hate conversational gaps and rush to fill them.

These follow-on elaborations often contain more insight than the original, carefully scripted answer. This is an old trick used by reporters. It shouldn't be overused, especially in the C Suite, but can get otherwise terse respondents talking.

Fifth, don't hesitate to ask your respondents at the end of the interview what other questions you should have asked. What did you miss? If you don't ask this question, your respondent might very well never tell you. Again, the purpose of a qualitative interview is not to prove to your interviewee how much you know about the subject matter at hand.

There is no doubt that there is a certain level of comfort attached to creating, and sticking to, a rigidly designed questionnaire or survey, especially given the amount of money spent on most research programs and the importance of getting the results right. But research, whether qualitative or quantitative, isn't an end unto itself. Nor is it about collecting responses in a vacuum.

Rather, it's about gaining insight, and using that understanding to improve sales results. And glimmers of true insight are most likely to be visible on the margins, in between the lines, and in the cracks, places where many qualitative research programs, and most quantitative ones, simply aren't designed to look.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Antman is principal of the corporate and marketing communications firm McSweeeney & Antman (www.mcsweeneyantman.com).