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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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