Selecting the right qualitative researcher for your marketing project is critical, because a lot of money and your credibility are on the line. As a result, many marketers and researchers often stick with the same person over and over again to avoid the risk of failure.
However, because the field of qualitative research attracts people from many walks of life, marketers should be open to selecting someone who may bring a unique point of view or approach to a specific research challenge. I know, because I've been on both sides—as the client selecting a moderator, and as the moderator being scrutinized for a project.
In my informal interviews of various marketing clients, many have stated that one of the most critical skills they desire in a qualitative researcher is the ability to not only report findings but also easily grasp the marketing issues with which the team is grappling—all while assisting the team on a decision path. That requirement was true regardless of whether the moderator came from the world of marketing, psychology, or anthropology, or another field of study.
Accordingly, I've outlined the five questions that those selecting a qualitative researcher/moderator should keep in mind to not only help make them look good but also get the best, most usable outcomes for their team.
Does she understand marketing basics and language?
Though some may perceive that a qualitative researcher is just a question-asker, the reality is that she can add immense value as a research partner if she understands marketing.
At a minimum, that understanding will help her to ask you the right questions and to design the best study approach. Also, someone with marketing savvy can anticipate research questions as learning unfolds during the study. She'll be quick to probe and get those thoughts onto the table (even as you're thinking them in the backroom or behind the computer screen); otherwise, they may remain unspoken.
When interviewing a potential moderator for a project, step back to see whether she asks you some of the basics, such as target audience, brand equity, the context of the business in its competitive environment, in addition to the research questions associated with objectives and timing.
If the moderator doesn't have such "Marketing 101" knowledge, you can be pretty sure that she won't be able to add all the value possible to you both during the research and during the analysis to better harness your outcomes.
Does she know the language or is she a quick study on the topic?
Some marketers believe that having industry-specific knowledge is critical to being an effective qualitative researcher. If this is your belief, then a simple conversation should reveal whether she understands the language and complexity of the topic.
Previous knowledge could be critical, for example, in a disease-related topic, something highly technical, or when the respondent is a hard-to-reach busy person (such as a CEO) and limited interview time is available.
However, although industry-specific knowledge may be important in some situations, it may not always be so.
Often, bringing in person with specific skills or experience related to another business area is more important than understanding the intricacies of your particular business. The knowledge that this person could bring may include the expertise or novelty necessary to create a new perspective on your challenge or to help train your team to be smarter researchers.
If the researcher has knowledge relevant to another industry, you should expect her to ask thoughtful, topic-specific questions to enhance her understanding. Such questions do not indicate a lack of skills; they merely suggest that she really wants to design the best research and to develop the right discussion guide to meet your needs.
For example, a researcher who has experience in concept development brings what is a universal need in qualitative research. Even if she doesn't have industry-specific knowledge, she will have a skill that many researchers versed solely in a particular industry are lacking.
Does she understand your industry/category context?
Your qualitative researcher should quickly understand the ancillary business information that might be nevertheless essential to interpret findings. That information could include a new competitive threat, new legislation or guidelines that impact the market, a required change in product formulation, or specific business objectives that must be met. A moderator who can quickly comprehend such broader issues will always add value to your research.
A good example relates to communication research, which could be visual, auditory, or both—any type of creative work such as advertising, website design, graphics, or logos. A smart researcher will ask for the campaign objectives in the design brief or strategy document from which the creative work has been developed. Using the document to guide your research will allow her both to gauge how well the stimuli shared delivers against objectives and to make adjustments on the fly.
During the debrief, a good researcher can add much more value by stating that a certain approach did or did not deliver on the specific objectives it was designed to achieve rather than just cherry-picking at the various executions with pros and cons.
Does she effectively communicate with all levels of the organization?
As we know, many folks can show up to watch or participate in qualitative research. Sometimes, the group is as small as the marketer and a product developer, but sometimes the entire marketing team arrives—or even the CEO! Making sure that your qualitative researcher has the confidence to communicate at all levels will be critical. If she is not comfortable talking with your CEO, you'll simply look bad if she gets a direct question and is noticeably uncomfortable answering it.
When you have a team in the backroom, you want your moderator to fit in with conversations; yet, she should be confident enough to lead the team in a new direction if the respondent feedback suggests it is appropriate.
Does she add value beyond reporting the findings?
As a buyer of research services, you want to make sure that your researcher can help you get to the next steps. Though a deliverable that is filled with reporting about what happened has its merits, you need to demand more when your business environment requires that decisions be made quickly.
Prior to selecting a moderator, determine whether she writes her own reports. If she does, then you know you'll be getting the first-hand insight she has garnered and so should embrace the skills noted above. If not, be a little leery. Not that a report writer can't get you the learning (she can), but you can guarantee that the turnaround will be slower since she'll need to review the research and she will not have benefited from hearing the client dialogue during the study.
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One of the best ways to see whether a qualitative researcher understands marketing is to see how she markets herself. If your researcher can't communicate her expertise, how can she possibly help you think through your marketing challenges? If your moderator is part of a large conglomerate, then she probably doesn't have to market herself directly to you; still, upon meeting and working with her, you should have your answers to the other key questions noted earlier in this article.
In summary, think out of the box when selecting a qualitative researcher. Rethink your selection process. As the adage goes, "If you keep doing things the way you've always done them, you'll get the results you've always had." In this economy and competitive marketplace, can you really afford that?
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