The accelerating pace of disruption to business models means brands must be agile enough to make informed decisions within days—or even hours. They can thrive or fail based on their ability to make quick, intelligent decisions and outperform competitors by providing superior customer experience.

Customer experience is increasingly the differentiator in a world of commoditized features and benefits, embodying every interaction a person has with a company, including the "whats" (interactions) and the "whys" (perceptions, feelings).

In customer-driven brands, integrated qualitative and quantitative research can answer critical business questions so business leaders can...

  • Quickly convert raw data into user-friendly charts, word clouds, heat maps, and other actionable tools
  • Improve decision-making across departments, recognizing that customers are no longer the domain of only Product Design or Marketing but, rather, of IT, Operations, Pricing, Merchandising, Support, Governance, and others that constitute the business
  • Inspire a customer-centric approach to all projects, discussions, and collaborations by making it easy for people to readily contribute to, and access, customer insights

The integrated qualitative/quantitative approach is an innovation that can create a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual qualitative and quantitative parts.

Combining the two methods can help researchers realize the best of both worlds, while mitigating the weaknesses of each.

The Qual/Quant Symbiosis

The influx of data from social media channels, live chats, discussion boards, photos, and video streams generates many data points about individuals. The filtering of this mass data through integrated research methodologies can give rise to longitudinal, holistic views of customers and their impact on the brand: Quantitative research provides objective, statistical analyses, and qualitative research contextualizes human behavior.

Quantitative research methods are about the "what" of human behavior, gauging quantity through a range of sampling strategies. They project results of a quantitative market survey to the entire marketplace and answer questions such as "Is there a strong market for our product?" and "How many of our target customers care about this benefit?" Methods include various forms of surveys (e.g., online, in-person, and telephone), personal quantitative interviews, customer data, etc.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is are primarily about the "why" of human behavior, diving into customer motivation and emotion to better understand buyer attitudes and beliefs: How do customers regard a brand, why do they like certain marketing messages and dislike others, and so on. The methodologies for gathering data are usually focus groups, in-depth interviews, and online discussion boards, as well as observational techniques, such as ethnography.

Both methods have benefits and downsides, so it is important to determine in what proportion to use each. For example, insight derived from qualitative studies can, at times, be considered speculative, and results can vary greatly according to who conducts the research and what their biases and perspectives are.

By integrating qualitative with quantitative, it becomes possible to inject quantifiable, reliable data into the research to more reliably provide insight on whatever aspect of human sociology and behavior is being explored.

Conversely, qualitative methods can offset the weaknesses of quantitative, especially in cases where a subject of study is hard to measure or quantify. Integration with qualitative can contextualize human behavior—keeping events in their real-world settings and taking into account the effects or variables that are not typically included in a quantitative model.

The hybrid of quantitative and qualitative methods can give researchers a way to draw out insights—statistics-by-themes and side-by-side comparisons—creating a more complete picture throughout the planning, development, implementation, and evaluation phases of programs.

Succeeding With the Integrated Approach

As with any method of research, the success of an integrated qualitative/quantitative approach will depend on the level of engagement of the people being surveyed or researched. Often, a one-sided approach can leave respondents and subjects feeling frustrated or confused about the purpose or value of what they provided or contributed. That often taints the volume and integrity of the data.

To ensure the best results, conduct the research in a way that makes subjects feel they are part of a community. Its members should feel they are contributing to a brand that is giving them something in return for their input. The symbiosis comes from making customers and study participants part of a "tribe," by giving feedback on how their input has had or will have an impact the brand, after having received something of value (their participation and input). Someone who is engaged and is given incentive to influence the brand will offer better quality data than someone who is not engaged or clear about the value.

The success of the hybrid approach will also depend on the ability of the researcher or research team to embrace both methodologies: Most marketers who conduct research are more comfortable with either qualitative or quantitative, but not both simultaneously.

In qualitative models, researchers are an instrument of data collection, and results can vary greatly depending on who conducts the research. In quantitative models, researchers regard the world as being outside of themselves and consider an objective reality independent of any of their own observations.

To succeed, researchers must question their theoretical perspectives, the strategies they intend to use to inform their methods, and the methods they will use to collect and analyze information. They have to be aware of any bias they might bring to the research and how it will affect the outcomes.

If these factors are carefully thought out, the use limitations of one type of research are more likely to be balanced by the strengths of the other, making it possible to...

  • Enrich the research by obtaining, through qualitative research, the information on variables not obtained by quantitative surveys
  • Build hypotheses from qualitative work to be tested through quantitative approaches
  • Qualify or disqualify unanticipated results from quantitative research
  • Verify or reject results from quantitative data using qualitative data, or vice versa

When a balance is struck between qualitative and quantitative findings, marketing programs are better informed and executives can have more confidence in the actions they take based on those results.

The depth and clarity this hybrid model can bring to marketing programs will help businesses better understand their customers and their customers' perceptions as well as keep pace with the changes that ultimately affect the brand.

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Integrative Research: The Key to Successful Marketing in the Age of Customer Experience

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image of Mai Kang

Mai Kang is vice president of client services at FUEL CYCLE, where she leads teams on the design and analysis of quantitative surveys, qualitative discussion boards, and online focus groups.

LinkedIn: Mai Kang