Every year, companies invest billions in data, analytics, and technology to better target and predict customer behavior. And because of increasingly complex martech and CRM stacks, many brands are collecting more data than ever—more than they know what to do with.

That abundance of data has led many marketing and product leaders to incorrectly believe that they no longer need to invest in primary, qualitative research because they think have all the customer data they ever need. (Article updated Oct. 2021.)

That couldn't be further from the truth: More than ever, brands need to dig beyond the data to truly understand the customer. Even the largest, most data-intensive company in the world, Google, has said it needs to appreciate "the human, the person behind the data" to be successful.

Through observational and conversational qualitative research, brands like Google gain more useful intelligence around their data by better understanding the context, behaviors, and emotions that drive customer actions.

As my colleague Eric Bradlow, Wharton School professor and vice-dean of analytics, notes, CMOs and their teams need to focus on "better data, not big data. Data collection must be meaningfully tied to strategy."

That's precisely what qualitative research does: It makes better use of what you already have/know, and opens up new possibilities beyond your traditional view of the world to inform strategic decisions.

Getting to better data starts with asking the right questions:

  • Why do people choose your brand and products, and what drives their purchase decisions?
  • Why that place, those people, that time of day?
  • Who isn't buying your products and services—those people beyond the reach of your transactional databases—and why aren't they engaged with your company and brand?

By investing in qualitative studies, companies are able to answer those key questions—and make the data they already collect more actionable and valuable.

With that in mind, let's take a deeper look at some of the key areas where even data-rich marketers can and should apply qualitative research to maximize business impact.

Better Insights and Segmentation

Using qualitative approaches—direct conversations (including in-depth interviews) or observation (or both)—companies are able to dig deeper to understand what motivates target customers. This type of empathy-led research provides not only new insights but also important context to better understand data collected about customer segments (and also whether definitions of those segments and their motivations are accurate).

For example, a company may have data that shows a proportion of its audience consumes a certain type of media at regular time intervals. That allows the company to understand the customer's media behavior from a valid, reliable, statistical standpoint, but it doesn't reveal much about who its target customers are beyond the demographics and statistics. It doesn't reveal which emotional levers to pull to change perceptions and impact behavior.

In fact, many companies think a demographically driven cluster analysis from existing customer data is the same as an actual market segmentation. Although those clusters are useful in pulling groups of people together based on demographics and even transactional metrics, they are not built around the needs, values, and other motivations that drive a group of people to action. Using qualitative research methods, however, companies can layer in those critical inputs to create a much more robust, nuanced, and actionable segmentation that goes beyond hard data.

Another key benefit of qualitative research in segmentation is that you can develop stories to better understand and relate to the customer experience. Part of the job of qualitative researchers is to tell stories (based on patterns that emerge from what they're hearing and observing from consumers) and build a narrative that reveals who these individuals truly are as complicated humans.

Understanding the Customer Journey

Often, companies rely on existing customer relationship marketing (CRM) data to give them a sense of the customer journey—from initial consideration to point-of-sale and post-purchase reactions.

However, CRM data alone provides only a partial picture. In addition to understanding who, where, when, and how often customers are engaging across channels along the path to purchase, companies also need to employ qualitative research studies to understand why customers feel and act the way they do, including what informs and drives their decisions.

Importantly, qualitative research is the only way to give companies a customer's own narrated view of their activities and decisions. It also helps "fill in the gaps" in the journey, revealing critical "micro-moments of truth" when a customer reaches an inflection point in their shopping and buying experience that may not be captured in transactional data.

In addition, there is a need to understand the experience and journey of prospective customers that are not being targeted—key groups that may hold potential for growth and lie beyond the reach of existing data sets.

Without qualitative information, companies would not have a true sense of their consumers' authentic experience and would not be able to impact the journey effectively at key moments in time.

Qualitative research adds breadth and depth to paint a more complete picture of the customer journey—often delivered with visual impact that can energize entire organizations for more effective activation and socialization of the learning.

Stronger Campaigns and Communications

By hearing the stories of target customers and prospects and putting oneself in their shoes, companies are better able to learn who those people are, how they interact with the company's products and services, and what delights and frustrates them. In turn, those insights help marketers create more precise, more effective campaigns.

Considering how rapidly the customer journey and customer needs are evolving, marketers have to continually question and seek out new data and voice-of-the-customer feedback to stay connected.

Qualitative research data collection methods and techniques, such as passive observation, online interactive boards, and social media monitoring, can provide more real-time insight into customer needs and wants. They also yield the all-important context and emotions that creative directors rely on to craft campaigns that truly resonate with audiences.

Interestingly, there is a trend toward companies' using data analytics and modeling (such as discrete choice or structural equation modeling) to help create positioning and messaging territories.

It's no secret that companies tend to place great trust in "numbers" and hard data in developing creative marketing communication campaigns. Though Big Data and related analytic techniques are useful in this application, they cannot be effectively deployed without qualitative research up front to bring to the surface relevant category attributes (typically, consumer needs matched with product features and benefits)—and, importantly, do so in a way that accurately conveys the customer's own language.

Data analytics alone can never get close enough to the real person to reveal the types of emotions and desires that so often fuel the best creative ideas. Simply put: when we know whom we're talking to, we can craft more compelling messages for that audience, differentiating a brand and driving desired behavior.

And by applying new insights and learning on an ongoing basis, companies are able to experiment and continually improve campaigns to deliver the right message at the right time to target customers. Great qualitative insight drives that.

Why This All Matters

Observation, awareness, socialization of ideas, and psychology all play a role in understanding the world of customers. In addition to data and analytics, the need for observing and talking to people remains vitally important for gaining useful consumer intelligence that will drive business results.

It's so important to bring the customer's story to life, to make it relatable, so that it creates real impact on those who make marketing decisions. By relating to the stories of your customers, you better understand them in ways that are meaningful. You have an opportunity to embrace them as part of what you're building.

Companies need to stay open, truly listen to their customers, and invite them to help write their brands' next chapters. Data alone can't do that. It takes people—and empathetic qualitative research—to shed light on the nuances of human behavior.

More Resources on Qualitative Research

Qualitative Data Helps You Build Stronger, More Complete Personas

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

Five Simple Techniques for Getting Better Results From Qualitative Research 


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image of Rob Hernandez

Rob Hernandez is senior vice-president, research and insights, at GBH Insights, a marketing strategy, consumer behavior, and analytics consultancy. He leads cross-functional teams composed of customer insights and data analytics professionals.

LinkedIn: Rob Hernandez