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Blurring the Lines Between Quant and Qual

Since the dawn of time, there has been no greater debate than the raging argument about which method of market research will win the battle for Middle Earth (please excuse the LOR reference). The Quantitative vs. Qualitative debate has caused rambunctious toing and froing at industry conferences and heated debates in boardrooms globally – followed by the typical tug of war for research budgets.

However, are these arguments set to be a thing of the past, as many industry experts insist there is a new dawn on the horizon? The latest GRIT Report highlights that the clear division between quant and qual is quickly blurring and merging research roles, disciplines and methods.

In their traditional pigeon-holes, quant and qual are clearly differentiated and are identifiable as follows:

Quantitative research is the statisticians partner in crime – dealing with numbers, facts and data sets.

Study types: Surveys and questionnaires – typically online.
Scale: Hundreds or thousands of respondents.
Proponents say: To establish a holistic understanding of your audience you must run studies at scale. This way we can base our decisions on a large, statistically-reliable audience to understand how our market is likely to behave and how satisfied they are – in facts and numbers we trust!
Naysayers say: It lacks the emotion and depth of understanding needed to get to know consumers and their behaviours properly. After all, how much thought did that consumer give to the rating they sent by SMS?

Qualitative research is the creative element of market research which has the power to catch the eye and tell a compelling story.

Study types: Focus Groups, In-Depth Interviews, Ideation Sessions, Ethnographies, Online Discussion Groups
Scale: Less than 100 respondents (and sometimes as little as 8 sitting around a focus group table!)
Proponents Say: Qual research delivers a depth of understanding that you can’t find in facts and figures. Only by discussing with consumers why they make the decisions they do (or think the way they do) will we gain genuine insights into true feelings, attitudes and behaviour. Plus, we can monitor subtle nuances of facial expressions and body language to help hone our stories.
Naysayers say: Findings inevitably become too theorised. Yes, we can see deeper - but without a credible sample size, this method can’t be classed as statistically reliable, leaving researchers guessing how the masses will behave.

As you can see, both approaches have strong benefits while leaving themselves open to criticism for some of their well-known flaws. However, the latest GRIT Report from GreenBook gives hope for a better future for both methods, stating that the age of pure qual and quant is over. This statement alone suggests we are on the brink of an exciting mixed-method journey.

So, if this is the case, where are these methods headed? Will we see a harmonised new dawn of mixed-method researchers, projects and technologies?

It turns out that those that have called for the two approaches to work in a complementary manner are finally getting their way. Which leaves us asking – where are they merging?

As Projects

In theory, we’d get the best results running end-to-end projects engaging both disciplines as part of one ‘bigger picture’ study. Unfortunately, the pressures and time constraints of modern businesses have all too often seen research stages skipped – with companies relying upon just quant data or one-off qual studies.

However, competitive forces across industries have built an increased need to understand customers at new levels, and competitive advantage now manifests itself in new areas like customer experience. This vehicle is driving end-to-end research projects back into the heart of businesses as they strive to better understand the audiences that matter to them. It probably goes some way to explaining why the latest GRIT Report reveals that 68% of researchers have used both quant and qual methods in 2015 - a trend that is expected to continue to increase in 2016 and beyond.

As Research Roles

The rise of all-encompassing projects is fascinating as it has brought about the need for cross-method understanding for the modern researcher. The GRIT Report highlights that qual researchers still outnumber quant researchers two-to-one, which we can probably attribute to the vast number of qual studies. When explored further, the statistics presented by GRIT would lead us to believe that both qual and quant professionals are crossing disciplines more than we would typically assume - with just 21% of the researchers surveyed having conducted only qualitative research, compared to 10% who had conducted only quantitative research.

Merging Market Research MethodsImage courtesy of AYTM, producers of the official infographic for the 2015 GRIT Report for Q3/Q4.

Even where roles have not united, you will increasingly see research teams built to encompass all methods, from the data scientist to the social media specialist – with all disciplines covered at a team level. And for this team to deliver the best results, we must all have an individual understanding of both quant and qual.

Having said this, the GRIT Report states that there will inevitably be a role for specialists such as anthropologists, neuroscientists and traditional qual workers - but only time will tell how in-demand this skillset will be if kept in a silo from new, emerging methods.

As Methods

The rise of technology in the research industry is finally having the impact we’ve seen across many other sectors. Many of these advances can be anticipated to be enhanced, or even derived, from software development for mixed-method research (Guetterman, Creswell, & Kuckartz, 2015).

We’ve seen the merging of technologies first hand at Voxpopme – our video research technology started as a solution that could quickly capture hundreds of videos from consumers at their convenience.

However, in our time-pressured industry, researchers needed more from video. To address this, we established a full analytics platform that transcribes videos, offers sentiment analysis and groups video content into time-coded, theme-based buckets – making video a qual-quant hybrid.

You could also look at the rise of social media as another excellent example of mixed-method research. Every day we see reams of content, posted out into the world in the form of text, pictures and videos. Software companies like Digital-MR can help mine this combination of quant and qual information. Again, this builds a better understanding of how consumers behave in their social environment (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and more).

The slightly belated infiltration of software companies into the market research world is indeed forcing the merger of methods.

Sure, we've seen passing attempts at convergence in the past, such as the short tally after a focus group, or the odd text box dropped into a brand tracker. But we are now on the brink of something far bigger as an industry.

It’s clear that the rise of the combined method is only heading in one direction, and it is mixed-method software that is going to drive this forward. It will take us beyond mere passing attempts at merging the two approaches and deliver truly innovative, hybrid approaches to research and insights gathering. I’ve seen it called ‘QualiQuant’ but I’m sure friends in marketing can help us develop a sexier name.

As researchers, we must adapt and embrace new methodologies and end-to-end projects for our personal development and the benefit of our clients. The only remaining question is, who will be the Uber, Hubspot or AirBnB of the research industry?

We may have to wait and see, but there is a host of SaaS companies aiming to make hybrid approaches like social media monitoring or video research convenient, efficient and effective for every researcher – regardless of their origin.

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