Qualitative Research Trends of the Future: A Talk with Jim Longo

Jim Longo is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Discuss.io. A pioneer in the insights industry for over thirty years, he recently shared some of his reflections, observations, and predictions regarding how the pandemic has changed the landscape for qualitative research.

2020 was a disruptive year for most industries, to say the least. How has the outlook for qualitative research changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

That’s a big question, but you can boil it down to a couple of greater paradigm shifts.

Despite the pandemic, the industry saw an increase in online qualitative research – in fact, the entire industry is at an inflection point now. While much of this represents the culmination of gradual trends, people are also adopting online methodologies, which we’ve been pushing for several years now, because traditional methods have suddenly been rendered inadequate. We saw the need to connect more than ever when COVID hit. Though the shift to online qual was partially forced on us out of necessity, it  opened up the methodology to those who have resisted it for years. They quickly saw that there was real value in online qual and, if anything, it opened up a new way to connect with consumers that took the hassle out of setting up qual sessions.

We saw something similar after 9/11, and again after the financial crisis of 2008. It’s a moment of enlightenment as clients realize the potential of this technology and the evolving role that insights can play in forging consumer connections.

In addition clients saw how simple it was to have conversations as well as run some light ethnography research because they were now talking to people in their homes. It’s just so easy to do a task and record it, to conduct in-house interviews after someone’s prepared a meal, things like that. People are waking up to how much easier it is to get numerous individuals involved in a project. That just wasn’t possible twenty years ago.

When you talk about this “evolving role” of insights, what does that mean?

Essentially, the role of insights teams has been recognized by other departments. Marketing has always been vital, but dumping data on the client just doesn’t add much value after a certain point. That’s where the insights team comes in.

A really hot topic right now is empathy: the art of creating customer closeness. Empathy programs and customer connect programs are huge, largely because change has been accelerated at such a sudden rate that it’s hard to keep up.

With these enormous, sweeping paradigm shifts that touch every sphere of modern society, marketers and insights departments are suddenly empowered. Insights departments have sometimes been viewed as a bit of a black hole by others – “Oh, send it to the insights department and see what they think,” that sort of thing. The value of the team is perceived primarily as a data collector. But how the insights teams do that, how they find and draw these conclusions, has always been somewhat under-discussed.

What we’re seeing now is a certain demystification of the insights team. Their value is being recognized, and appreciation of their expertise is .surging The result is that qualitative research has become increasingly prominent over the past year, although quant still commands a majority share of research budgets. There’s also an uptick in research that hybridizes the usual methodologies (and mixtures thereof) of quant and qual research. About a quarter of the research conducted in 2020 was hybridized in this manner. Almost half of all research included qual, whether hybrid, standalone, or pre- or post-qual.

Click here to earn how to create a consumer closeness program.

Can you expand a bit on empathy and its role in the qualitative research process?

In the past year, empathy has become an increasingly important KPI for brands as they have begun to see the need for a deeper connection with consumers. Empathy involves understanding the underlying emotions behind the consumers’ decision-making processes. To put it simply, while traditional qualitative marketing focuses on the motivations behind purchasing decisions, we’re now seeing increased research into the emotions and feelings behind those motivations.

The thing is, there’s no way you can discern those emotions except through genuine conversation. If you look back to April, near the beginning of the nationwide lockdown phase, people were genuinely afraid to leave their homes. They treated focus group sessions almost like a form of therapy. I mean, that was sometimes more human interaction in a few hours than they’d had in weeks. These were people who weren’t talking to anybody, except maybe the guy leaving their deliveries on the curb. By the end of these focus group sessions, some observers would be crying after talking to these people who were working sixteen-hour shifts and then coming home and wondering, how will I feed my children?

It’s a real emotional shift, and you can’t understand how people feel if you’re just sitting in an office building looking at quantitative data tables. You have to have conversations. You must listen to the voice of the customer. There’s no substitute.

Brands must understand emotional experiences if they want to understand what will and will not resonate among consumers. This has led to a proliferation of what we call conversational qual, and we’re seeing an industry-wide shift toward this type of research to develop products that better meet consumer needs.

So the role of insights is to identify common threads across conversations?

Right. Insights provide nuance into the data that researchers gather, and that’s particularly relevant when looking at empathy. In the past, market researchers have become really good at identifying how consumers think, but they haven’t spent so much time asking how they feel. In other words, clients are looking to unlock the value of data they already have.

It’s not just about obtaining more interviews. Rather, the question becomes: How can we take those videos we have and help researchers pull out insights that are both relevant and consistent among these different people? It’s about Knowledge Management.

In terms of empathy programs, we see clients who want them, but we are also seeing a shift among organizations that already have these programs but are looking for ways to maximize their effectiveness.Clients are looking for ways to unlock the value of their data, to process information faster, and to extract those insights that lead to deeper empathy with consumers, which in turn leads to better decision-making organizationally and better business outcomes.

Insights teams have a place at the table now, no doubt about it. The bigger question is whether they can keep it.

Metal balls

So insights teams are really doing double-duty. They not only have to analyze how consumer segments are feeling at the present moment, but they also have to make predictions for the future.

Precisely. There has definitely been a shift toward what we call strategic foresight, coupled with another phenomenon called cooperative iteration.

For the past eighteen months, we’ve observed increased emphasis on suggestive “should” statements based on change motivators and strategic planning. So instead of looking backward and saying, okay, why were sales down last quarter, marketers are asked to share suggestive insights for the coming quarter. As I said, if insights teams want to keep their newly acquired seats in the boardroom, they will have to demonstrate some agility and foresight.

That brings us to cooperative iteration. As their roles continue to evolve, successful insights teams must work in concert with others across their respective organizations. When the pandemic rendered face-to-face contact unfeasible, the best insights teams performed a series of quick pivots, collaborating with researchers, designers, and product managers to bridge the gaps. They were doing video interviews, learning new qual tools, creating product mock-ups, experimenting with digital presentation.

They couldn’t do that alone; nobody could, particularly with the past year’s sudden crunch of time and resources. That’s the importance of cooperative iteration.

But 2020 was unique in many ways. The pandemic won’t last forever, and neither will the restrictions. Total lockdown has mostly ended on a national scale. So when you talk about these industry-wide changes, how do you separate the temporary from the permanent?

That’s on the lips of every client these days: Which changes will hold? And nobody really knows, but we do have some ideas. Anecdotally we hear a lot of clients say that they have no interest in going back to doing all of their qualitative research face-to-face. But even if most qualitative research does continue to take place online, we do expect to see sensory-type research resume its usual in-person methodologies because of its very nature. You can’t evaluate touch and smell in a digital format – at least, not yet.

There’s been a sudden acceleration in adoption. I should know – I’ve been leading this charge in the industry since 1999. Webcam interviews are finally the predominant method of running qualitative research, for example. Technology like that, now that it’s out there and recognized and accepted, isn’t going to just vanish.

For those of us who have always looked to technology to revolutionize our internal research strategies, it’s finally our time. It is a better time than it has been in a while for insight teams to guide an organization. We have not seen anything like this since 2008 and the Great Recession. In 2008, we saw an increase in adoption, and in 2021, more brands will make online qual a regular part of their research strategy. It’s not about going backward; it’s about going forward and continuously innovating. That’s the name of the game.


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