All marketers, including entrepreneurs engaged in startups, must understand their customers from a 360 degree perspective. The process typically begins by identifying the most productive customers for a product or service. It’s also critical to obtain intelligence on how a product or service could fit into customers’ lives. That’s a more complex task.
When weighing how to spend limited research resources, many marketers believe that qualitative research is “soft”; quantitative research—especially big data—reigns supreme. But consider Evert Gummesson’s characterization of conducting both qualitative and quantitative marketing research as “a merger of the best of both worlds… (that) will add substantial synergy to research in marketing.” In other words, to fully understand customer practices, attitudes, and sentiments, and gain inspiration for innovation and marketing, it pays to conduct qualitative and quantitative research.
Even with the current emphasis on quantitative research, businesses are becoming more receptive to qualitative approaches. Sociologist Tricia Wang argues that qualitative research adds “thick data” to big data and, despite skepticism about qualitative research, business is booming for business anthropology. Business schools, known for being quantitatively focused, teach qualitative methods such as ethnography. And, to Gummesson’s point, combining qualitative and quantitative research is not a new idea; it’s been around for decades. Despite all of this, the emphasis in business schools—and, we observe, among startups—is on quantitatively derived market intelligence.
At Columbia Business School, we have developed an advanced marketing research course that emphasizes the complementarity of qualitative and quantitative market research methods, incorporating, in a sense, both art and science. Even startups with limited budgets can use most of the methods we cover in our course and should add them to their startup toolkit.
What Kind of Research Are We Talking About?
Jake Pryszlak recently offered succinct definitions of qualitative and quantitative marketing research. Last year, Ken Yanhs wrote a piece that discussed current trends in qualitative research. He mentioned that when qualitative and quantitative research are combined, “you can tell a complete story of consumer sentiment, helping to validate or inform your marketing strategy for maximum impact.”
Let’s look more closely at what quantitative and qualitative marketing research each entail.
Qualitative marketing research is usually conducted with small numbers of respondents via focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnography, either face-to-face or virtually. Qualitative methods are valuable for uncovering customer attitudes, emotions, needs and wants, category and brand perceptions and usage, the impact of culture on consumption, and, especially, for adding depth and context to marketers’ understanding of their customers.
Through all of this, marketers can learn if and how a brand could be a part of people’s lives. Qualitative research can inform product concepts and designs, help define marketing problems and opportunities, and generate hypotheses and questions for quantitative research. Small scale qualitative research should not be used to definitively assess a product concept or advertisement or to project market results.
Quantitative marketing research uses data collected through surveys, experiments, or customer behavior to validate research hypotheses generated by qualitative research, to explore empirical patterns in the data, and to make predictions. Quantitative methods are valuable for segmenting customers based on their needs, understanding consumer perceptions of products and services, assessing the impact of marketing activities on customer behavior, and optimizing marketing resource allocation. These methods support various managerial decisions involving which market segment(s) to target, how to position a brand within each segment, what product line to offer at what price, and how to promote it and deliver it to customers.
Integrating Qualitative and Quantitative Marketing Research in a Course
In our course, we teach students how to select and apply the right type of marketing research to obtain consumer intelligence, make sense of it, and apply it to marketing problems. We cover how consumer markets are defined, understood, segmented, and assessed, and how all of that can generate compelling marketing insights. Students learn through cases and practice how to conduct and interpret focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnographic research, ways to map customer journeys, how to apply quantitative methods such as cluster analysis, factor analysis, conjoint analysis, and logistic and OLS regression. Students have the opportunity to work with real companies, many of them startups.
Entrepreneurs need to know how and what kinds of questions to ask to use their often-limited resources most effectively. In our course, some of the questions we ask are the following:
•How do I begin to understand the market for my product?
•How do I discover if consumers need or want it, and which consumers are my best prospects?
•How do I capture them for research?
•How do I develop/modify my product?
•What are the best ways for positioning it in the marketplace and against which competition?
•How do I generate insights for advertising and packaging and evaluate consumer reactions to my messages?
•How do I price my product?
•How do I use sales promotion?
•Where do I sell it?
•How many can I sell?
Here are some examples of how we integrate qualitative and quantitative research methods:
•Use deep probing interview techniques to gain customer insight and, equally important, to develop hypotheses and questions for quantitative surveys
•Practice in-class projective interviewing techniques that help students formulate customer segments that can be assessed and refined in state-of-the-art quantitative segmentation studies
•Apply qualitative and quantitative research sequentially to develop brand positioning and advertising strategies
•Combine ethnography, ideation and conjoint analysis for new product development
•Have a guest speaker from a company that uses artificial intelligence to deliver focus group research on a quantitative scale
The Power of the 360 Degree Approach
There is substantial power in a 360 degree approach to customer discovery that incorporates both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Taking this on does not require a large staff or a substantial budget, especially if entrepreneurs apply their innate resourcefulness to cost-effective survey methods and imaginative ways to procure respondents. They will emerge with profound customer understanding and strategic inspiration and increase their chances for marketplace success.
This article originally appeared in forbes.com