Take Time to Talk to Your Consumer

Apr 26, 2009  •  Post A Comment

One of the most crucial aspects of media planning is the understanding of target audience.
Sometimes planners will embark upon the quest to understand their brand’s target audience by procuring heaps of statistical information and drawing conclusions from the data obtained.
The reality is that target consumers are a living and breathing enigma. In order to truly understand them, it’s necessary for a planner to dive in beyond statistics to obtain complete perspective through qualitative research.
In a way, qualitative research is the antithesis of quantitative research. Quantitative research paints respondents into boxes by forcing answers to particular questions. Consumers answer the questions provided without embellishment. Those questions may not even be the right ones, and within embellishment, there may be insight.
When at its best, qualitative is not constrained by biases, questionnaires or artificial circumstances. There are no specific defined questions. The goal isn’t to obtain a specific answer but to have the consumer lead the planning team to things that might be unexpected.
There are two ways to look at utilizing qualitative research. The first is completely mercenary, but can yield mixed results. Is the larger account team currently or soon to be starting a qualitative research initiative? If so, a planning team can try to include themselves in the process so they have a chance to capture learning along the way. The positive here is that there is understanding to be gained. The negative is that research organized by the account team is probably being generated with different goals than the media team’s and may therefore be only somewhat useful.
A Better Way
The better way to look at qualitative research is for the media team to conduct it on their own, gearing it to meet a plan’s objectives. In that light, and especially for media shops, the notion of qualitative research can be an incremental revenue source as well as a path toward deeper consumer learning.
Planners should attempt to conduct qualitative research as early in the planning process as possible, using quantitative efforts to inform recruitment of prospects for the research.
It’s important not to frame a qualitative effort around what appear to be quantitative insights. The strength of qualitative is the ability to learn directly from the words and behaviors of consumers. Identify the appropriate people to talk with via quantitative and let them lead the planning team to insights.
“Data” output from a qualitative exercise does not consist of percentages or facts. Instead, it consists of behaviors, attitudes and emotions that help planners understand motivators of action, why consumers ritualize behaviors like purchase processes and where the most relevant contact points may be. Insight flows more from the target consumer’s humanity than from the brand or category.
It is best to establish as open a circumstance as possible for qualitative research. If multiple consumers are being interviewed at once, it works best to have a couple of key recruits bring along peers. Conduct the group in a setting conducive not only to fellowship, but to the brand situation as well, perhaps at a retail location or in a home or at a club.
The situation then provides a group of individuals that fits the desired profile along with the added benefit of friends or friendly acquaintances who can comfortably interact with each other or call each other out during discussions. This type of environment allows for a deeper level of learning than can be garnered from a group of strangers closeted behind two-way mirrors.
It is also valuable to conduct the research in context. Intersect as many consumers as is practical with a setting or an activity relevant to the brand. The setting might be a golf foursome with high-powered investors or it may be a family grocery shopping trip with mom.
It might also be appropriate to search for insight from those tangential to the consumer/brand relationship. In a retail case, it may be that sales assistants, wait staff or checkout personnel can provide perspective. Or it may be that professionals such as doctors, academics, consultants or any variety of connected individuals can provide valuable context.
Leave Room for Discussion
It is important not to be tied to a specific list of questions. It is far better to go into the consumer interaction with a discussion guide that gives the conversation leader the flexibility to take the conversation in a variety of directions. The goal is to create a conversation with depth, not to answer specific questions.
Yes-or-no questions are a killer. If that’s what a planner asks, that’s what they’ll get. Media people may want to ask simply, “What do you watch?” or “What do you read?,” but those types of questions don’t generate the full understanding.
Strive to ask open-ended questions. The goal is to dig into emotions and behaviors. If possible, try to get consumers to describe and talk about things. The more the planner or questioner can prompt a consumer to articulate, the better. “Why” and “how” questions work well.
Another important practice is to look for insight present in the environment. If the discussion is being conducted in a home, what media types are present there? What evidence is there of the primacy of certain media in the consumer’s life?
If the TV is not on, ask to turn it on. What channel is the set tuned to? Are there other devices in the home? What type of media? Are there collections of DVDs, tapes or print media? Are there video rental boxes in the entertainment center? At home, what’s in the refrigerator? The pantry? The garage?
Does the home have the traditional magazine rack in the bathroom? What’s in it? Can you see the computers in the home? Don’t be shy about asking to boot up and log on to the Web. What sites are favorites? Can you glance at the person’s inbox? How much mail is there? Is there evidence of a well-maintained inbox or hundreds of messages? How about snail mail? Are there any indicators present pertinent to a direct-response effort? Many people will have a cache of catalogs somewhere in their homes.
The same practice can be used in an office environment as well. What media are present in the environment where information is sought or where decisions are made? Is it possible to ascertain which Web sites are bookmarked in the work environment? They could be very different from those in the home environment.
If discussions are being conducted in public, perhaps in a retail store or a bar, where does the consumer take you? What connection points lie along their path through a retail environment? What’s in the environment around the retail location? What types of items make it into the shopping basket?
Take time to develop a solid qualitative research effort for your brand. Create a flexible discussion guide that can enable you to gain a depth of perspective that really brings understanding of your target to life. Don’t forget to look for insights present in the environment to help point out quality media connection points. In so doing, you open up the possibility of creating much better marketplace impact for your brand.
Mark Dominiak is principal strategist of marketing, communication and context for Insight Garden.


  1. Qualitative and quantitative research both have their place if used correctly. In my experience, qualitative research makes for a great starting point to unravel major and minor issues and discover what’s working, what isn’t and what’s missing. The problem with stopping there is that even if an issue sounds minor, if it matters to the majority of the population it can actually be quite significant. That’s where quantitative research helps put issues and insights better into perspective.
    Second, the point is made that quantitative research artificially limits the dialog to a set selection of questions and answers. True, but qualitative research, especially focus groups are prone to just as significant bias. Focus groups are almost always skewed by group dynamics with a de facto leader and de facto followers.
    In the end, what we know for sure (except for those of us relying on Nielsen Ratings), is that actions speak louder than words. Future advancements in neuromarketing might provide a major advancement in this area.

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