Written by: Ruthie Feinstein, Director of Insights & Strategy
As a consumer insights researcher, I can get so wrapped up in the rigor of my day-to-day work, I really value the chance to step back and remember why it matters in the first place — and why I love it so much.
I experienced this recently at the annual Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) conference in Savannah, Georgia. While I didn’t get to see much of the beautiful city, I was compensated by the fact that I was surrounded by like-minded people: Experts in our field, all there not to compete, but to share ideas. Each dedicating their career to connecting with people and learning what’s important to them, and to turning those insights into meaningful intelligence for our clients. (I was pretty geeked out.)
At one of the breaks, I chatted with a colleague and we empathized (commiserated) around the idea that qualitative research sometimes still, after all of these years, gets an unfair rap – it can be perceived as “soft” or not as valuable as quantitative research. I get it. Quant is measurable…it’s concrete…it’s “what” people are doing. You can easily connect the research investment back to the value of the data. Qual is more intuitive…it’s personal…subjective, it’s the “why” behind the what…. it’s well, human. It’s directly related to the human beings that brands desperately try to better understand and convince to move toward them.
Qual brings a humanity, an empathy and true understanding to the way people choose to interact with brands and how brands earn their loyalty. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this. Looking at our own relationships – if we acted solely on “hard data,” how rich and deep and special would those relationships be? The same is true for brands. Yes – qual is pretty valuable in my book.
Let me be clear: This isn’t a competition – there is great value behind both types of research. There is most definitely a place for it depending on exactly what brands need to learn. My point is, I have seen the real power behind qual and its ability to shift minds and hearts, to inspire and drive action, and there’s nothing soft about it.
In the spirit of this topic, there were two sessions at the QRCA conference which left a lasting impression about the work we do as insight researchers that I hope will inspire you as well.
The Role of Neuroscience and Qual Research
One session I attended by Dr. Carmen Simon, a leading cognitive neuroscientist, talked about the role neuroscience plays in helping brands be memorable. She shared that “every single move people make is driven by a memory – not by what we forget.” Think about that for a second – it’s simple, but powerful. Often what is memorable for us as humans is emotionally meaningful. It’s this emotion that can be a vehicle for connection between brands and people. Qual research plays a critical role in uncovering emotions surrounding perceptions and decision making by understanding people deeply and profoundly: what are their life experiences and what verbals and non-verbals do they share in the retelling of those life events? What truly motivates them and why? What values do they hold dear and how do those drive them, and across it all – why do all of these things matter? So, how as thoughtful, analytical human researchers do we get at these insights? One way is through the art and science of storytelling.
Storytelling is an Influential, Strategic Tool
I attended a brilliant session by a compelling storyteller strategist, Lisa Lipkin, and learned (or re-learned, rather) that we as humans are hardwired for stories. We’re an oral culture, and our brains are designed to tell our own stories and remember the stories of others. It’s a mechanism for survival, actually. But in our work, it goes beyond just using stories to bring brand-focused messages to life.
We can get incredibly useful insights in our research when we prompt people to share their stories and life experiences versus asking them direct questions. We call this “projective techniques,” but it just means we’re allowing people to let their guard down and share more deeply about their motivations, attitudes, beliefs and values. And it works mainly because, unlike with direct questions, there are no expectations — in the telling of their stories, people naturally open up. And getting at these deeper core emotional drivers reveals how people function in their lives.
A favorite example of this was when I led an in-home ethnography discussion with moms to learn more about the joys and challenges of motherhood so the brand could create an authentic, relatable communications campaign. Yes, I could have simply asked direct questions about the joy and challenges of motherhood (and frankly the client would have felt much more comfortable with the discussion guide if I had!). But I knew that wouldn’t get us very far.
Instead, I asked my client to trust me… and they did. In thoughtfully guiding the conversations, we got to know the participants as people. They shared stories about their own childhood, recent examples in their lives of proud moments and embarrassing ones, and, through an interactive exercise, chose objects that most represented what they treasure about parenthood and what they feel most challenged by. The stories and tears that followed were invaluable and created such a true connection, revealing a much deeper understanding of these women for the client and their ad agency. It was pretty remarkable, and something my clients and I still talk about to this day.
Time after time in my own work, I’ve seen the power of bringing humanity to the forefront of how brands interact with their customers through memories and storytelling. When I bring an open mind and an open heart to my research, I’m consistently amazed by what people reveal and how it impacts my clients and their organizations. The timing of this conference was just right – enabling me to kick off 2019 motivated and inspired by the love and energy for the work that I do.