Bryan is co-founder, CEO and Chairman of the Consumer Knowledge Centre. He worked previously in marketing and product development in the food industry and the banking/financial services industry.
Read the full biography here
The power of qualitative data mining
By Bryan Urbick - 20th October, 2011
The world of research is very much for those with an inquisitive, curious nature. Good researchers are the ones who always search for patterns within patterns, themes, trends and insights. They try to separate the black areas from the white, all the while peering through the grey areas.
The world of the brand marketer on the other hand is much more focused on single objectives, often honing in on a few projects at a time. They tend to work in silos and their goals are much more channeled.
As a consequence, generally speaking, research is commissioned on a project by project basis. Large corporations can spend literally hundreds of thousands of pounds every year on providing their brand managers with relevant, in-depth research for their specific categories, brands and products.
We were approached, some years ago, by a company who had huge deliverables but a very limited budget. It made us really think about the way we all operate, and more to the point, how excellent research should not have such a limited shelf life. Even if brand managers do their very best to wring the last drop of insight out of a research project does not mean that it can’t be re-used, re-viewed, but in another manner.
We opted to put our theory to the test. To start, we overlaid findings from over 150 research reports that related to a broad spectrum of brand themes. This enabled us to observe a new picture emerging - not unlike those mind-boggling patterns that you need to step back and squint at to see a specific, previously unseen image.
I wish I could suggest a great software program to do this job. We did (and still do) it the old-fashioned way: reading, highlighting, taking notes and grouping concepts and ideas into themes. After we go through it once, we review again to make sure that we didn’t miss anything, and then build and refine the hypotheses. The first project took about 240 man hours to review about 80 projects – since that first project we have been able to reduce the time by about one-third. Admittedly this may seem counter-intuitive, but in reality the fact that experienced researchers were reviewing the data meant that further connections with other research projects could be made; certainly not high-tech, but highly insightful.
This approach was not simply a matter of recycling old information, far from it. What we wanted to do was leverage existing learnings in a wider, holistic context. We were not merely going back over individual research projects one by one, but literally superimposing all of the insights and seeing where common threads started to appear. Taken on their own these insights might have little to no impact, yet when seen in a cross-brand/cross-category context, these insights can start repeating and compounding, showing that something more fundamental may be going on.
For instance, in one of our early research reviews, we found that one research project highlighted (unsurprisingly) that mothers focus on healthy food solutions for their children – the thrust of the entire project focused on mum wanting the very best food for her child. A few months later, for a different category, another research was conducted that mentioned a seemingly random insight about mother’s desire to treat kids. We saw the same ‘treat’ insight in subsequent projects across several categories, though almost throw-away in the way they were mentioned. We then saw another strand in several other projects in which mums felt obligated to give their children food they liked, no matter if healthy or not – and we saw this behaviour heightened when she was wanting to provide a special treat for her child. By putting all the pieces together, the idea of a healthful treat suddenly had more merit – and as a result, drove very different innovation and brand building ideas.
We soon found, in subsequent review projects, that leveraging existing learnings (though looked at in a new way; a new perspective) is an extremely valuable exercise. What a good researcher is looking for in this type of research is quite different from going over one single research project - again it goes back to exploring emerging patterns. This enabled us to establish what bridges across a portfolio could be built to utilise momentum from one brand or category and cross-fertilise with the insights from another.
We found it particularly powerful in defining what ‘disruptions’ needed to occur to alter the rules of the categories, through to analysing what knowledge gaps started cropping up. It is precisely these types of fresh insights, drawn from archived research which can be utilised across entire brand portfolios and foster common understanding.
The real power of a research review is from the wide range of different connections that occur when reviewing a bigger data set. Qualitative data is, of course, by its nature very different – and does have many more assumptions of drivers of attitudes and values (all the ‘why’ questions). Though often based on small sample sizes, and focused on specific attitudes and behaviours for which they are screened, when reviewing en mass, a more solid understanding can be gleaned. These days, when we conduct research reviews for our clients, we consider qualitative and quantitative findings for the previous 3 – 5 years (depending on the project scope), so are considering learnings from thousands of consumers.
Pair hindsight with the creation of a multi-dimensional strategic framework, and we start to identify (and explore to some extent) potential ‘white space’ areas of opportunity, as well as ‘grey space’ areas (areas that are theoretically covered, but perhaps not well/not completely). This multi-dimensional framework helps establish some clear hypotheses as ways to best tackle these ‘white space’ and ‘grey space’ areas – focusing on areas of greatest potential. And from this strategic overview, a series of potential directions can be drafted to consider for future exploration, and can, of course, be further researched in their own right.
This approach offers brand teams the opportunity to find out, without a huge outlay of expenditure, relevant truths that could be further exploited. Done correctly this methodology should provide the internal confidence needed to explore new themes, that ultimately lead to new brand extensions and positioning strategies.
As we all know, nothing is ever black and white. And though the qualitative research review approach might appear to be throwing everything together and creating confusion, it actually provides invaluable results that save tens of thousands of pounds, and months of time too. The cost (assuming a review of about 60 projects) is roughly the amount of one project of 6 traditional focus groups, and it takes 2 – 3 weeks from beginning the review to final report and recommendations.
This type of review should be seen as the way to generate a powerful road-map for innovative and fresh insights. By pulling together all the elements that not only make up a product, but the category, the brand and the context, as well as the consumer, brand teams and researchers have the potential for enormous clarity - even if it might feel counter-intuitive in the first instance!
Having said that, there will always be enormous value in the way that research is undertaken project by project. However, despite what brand and category teams may believe, lots of important information can be gained even years after the original research was undertaken. In context, hindsight is a powerful thing.
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