Buying qualitative research usually follows a set pattern. It kicks off with the Client Brief. The brief outlines the context for the project and determines what is required from the research. This should include:

  • Background to the project -- relevant information regarding the current scenario. This might involve, for example, the market structure; key brands; recent brand and market developments; the stage of the project and research learning to date
  • Objectives -- a precise definition, or list, of the information required. This needs discussion to ensure that the questions can be answered using qualitative research. All objectives may not be able to be met in one piece or stage of research
  • Future action -- specification as to what action is required following the research
  • Methodology -- an advance plan of requirements, since the research may involve two or more stages
  • Sample -- an outline of the most relevant consumers for the project
  • Timing
  • Available budget

Research proposal

Researchers will respond to the brief with a proposal, showing how they propose to satisfy those requirements. They may challenge the client on certain aspects or assumptions, but the proposal overall should demonstrate an understanding of the project and indicate how it would be approached. Typically, it would include:

  • The researcher’s interpretation of the client’s objectives
  • The methodology, possibly a mix of different qualitative research methods
  • The sample structure and specification, looking at demographics, lifestage, attitude, respondent behaviour and brand usage, depending on the project
  • An outline topic guide or some indication of how the researcher would approach interviews, groups or observation
  • Details of stimulus material likely to be required
  • Information on relevant project experience
  • Data on costing and timing

The client needs to be prepared for all the proposals to be different. Sometimes they are!

Briefing meeting

The next step is the briefing meeting, which is crucial to setting up the project. Its function is to:

  • Enable the project team to meet the researcher(s)
  • Brief and share with the researcher: inform them of where the client stands, currently, what has been developed for the research, what the thought processes and intentions are behind it, and what is hoped for from the research
  • Clarify objectives and determine what is possible realistically within the research
  • Agree the detail of the sample specification, e.g. how the recruitment of different consumer typologies should be specified. Consider who to exclude as well as to include
  • Decide what sort of stimulus material will be required to best achieve the objectives
  • Discuss and finalise the topic guide
  • Confirm locations for the research, and venue requirements
  • Clarify, if more than one researcher is involved, the different roles. Specify who has overall responsibility, and who the key contact people are for both the client team and the research team

Fieldwork and analysis

It is the researcher’s responsibility to keep clients informed of research progress. It may be advisable to build in time to review stimulus material and refine the approach, part way through the research. A telephone conversation or an interim meeting that is planned into the overall timing can resolve this.

In the case of group discussions, it is good practice to observe some of the groups, particularly in the early stages. It is worth pointing out, however, that individual groups will differ, with each group forming only part of the big picture. Guidelines on observing groups and the use and ownership of video recordings are available from AQR.


The research debrief can take a number of different forms:

  • A working meeting
  • A presentation supported with a charted research debrief document (the norm!)
  • A formal presentation followed by a full report

The preferred form should be agreed at the briefing meeting.

Choosing and working with researchers

Qualitative research is a very broad church. It encompasses a range of tools and individual researchers will approach research and projects in different ways, bringing different experience and knowledge to projects. This will influence the way in which they analyse and interpret the findings from fieldwork. Clients need to try to match the skills and experience of the researcher with the requirements of the project.

Researchers need to demonstrate experience of the following, as appropriate :

  • Areas of research specialism, e.g. advertising research, new product development, social research, retail or financial research
  • Knowledge and expertise in specialist practice, e.g. semiotics, observation
  • Specific market sectors and brand knowledge
  • Work conducted for competitive companies (confidentiality will be respected)
  • For international research, their experience in the countries of interest

Qualitative research is more than what is said by participants in the research. It brings together findings from the research, interpretation and insight and may provide models of thinking. Conclusions will be made and recommendations drawn up based on rational intelligent argument, taking on board the context and objectives of the project, and on an understanding of the response made by respondents.

Research operates within the context of time. Consumers/respondents operate within the world now, and their attitudes and behaviour are informed by the past. If clients wish to explore possibilities for the future (for brands, products, services), it is beneficial to illustrate what that world could look like and use that to build on and develop new ideas. The more thinking and development put into research, the more can be got out of it. It is unfair, however, to expect respondents to do the client’s job, by taking strategic business decisions.

It is beneficial for both those commissioning the research and the researchers to develop a good working relationship based on openness and trust. Often researchers can make a valuable contribution to planning research, developing ideas and providing direction, developing stimulus material . . . as well as doing the actual research.

Clients may wish to share the findings of previous research with researchers, to enhance current understanding and avoid duplication. All researchers are obliged to maintain confidentiality. Knowledge of a client’s business and developments in the research are treated with utmost confidence

Costing research

When costing the research, it is essential to clarify what is included in the cost. Some things to watch out for:

  • The length of interviews or groups and their location will influence the cost
  • The researcher should state whether or not travel, accommodation costs and other expenses are be included. If not, the client should ask for an estimate
  • The cost of special venues, e.g. viewing facilities, hotel location, should be considered
  • The cost of hiring special equipment, e.g. vhs/u-matic playback, computers, refrigeration, etc., should be determined

The cost of stimulus material and products required for the research is not usually included in a costing

International research

Qualitative research conducted in different countries and across countries presents additional issues to be considered:

All countries are different in their social, cultural, political and commercial make up. It is, therefore, important to brief researchers on differences across markets/countries and ensure that research is set up to identify and understand differences in social, behavioural and attitudinal findings

When more than one country is involved, it is beneficial to develop a consistent approach but to allow flexibility to accommodate country differences

The research process varies according to the scale and nature of the project, the experience of the researchers, the client’s familiarity with the researchers and, of course, cost. It is ideal for all researchers to be both briefed and debriefed together in order to highlight any country differences This can, however, be costly

Some things to clarify when buying international research:

  • The briefing process: when and where will it take place and who is responsible for the briefing?
  • Who is conducting the actual fieldwork and what is their background and experience?
  • If more than one country is involved, a common discussion guide needs to be agreed, or country differences clarified
  • Who is responsible for analysis and interpretation? This should be someone who has conducted the fieldwork or who has observed most if not all of it and who works closely with the local researcher
  • Will the debriefing process include all the participating countries or just the project owner? This will vary according to the requirements of individual projects

When planning the budget for international research, check that everything needed is included. Don’t forget . . .

  • Travel and accommodation expenses, for local fieldwork and briefing/debriefing
  • Additional executive time to brief/debrief in another country
  • The cost of translating individual country debriefs and summary debrief (and transcripts if required)
  • Simultaneous translation, if observers are watching groups who are not fluent in the language being spoken
  • Viewing facility/venue costs
  • The cost of translating stimulus material and extra sets of stimulus material
  • To allow for exchange rate fluctuation

You may find it useful to have a consistent structure or framework for debriefing. It will allow country differences to emerge, and will make life easier for the reader!

International research requires more time than conducting research in one country. Allow for this when planning international research projects

The list may sound daunting, but a checklist is the easiest way to cover all bases. And for novices in this area, it can also prevent costly mistakes.