The history of the qualitative research industry is relatively recent but no less dynamic. What’s interesting is that it’s largely a history of individuals: the character, skills and experience of individual practitioners.

Qualitative researchers are, to a significant extent, ‘self-sufficient’. They may work in a research company with many other employees or they may be sole traders. In either case, however, the nature of project work means that they can operate effectively ‘alone’. There is no significant need for complex technology nor, apart from the services of fieldwork professionals, is there an inherent need for teams of peer workers.

This state of affairs has led to an industry organised largely around ‘individual brands’. As a client, you are likely to choose the individual researcher from within an organisation, a known and named freelancer or a ‘recommendation’. A qualitative research company’s brand values are often the values of the individuals who inhabit it.

Some argue that this reliance on individuals make for an industry which is hard to ‘measure’. A new research buyer may feel that it is hard to judge value, may feel ill-equipped to select a supplier, may simply feel they don’t ‘know’ enough qualitative researchers, or what they might be in for if they opt for particular individual.

In such circumstances, nothing beats personal contact. It’s always helpful, for both buyer and practitioner, to meet before the start of the commissioning process, or even ahead of requesting a tender or proposal.

‘Human factors’ in the qualitative industry are more than a matter of business protocol. They can predict the likelihood of a successful buyer/supplier relationship for years to come. The most productive relationships, whether they have their inceptions on the beach or in the boardroom, invariably involve a meeting of minds, as well as a significant level of professional trust.

Making choices

The qualitative research community’s considerable diversity also happens to be one of its great strengths. There are few ‘standards’ to which researchers are required to operate, although the majority would say they operate within the MRS Code of Conduct.

One ‘brand’ may offer strength in particular markets; another may have a reputation for particular techniques, yet another may have a unique ability to provide flavoursome debriefs. As a buying client you may wisely choose the horse for the course and you will develop quickly a repertoire of ‘knowledge’ about which individuals, in which organisations, prove best suited to particular projects. This arrangement is, arguably, absolutely in keeping with the ‘artful science’ of qualitative research: the answer which works is the ‘right’ answer.

Over the years, within a culture of diversity and idiosyncrasy, reputations have developed inevitably, gurus have emerged, and styles of approach have been subject to fashions. The social science, psychology and anthropological roots are still evident in the emergence and contextual development of ‘techniques’. Transactional Analysis, NLP, Semiotics, Naturalistic Enquiry, Ethnography, Bricolage are all frames which have successfully been, and continue to be, used to underpin a qualitative approach to a client’s marketing problem.

Approach and methodology are, though, means of transport; some prefer to fly, others take the train. If you’re looking to buy qualitative research, plenty of discussion and interaction about your micro and macro objectives will help to ensure that all parties agree on the final destination and are comfortable with the vehicle.

Nowadays, a freelancer is just as likely to work on projects for a large Government department or manufacturing giant, as a major research player with 40+ staff is to take on a project for a small restaurant chain. Fit beats size or structure when it comes to choosing a qualitative supplier every time.

Whither qualitative research?

Qualitative research in the UK, at the dawn of the 21st Century, faces some fascinating challenges. Widespread familiarity with the term ‘focus group’ suggests, at one level, widespread understanding of what one is. Yet there is an adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

Can anyone do a focus group? What special qualities, abilities and added value does the experienced and skilled qualitative market researcher offer? How can better and wider value be achieved from these skills, disciplines and expertise?

It can be useful to consider qualitative expertise as a ‘kitbag of skills’. The ability to react, reframe, create cohesion or orchestrate discord in a group discussion takes years to develop. Groups that look ‘easy’ are undoubtedly being moderated in a very skilled manner. These same skills may be well placed in the context of facilitating a client brainstorming or strategy planning session.

And what of the need for qualitative practitioners to develop an analysis that can stimulate, create new directions, offer new insights into your market or your brand? Qualitative researchers are useful brand consultants, and there will be some who have years of experience of your market.

There is value in treating your qualitative contact as literally a ‘mine’ of information. Certainly sequential studies will benefit from the accrual of ‘wisdom’ which the research process generates -- consider the advantages of sticking with one supplier where you seek to re-visit a market issue.

Global challenges

What of the business issues? Commissioning manufacturing clients increasingly seek value for money, ‘measurable’ positive effects from their marketing and advertising budgets, and frequently qualitative research is eating a piece of this cake. They are often answerable within a global business, where, for example, spanning continents with a salient message may be more important than understanding the detail of differences between the north and south of England.

Qualitative research has been, and is, responding creatively to these kinds of challenges. Being picky and astute in choosing who to talk to, and in what fashion -- thinking beyond the ‘obvious’ clutch of group discussions -- can help to set the problem in a strategic context.

Perhaps ‘talking’ isn’t the answer at all; observation of a group of teenagers using mobile phones in the park may enrich dramatically a verbalised account of attitudes and reactions in a convened focus group. It’s unlikely that the expedient, convenient and cost-effective ‘group’ will ever diminish in popularity, but look out for, and be open to, other routes to enlightenment. Qualitative researchers are often innovative thinkers and planners, not just ‘good moderators’.

Using qualitative research to ‘create’ as well as to ‘evaluate’ is increasingly common and it is likely that this is an area where the remit will expand. What can a sample of consumers trigger in the company of a creative team? Much that is exciting, enduring and successful out there on the shelves or memorable in brand advertising had its roots in the creative dynamic generated among a group of consumers.

Future focus

Practitioners and buyers will need to focus on extending the remit of ‘qualitative’ work and responding nimbly to changing business pressures over the next decade or so. Qualitative practitioners nowadays are still the ‘social scientists’ of their ancestry, but they can also be wise tacticians, co-workers on marketing problems, temporary team members in your advertising department, consultants on organisational development,... the list goes on.

Response to changing business environments is best achieved if you ‘travel light’. In a sense this is why the ‘individual’ -- with the flexibility and diversity that this implies in a business context -- will remain the central qualitative concept. As a research buyer, finding a handful of individuals whose skills and insight you respect and trust will be the perennial basis for happy and productive buyer/supplier relationships -- and for some convivial journeying along the way.