Well into the swing of the New Year, some 25 individuals ­ representing some 17 companies and freelancers ­ made the journey from all points North to attend the first meeting of AQR North, held in Manchester.

It scored brownie points immediately. Everyone agreed (thereby perhaps conforming to an oft-mentioned but unjust Northern stereotype) that the lunch, held in the attractive private dining room of a smart brasserie, and the talk, given by Virginia Valentine of Semiotic Solutions, represented great value for money at £25 a head.

The launch of AQR North, said delegates, was long overdue. London is the city of good intentions. Many attending owned up to pencilling in AQR London events before finding the prospect of a whole day ­ and possibly the night before ­ away from base just too much. In this sense, a relatively local lunchtime meeting struck the perfect note.

The AQR is perceived to be a friendly organisation and the chance to network with other members in the area was also widely welcomed. Individual freelancers and research companies in the North compete on the national stage for work and do not necessarily know others located around them. There could have been no stronger start for this Northern initiative than the chance to hear Virginia talk about semiotics. I didn't take formal soundings from the room but the atmosphere was attentive; the questions intelligent and the applause warm. It's probably safe to say that everyone enjoyed the talk as much as those I did manage to speak to.

Knowing I was being asked to contribute this piece I did take full notes, but semiotics is a daunting subject to summarise on the back of a postcard. At the heart of Virginia's message was the view that qualitative researchers look at the wealth of information they receive from the inside out, considering the inner motivations, attitudes and beliefs of the individual and the effect those factors have on behaviour and susceptibility to messages.

Semiotics, on the other hand, imposes a disciplined framework on our understanding of 'the consumer' by asking us to consider the rules of culture surrounding and influencing those individuals from the outside in.

With perhaps a gentle nod towards qual (or perhaps I am just being insecure), Virginia was keen to underline that semiotics is not a woolly set of personal interpretations but a rigorous and disciplined tool kit which allows semioticians to agree on a world view about any issue they face.

One point worth highlighting from her talk was the contribution that semiotics can make to helping qual researchers anticipate change ­ one of the most difficult things to do in our encounters with consumers. Semiotics has a vital role to play here in asking us to get to grips with the codes or rules of categories we are exploring.

Once we have understood those core codes by taking in stimulus such as advertising and media from the wider world, we can widen our vision and take in 'peripheral codes' that are clamouring for our attention at the margins of a group discussion or bubbling up in society around us. Those are the codes that we can use to break category rules.

Take an example from mobile telephony. This category began life with a discourse heavily focused on technology. Consumers, however, soon broke free from the anoraks, letting us know by their behaviour and attitudes that mobile telephony was fast becoming a force for spontaneity in conversation and social life. Semiotics, by anticipating that glimmer of a future, can help us when we try to interpret and place weight on individual consumer feedback

At the end of the meeting there were definite moves afoot to continue this initiative in the hope that other regional brethren might join in. The organisers took note of several suggestions made for future events that they promised to follow up. Overall, the format and location seem to meet with approval and Virgin Cross Country got me home on time ­ surely a good omen for future meetings.