The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Focus on USP

Qualitative research, Neil Lovell argues, has become a victim of its own success. Itís now time to show buyers that quality - not cost - should be the benchmark by which practioners are judged

Once we were a rare breed. Now, it’s hard to go out without stepping over a qualitative researcher. Many might argue that more means less, and I'd agree with them in the main: qualitative research runs the risk of becoming a devalued commodity.

So why has it fallen off its pedestal or, more specifically, why are qualitative researchers apparently losing out to PR agencies and management consultants when it comes to getting the business? And what's to be done if the industry is to recover its erstwhile prestige? How do we reclaim our territory from the invaders?

Take responsibility

It is no good grumbling about outsiders poaching business which we regard as naturally ours. Qualitative research projects are not a birthright. If PR agencies and management consultancies are stealing our thunder, it can only be because our collective guardianship of our own business has failed. And rather than complaining about it, we need to question how this situation has arisen if we want to move ahead.

Qualitative research is, to an extent, the victim of its own success. At the most basic level, buyers certainly have more choice (although how those choices might be made is an issue in itself, discussed below). As for qualitative researchers, it's debatable whether the swelling of their own number has done them any favours.

It's certainly made the business more cut-throat, and rather than making practitioners more confident of their own value, instead it’s added to the pressure to win jobs at any cost just to survive.

Put simply, a situation has been allowed to develop where qualitative research is often bought on cost - and, for that matter, where we cost for every job as if it's the same. As soon as any commodity starts operating to a ratecard, it inevitably becomes more difficult to present as a specialism: and the door is opened for outsiders to flood in.

Charge for expertise

The cost of our product - almost uniquely for a service industry - gives virtually no indication of its quality. Qualitative researchers in the UK have failed sadly to impress upon research buyers the value of expertise, and continue to be too timid when it comes to charging for experience.

Unfortunately, the entire industry has been running to a pretty set rate for the best part of ten years. It’s no wonder that research buyers assume that there's little significant difference between agencies A, B, or C: their prices are all much the same.

In practically every other area of business services, experience and quality naturally command a premium - with a range of options available from top drawer to bargain bucket - but this reasoning never seems to have penetrated through into the research world.

I know of no other industry that clings so closely to a ratecard, and until we give clients a convincing enough reason to look beyond it, they'll cling to it too, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. I've even had clients who've expected me to charge less for a job in an area where I've had particular experience on the grounds that 'you know about it already, so it's less work for you'.

This would never happen in other professions, and the sooner the industry breaks out of this mentality, the better for all concerned. A ratecard for qualitative research is, in any case, a strange confection. No two projects are ever the same in terms of the recruitment, moderation, or analysis. Some are relatively straightforward. Others are highly complex. Neither, for that matter, do all researchers produce the same kind of work. So why does everyone keep charging as if they do?

Build some differential

For people who spend their time advising clients on how to differentiate themselves from their competitors, very few agencies appear prepared to sample any of the medicines from their own cabinet. There are some honourable exceptions. Research buyers are, however, hampered in the selection process because as a rule the branding of individual qualitative agencies is so desperately weak.

In the ten years that I've been following the industry, a bare half a dozen agencies spring to mind with anything particularly distinctive to say about themselves. That doesn't say much about the others, who appear relatively content to drift around in a sea of sameness. It's really not surprising that research buyers often focus on cost alone.

Individual qualitative agencies need to find something new to say about themselves, and to impress a greater sense of personality on their brands. It’s not necessarily a matter of inventing new products or technology, both are which are undeniably useful but are often assumed to be the sole means they have of distinguishing themselves from the competition. Rather, it's a matter of attitude, style, and philosophy - all attributes which most agencies lack, or fail to communicate with any degree of effectiveness.

A valuable first step would be in producing materials with a stronger visual identity, thus creating some sense of agency character. A glance through a sample of work from different qualitative agencies presents a depressingly uniform picture. Remove the logo and there's no way of telling who's produced it.

Considering that technology is what many agencies tout as their key advantage, a remarkable number still manage to produce presentations and reports which look as though they were chiselled into Word Perfect circa 1993. If I could offer just one piece of advice to the industry as a whole: get some decent presentation software. Learn how to use it. And see what a difference it immediately makes to how clients see your brand.

Draw a line

Other articles in this selection refer to clients wanting more and more for their money, and to our own fear of saying no, through fear of losing business in an over-saturated market. These points are all valid. I wonder seriously whether much of what goes under the name of qualitative research nowadays merits the description.

In the very worst cases, 'qualitative' is no longer motivational research but virtual mini-quant. Everyone must be familiar with the pressure from clients to include more and more within topic guides. If these demands were followed - and it can be extremely hard not to follow them when clients make them - 'qualitative' would end up as a virtual straw poll of a grab-bag of topics, rather than in-depth exploration.

It's fine accepting this kind of work - nobody should be turning away what keeps us all employed. It’s important, however, to separate it from real qualitative research because it devalues the main brand. It contributes to the impression that qualitative research is simply a research method - or worse, a technique - or even a module learnt on a degree course rather than a profession which takes years of practice.

Rebel status

My last suggestion is a more emotional one. Qualitative researchers need to reclaim their rebel status. Romantic as it may sound, when I first started working as a researcher I felt like a pop star, because pop stars and qualitative researchers seemed, in a strange strange way, to have so much in common.

The more I think about it, the more sense the comparison actually makes. Pop and qualitative research were born at around the same time, during the post-war consumer explosion where class no longer depended on birthright and where cool replaced school as the key influence on who you were and where your money went.

Both flourished in a society which rapidly adopted TV as (i) its chief source of information about the world and (ii) its guide to a new world of brand values. From this initial starting point both qualitative research and pop grew up in parallel to deal with the same themes and issues. They diagnosed what was happening in society, connected with what people were really feeling, and offered clues as to what they were ready for next.

Qualitative researchers and pop stars may have stayed in different hotels, but, at least in the UK, their mutual understanding of the high street was pretty much the same. Unlikely partners? Not really, if you consider that consumerism was always the driving force behind both.

Nostalgic it may be, but you have to hand it to those early researchers. They revelled in their rebel status. Like the best pop stars, they followed a manifesto constructed around the three tenets of marginality, a refusal to compromise, and a firm belief in subjectivity as a virtue. They characterised themselves as outsiders, independent agents blessed with a magic touch. They also regarded the world as their oyster.

Like pop, however, qualitative research also grew up and, in the process, hung up its leather jacket. During the 80s and 90s, qualitative research presented a convenient means of upping the 'creative' tag for many large agencies - and joining the establishment inevitably entailed qualitative researchers cleaning up their act. For me, at least, that's the core of the problem. We weren't really knocked off our perch. We got greedy and jumped.

If qualitative research really wants to get back on to a pedestal, it needs to recapture some of its original danger. It needs to rebel again, which will require a lot more daring and belief in what it really stands for than it's had in a long time.

So finally...

Ditch the ratecard and cost for the job. After all, it's only what every other business in the world does.

Practise what you preach. If you don't have anything interesting to say about yourself, is it any wonder clients don‘t listen?

And remember what qualitative research was supposed to stand for in the first place. To get around obstacles you sometimes need to use reverse.

 

Neil Lovell
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004