Why not take a walk on the wild side?
Kevin McLean of Wardle McLean investigates how structured and naturally occurring conversations can offer different insights into the company and consumer 'agenda'.
A tale of two agendas
There is an old joke: "I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not
Sometimes, it seems to me as if everything has changed in the
relationship between advertisers and consumers. At others, these
changes seem superficial. Can both things be true at one and the
In commercial qualitative research we are paid by a company to
talk to consumers about things that matter, ultimately, to that
company. Ultimately we end up mediating between the two sets
of interests: the client's commercial interests and what interests
Normally, where there is overlap or mutuality of interests, there
is business to be done. They launch a new shampoo; I see it as
making me look better, shared interest, sold. But if they launch a
new shampoo and I see it as just the same but more expensive,
What is changing, I think, are these two things:
- Some people are becoming more aware of their interests-as-consumers and of companies' interests-as-companies.
- Some companies are embracing this more open, more interactive relationship with consumers.
It is now widely accepted that 21st century marketing is about a
two-way, interactive engagement, rather than one-way selling.
At the start of mass production, Henry T Ford is said to have
declared: "you can have any colour as long as it's black."
Nowadays, you can have all of the colours in all of the sizes and
much more besides.
This relationship' is not a real or a personal relationship,
of course, but a metaphorical one. I am not really related to
Unilever or to any of their brands, although I may buy them.
It's a figure of speech we use to ascribe meaning and importance
As a side note, it is interesting that linguistically we both
exaggerate meaning by personalising marketing (relationship',
brand loyalty', brand preference', etc.,) while simultaneously
depersonalising it with the consumer' construct.
Consuming is an economic transaction, a unit of economic
currency. So it makes consumption seem measurable and
predictable. So consumer loyalty' is an oxymoron, a consumer
can no more be loyal than a robot can fall in love, even though
both are easy to imagine, through our use of language.
The point is that qualitative research is in the middle of a subtle
but noticeable shift in the power relations' between companies
and their agenda and people-as-consumers who have a different
agenda' or interests.
Everything at a crossroads
Keith Weed, Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, described
marketing as at a crossroads: "Marketing has, from the very
beginning, with William Lever, Henry Ford and others, been about
building brands based on serving consumers. I wonder whether if,
in the 21st century, we've got marketing too much as a sales
machine, and we need to think a little bit more about how we get
back to serving consumers in the breadth of what needs to be done?"
Capitalism itself is at a crossroads, according to economist Umair
Haque in The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively
Better Business (2011, HBR). "Business to date has produced
thin value' short-term economic gains that accrue to some people
far more than others (and needs to) learn to create authentic,
lasting value for (people), shared value'."
It was this sense of a shift in the corporate and the
consumer/citizen agendas that led me to research and then give a
paper at the AQR/QRCA conference, Rome 2012, on the
subject of what clients now want from qualitative research and
from qualitative research methods.
Seeing as crossroads were popular places to be, I started there
too: "Qualitative research at a crossroads: where to now?"
Together with seven other researchers around the world, we
interviewed 26 clients in six countries: France, UK, China,
Australia, Brazil and the US.
All roads lead to Rome
The key trends in qualitative methods, according to these clients,
- more online qual, e.g. use of panels and communities;
- more of a behavioural focus (observation, user-generated content);
- more interest in other forms of face-to-face than focus groups, e.g. workshops, direct interaction between clients and consumers (e.g. co-creation').
It was striking that among all of the calls for new approaches and
the criticisms of some existing methods, at its heart the
qualitative inquiry was still based on core skills such as curiosity
<i>"The fundamentals have not changed. We still need to
know why people do what they do. The basic skill is
(still) about wondering why."</i> (UK client)
Our role has expanded and the emphasis has shifted, but at its
heart remains the same, to
"be wide-eyed and curious but business savvy".
"listen (which is) happening less and less." (US client)
Of course, in the world of qualitative research methods, one
method is disproportionately represented, which is the focus
Focus Groups vs Face-to-Face
Focus groups were first used in 1941 by Paul Lazarsfeld and
Robert Merton at Columbia University to examine the impact
of media on people's attitudes towards the involvement of the
United States in World War II.
ESOMAR estimated (2007) that 77% of all qualitative research
commissioned used face-to-face methods (i.e. groups and
interviews, etc.). But if you believed what you heard within
marketing services, at least from those with a vested interest in
promoting their own methods, you'd think that doing focus
groups' was to marketing what using leeches' was to modern
There is a lot of fear and uncertainty in marketing services at the
moment. Everybody is running scared and nobody wants to be
left behind or to be seen to be Doing the Wrong Thing'. There is
a lot of noise in the system.
So when Diageo launched its 2012 Consumer Planning Team
manifesto Say No to Focus Groups' what it really meant was,
say no to doing qualitative research badly for the wrong reasons'.
When a consumer insight manager between jobs started a thread
on Linked In called "have classical group methodologies had their
The qualitative inquiry clearly lends itself extremely well to faceto-
face conversations, which I would call our spiritual home in
methodological terms, the source of our power and purpose.
But qualitative researchers have become so associated with
moderating focus groups that this perhaps gets in the way of
clients seeing the real power of what we do.
A focus group is actually well suited for tackling issues within the
client agenda, for which it was designed. There is nothing wrong
with focus groups properly set up and well run, for the right
reasons. But focus groups are less well suited for exploring
By being so closely associated with focus groups, we are like
gardeners who are only ever seen working in a greenhouse.
Is it not time for us to explore further the garden outside the
greenhouse, then hop over the wall and take a walk on the wild
I think this is what clients want us to do, to be braver and bolder
and to go where our skills take us, to get further into consumers'
experience, not just to report on their reports of their experience.
As well as being more business-savvy, of course.
Who says you can't have it all ways, when you're paying?
After the Rome conference I decided to do an experiment into
research using real conversations'.
I know that this is not unfamiliar ground to social and academic
researchers. There is an excellent piece in a previous In Depth on
Conversational Analysis, for example. And, of course,
ethnographic methods are all the rage and pre-date focus groups.
But I suspect that the vast majority of qualitative research
conversations are invited, paid-for and somewhat structured
conversations, in the form of IDIs and FGDs, to use the jargon.
So how can we explore what really matters to people, what is on
their agenda' so to speak?
The age of conversation
Business in today's social media age is awash with conversation'.
The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999 declared that markets are
conversations'. But the concept has moved on. Now it is
everywhere, from Twitter's join the conversation' through
Huffpost's recent conversations start here' to titles, such as The
Age of Conversations.
A good summary comes from Tom Fishburne's keynote address
at Google's marketing conference on 12 September, 2012,
Marketing Worth Sharing':
So if the new marketing agenda is all about a genuine
conversation with consumers, in order to find out what is worth
saying and sharing, how can research tap into real conversations'?
There is a range of conversation types, from completely natural
(wild') to those that are more familiar, structured and
1) conversations overheard/eavesdropping;
2) naturally-occurring conversations;
3) invited conversations with real people;
4) loosely structured, invited conversations with respondents;
5) tightly structured Q&A with respondents.
There is some interesting work being done using eavesdropping,
listening in to what people are saying, where the listener is not
part of the conversation.
Sometimes this is designed more to entertain than inform.
There is also a lot of interest right now in oral history (people's
history') and in building up a picture of society from naturally
occurring or invited real conversations', as in the BBC's Listening
Project[14, 15], which is based on StoryCorps in the US.
Studs Terkel, the world's greatest interviewer', was a famous
gatherer of people's stories across America. "He believed that
everyone had the right to be heard and had something important
One of the most interesting examples of impromptu
conversations with real people I heard recently was on the radio,
Don't Log Off, in which journalist Alan Dein locks himself away
for a week to talk to people on the internet. He starts with
nothing, just an online profile which says talk to me'.[18, 19]
Listening post experiemnt
Together with three others (Geoff Bayley, Nick Long and Zuleika
Carter), I set up an experiment this summer in Borough Market.
We called it the Listening Post and the idea was to find out where
an unplanned, impromptu conversation with members of the
public could go.
We set up two tables with chairs one Friday lunchtime, put out
some soft drinks and set off around the market with placards
and fliers to invite people to come and chat to us. Probably not
the first of its kind, but new to us: pop-up group discussions.
Although I know Borough Market well, it was strangely
unnerving at first. It made me realise how much most paid-for
MR conversations are within the comfort zone of a highly
controlled environment. Normally, we call the shots.
Of course, a lot of people didn't really get what we were doing
including Borough Market Trustees who assumed we must be
selling something. What was the point? What was the catch?
This is a good reminder of the importance of context.
But through perseverance and props (large picture of an ear) and
bad puns (is there any other kind? In this case, we're ear to
listen'), people came, they sat down and they talked. We listened.
It's a powerful thing, listening. Really listening. Not just Active
Listening but Unconditional Listening, i.e. listening without
It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it can lead to some
very interesting places. I think that we as qualitative researchers
take this for granted and that we should make much more of it.
Between us we had about 12 conversations of between about 15
and 25 minutes, mainly in twos and threes (small tables) with a
variety of passers-by, some friendship groupings, some strangers.
We said at the start that we were interested in whatever interested
or mattered to them. There was no agenda, no commercial
interests, just a conversation. It was a fascinating experiment and
afterwards we compared notes and came to the following
- Spontaneously convened conversations with strangers really work, there were no serious obstacles to people engaging and sharing views.
- Those who took part clearly enjoyed the experience, despite British culture being well known for diffidence, spontaneous conversations with strangers not being normal'.
- Compared to focus groups it was surprising how quickly and how easily people moved to deep and quite sensitive topics.
- A very wide range of topics was covered: pensions, government, politics, royalty, community, personal identity, banks, financial crisis, British culture, London, immigration, personal values, family, career, future prospects, Afghanistan.
- The setting (just off a busy market) and the fact that people knew they could go whenever they wanted, helped give the feeling that everything was out in the open.
- With no clients, no interview guide, no stimulus tucked away, it was very freeing far less performance anxiety.
- Several people found it almost cathartic to rant and vent their feelings to someone who wanted to listen. Maybe there are limited options to do this (radio talk shows?) How much anxiety and mind space do these issues normally take up?
- Handing over control and the agenda to the public helped to make the conversations very productive: as one person said at the end, "It's good to let people dance to their own tune (I) feel better for it, it's been good to let it out."
Here is an excerpt from the start of one pop-up group. It took
less than 30 seconds to get on to the ultimate question'. The
participants were three men in their 20s who knew each other,
possibly work colleagues, all wearing suits (apologies for the lack
of proper CA annotation).
we're just interested in what matters to
1: "Well I'm at an early stage in my career so I'm wondering
where is it heading "
2: " or is it heading?" (laugh)
<b>1: " yeah and is it the best?"
3: "It's the ultimate coin toss. The three of us, in suits, but is it the bohemian lifestyle, spending time travelling, or doing a job?"
1: "Do you commit your life to fiscal gain, getting material things, property, or you can live, I suppose, by other values, more spiritual values maybe."
3: "It's the ultimate question, how do you live your life?"
We intend to repeat our Listening Post experiment, but one question which arose was, how can any of this fascinating content be made of value to clients?
The following two case studies are from people who have successfully done just that: made a business model out of real conversations.
MD, Wardle McLean
This article was first published in InDepth magazine, September 2012
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012