“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” the famous problem-solver Sherlock Holmes once said. But what exactly do we mean when we use the word ‘data’? These days when marketers use the term, it’s often assumed they’re referring to numbers.
In business, numbers are powerful, ever-present, and eye-popping. They help turn complex stories about revenue and customers into things that are easy to digest, like dollar figures, delta percentages, and conversion rates.
But despite the rise of quantitative data, we can’t forget about its quiet cousin: qualitative. Quantitative data is numbers, but qualitative data is narrative—how and why those numbers came to be. The words have explanatory Latin roots. Quantitas refers to “amount” and “size,” and qualitas refers to an item’s “peculiarities.”
For us marketers, quantitas is what the results literally are, and qualitas contextualizes them. To build an effective marketing strategy, we need to think from both a quantitative and qualitative POV.
There are many ways to conduct qualitative research. The two easiest are probably to launch lightbox polls on your homepage or to email surveys to prospects and customers. The most challenging way is to verbally interview people, face to face or by phone. Whichever method you choose, you must invest time, energy, and expertise to do it well! The more people you study, the more questions you ask, and the deeper you want your insights to be—the more resources you’ll spend.
Companies also need talented people on staff to conduct qualitative research. Team members will need to be able to ask clear, compelling questions that don’t lead respondents—even accidentally—toward certain answers, which is a skill often formed with training in a social science like sociology, psychology, journalism, history, or politics.
Professor David Craig, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Oklahoma, reminds us that “audiences have their own biases that color their reading of wording.” It’s not what you ask, but how you ask it.
For marketers, this means there is a big difference between asking segments, “Why did you travel this year?” and “Why did you travel in 2016?” The first question is neutral, but the second is not. The words “in 2016” could make people start comparing this year to last year, which is more mental work than you would likely intend. For people who don’t travel often, the words “in 2016” could make them feel bad with the implication that traveling at least once per year is ‘normal.’ This negative feeling could make them not want to answer the question at all.
Word choice is also critical in qualitative marketing because companies need open-ended questions to get qualitative answers. Open-ended questions are “exploratory” and let people “provide any answer they choose without forcing them to select from concrete options” (Fluid Surveys).
To contrast, close-ended questions limit the possible answers people can give, and often manifest as multiple choice, questions that have answers in dropdown menus, or questions that ask people to rank items based on preference.
Close-ended answers are easier to review, but they leave the door open for misleading data. Open-ended answers are harder to organize and find patterns in, but they can reveal more precise, nuanced, and even unforeseen trends in customer behavior.
Let’s say there’s a national retailer—Theodore’s Threads—that specializes in custom shirts. Before it buys the expensive dyes it needs for coloring, T.T. asks site visitors in an online poll, “What’s your favorite shirt color?” The poll lets visitors pick red, blue, green, or yellow from a dropdown menu, and blue eventually wins with more than half the vote. But what has the retailer truly learned? Careful marketers realize that T.T has not learned most voters want a blue shirt! It has learned that most voters want a blue shirt when their only other option is a red, green, or yellow shirt.
Let’s imagine now that T.T. puts up a new poll—this time, there’s a blank text field instead of a dropdown menu, where visitors can type in any color they want. Even if blue still ends up winning (it is everyone’s favorite color, after all), the open-ended nature of the question helps new patterns emerge. The retailer can see now, for the first time, that ‘orange’ is entered most often by users from Tennessee—where the college football Volunteers, the state’s most popular team, play every Saturday in orange and white.
It can see that ‘purple’ is entered most often by users who live in Minnesota, where music legend Prince was born and where his famous film Purple Rain was set and shot. It can also see that ‘brown’ is entered a lot by users in Rhode Island, where the prestigious Brown University is located, and that ‘black’ is entered most by users who live in the Northeast, where the heat-holding color helps them in cold weather.
These trends show Theodore’s Threads how things like climate, academia, sports, and pop culture can influence their customers’ decisions.
“But couldn’t the retailer have learned that just by including more obvious colors in its close-ended poll?” you may be thinking. “Who doesn’t include orange, purple, brown, or black in a color poll?” Good question! Remember, though: The goal is to explicitly know that each respondent’s answer is his or her true feeling, and not simply a true-ish feeling or the most true feeling of a limited number of options. Marketers aren’t mind readers.
No data-gathering technique can list every possible answer. (And even if it could, who would read something that long?) With an open-ended question, users do the hard, validating work for you—choosing their answer from, literally, an infinite mental field.
Open-ended questions are also unique for their ability to show ‘meta’ trends: how people reply. For example, Theodore’s Threads could observe that female users are more likely to enter specific colors, like ‘dark blue’ or ‘indigo’ instead of just ‘blue.’ This kind of insight could tell the retailer it might increase purchases for female users by writing more detailed descriptions for t-shirts that have women’s styles.
Business is tough and it demands numbers. But that doesn’t mean we should neglect narratives! Invest in the qualitative side of marketing research to discover the beliefs and ideas that influence your segments’ behavior. With neutral word choice and open-ended questions, you can be more confident in customer trends and even discover new ones, which you can use to make new, more profitable strategies.
Another thing to invest in is a data management platform or DMP. A solid data management platform (DMP) and strategy are imperative if marketers want to create audience communications that deliver quality engagements.
Download Maximize Your Marketing: Eight Questions To Ask As You Introduce A Data Management Strategy to discover how to use data to drive real results.