The Soft Stuff: Qualitative Analysis

Over the past few columns, we’ve looked at the various data sources that potentially bring insight into how effectively the Web channel performs. I’ve concentrated on the data sources available apart from your site-centric Web analytics system. To round off that theme this week, let’s take a brief look at qualitative research.

This isn’t my area of specialization. I generally prefer having lots of numbers to deal with, and Web data in all its forms provides plenty. However, with all the hard data from Web analytics systems, surveys, panels, and the like, you still only get part of the story. To really understand your users, you also need some of the softer stuff.

Qualitative data can come from a number of external research sources, such as focus groups, usability research, and mystery shopping. You may also have some internal sources of information, such as feedback forms on your site and email.

In an ideal world, this type of qualitative data is used in conjunction with quantitative data. They complement rather than replace one another. For example:

  • A satisfaction survey highlights increased dissatisfaction among a particular group of site users. An online focus group is used to understand the source of dissatisfaction in more depth.

  • A focus group is used to determine the best messages to use in a new online campaign. A survey is run to determine whether people were aware of the new campaign and picked up on the key messages.
  • Site-centric data reveals that 50 percent of people abandon a particular application process before completion. A usability study is conducted to learn why people abandon the application process.
  • Internal customer data shows a significant portion of people stop using an online banking system within two months of registering. A focus group of lapsed customers is conducted to understand the reasons.

As with all things, there are tradeoffs and choices to be made, particularly when budgets are tight and decisions about where to invest must be made. But qualitative data needn’t be expensive. In some cases, it’s free. The challenge is to pull out the threads from what’s being said and to understand the core messages. This is the role of a skilled moderator in a focus group, for example.

A growing aspect of qualitative research is increased use of online focus groups. Traditional focus groups are held in physical locations. They bring people together to discuss a particular topic in a room or facility. Over the past few years, we’ve seen online focus groups developed that bring people together to discuss a topic over the Web; either in real time or using threaded discussions.

Real-time focus groups may involve six to eight people interacting in a purpose-built virtual focus group room. One advantage is respondents can participate from the location of their choice. Depending on time zones and language issues, you could get people in an online focus group from around the world.

Another type of online focus group is a threaded discussion board. These discussions may involve larger numbers of respondents and take place on bulletin boards. This type of research allows respondents not only to choose where they participate from, but also to control the timing of their contribution.

Some advantages of online focus groups:

  • They can be much cheaper than traditional focus groups.

  • The output or transcript from the session is available immediately. There’s no need to wait for the moderator to write up notes or a video to be edited.
  • Remote participation allows people to participate from their preferred location and enables groups to be held across multiple locations, time zones, countries, and so forth.

There are also potential disadvantages with online focus groups. In some offline focus group work, for example, an experienced moderator can discover much not only from what people say but also their non-verbal behavior and body language. It’s more difficult to interpret these types of nuances in a remote online group. Online groups undoubtedly have a role, but they may not be a complete substitute for offline groups when that type of eyeball-to-eyeball contact is needed.

Let’s talk more about customer insight than just Web analytics. Qualitative data, survey data, panel data, customer data, and so on all have a role to play in helping us think about how we can improve our digital marketing activities’ effectiveness.

Be customer-centric, not site-centric!

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