I used to work as the Marketing Director of an e-shop, but there was a time of year when titles didn’t matter. Every year, the days between December 10 and Christmas were spent in the client support team. You were expected to help with the quick spike of customer requests no matter your position. I’d spend that time on the phone or chat, assisting shoppers in choosing the best product and answering questions about the company. And I loved it. Because this two-week support sprint gave me valuable insights into who our customers really were.
The more digital we become, the shier marketers seem to get about talking to customers in real life. Sure, we focus on data, but most come from Google Analytics, A/B testing results, and different quantitative information sources. But they will only show you half the picture. They can tell you what is happening, but not why. And they are far less informative when it comes to messaging and customer development.
So today, let’s talk about qualitative marketing research – what it is, why you need it, and how to do it right.
What is qualitative research?
Quantitative research relies on aggregate numbers. It’s great if you want to uncover trends in customer behavior or the most common characteristics of your target audience.
Qualitative data will help you dive deeper. Collecting customer feedback can help you understand why they act the way they do. It will also show you customer characteristics that can’t simply be put into numbers – like their motivations, anxieties, wants, and needs.
Both research methods have merit, and the best insights come from a mix of the two approaches.
However, I see qualitative research used less often in marketing. I think it’s because the process of collecting and analyzing data requires more time. Doing 1-on-1 interviews takes more time and effort than getting the tech team to install some on-site tracking. And data analysis is a beast of its own.
So it’s no wonder that marketers don’t do a ton of qualitative research. And it’s precisely why you need to master it – to get one leg up on your competitors.
When do you need qualitative research – and what to ask?
There are a ton of situations where qualitative research can be useful, and I definitely won’t cover all of them. But here are the most common ones.
When you’re writing copy and crafting messaging
There’s this popular saying that “copy is assembled”, not written. And in my experience this is one hundred percent true. No matter how good a copywriter you are, you’ll never resonate with your audience better than if you use their own words.
My favorite approach is collecting customer feedback and then using that information when crafting landing pages, ads, and other marketing materials. This can be done as a one-off campaign with a survey or through ongoing data collection on a Thank you page.
I usually use open-ended questions like these (square brackets are the parts you need to customize for your own product):
- What was going on in your life that made you [do the key action the customer just did]? – this question is designed to dig into the use cases and scenarios your audience is in when they reach out to you. It can help you craft a “This product is perfect for you if…” section on a landing page or use as the opening of an ad.
- What do you fear might happen if you don’t [take care of the problem our product helps solve]? – this will help you grasp the customer pain and will help you dramatize that pain in marketing copy.
- How do you imagine your life will change when you [fulfill the goal our product helps with]? – this question gives you details about the end outcome customers look for. You’ll use the information to craft a believable “rosy future” scenario without going off the rails into marketing utopia.
When you’re building audience personas and doing broader customer research
You might’ve already seen this meme:
Still, it bears repeating – personas are not just a collection of neat demographic characteristics. They work well only if you consider the deeper goals, motivations, and pain points your audience has. I’ve long been a proponent of the Jobs to be Done methodology, and I know it’s a powerful part of any customer research project.
Of course, individual customer interviews take time. If you don’t have that, you can still get quality information and build your personas with a survey sent out to your user base or potential customers. You can get powerful insights with these few questions:
- What sources for [solving such tasks] did you use before [you started using our product]? – this will show you who your true competitors are. And they rarely are the only ones you already know about.
- When did you first realize you [needed something to solve your problem]? – this question fuels your understanding of the situations when customers feel the most significant pain. You can use that information in your copy or in your ad targeting.
- Once you found out about us, what made you feel confident about us? – this identifies the key benefits that actually get through to consumers.
- What almost stopped you from [doing the key action like purchasing, signing up, subscribing]? – as a counterpoint to the question above, this one helps you see what anxieties customers have about your product or the buying process in general.
When you’re planning out your content marketing strategy
Another situation that requires us to dig deep into people’s minds is the topics that would interest them and their content habits.
This is another case where getting data in a survey can be very helpful. You can learn a lot – not just about the content topics that would work but also the content formats that fit your audience’s routines, the channels you need to focus on for distribution, and more.
Here are the questions you can use:
- What sources of information do you use to learn about [broad category of issues our product is in]? – this question will show you who your audience already relies on for quality information. You can dig deeper by splitting that up and nudging them towards specific content categories like podcasts they listen to, newsletters they subscribe to, blogs they return to, YouTube creators they watch… There’s a lot there!
- What content formats do you prefer? – you can ask this directly and even set it as a close-ended question with pre-defined options. It will let you understand if video is truly the Holy Grail for your audience or creating a podcast will be a better way to spend your energy.
- What one topic would you love to learn about next to help you with [the broad category of issues our product is in]? – frankly, this question doesn’t render a ton of valuable feedback, but sometimes there are true gems in the answers.
There are other format-specific questions you could ask. For example, what days and time slots are most convenient for subscribers to receive your newsletter? How long the commute time of your podcast listeners is can define episode length. But you get the point.
When you’re improving your landing page and other website pages
Any marketer worth their salt will tell you to use a heatmap tool when redesigning your product page or an important landing page. And while heatmap and mouse flow data will help you see what people are doing on your site, it won’t tell you what they’re thinking. So ask them.
If I had a penny for every time I created an “awesome” landing page only to find out there was some crucial information missing… It’s just “the curse of knowledge” – since you’re in the weeds thinking about your product day in and day out, you can’t identify all the details visitors would need to know.
I’d usually use pop-up questions to assess how we can improve, using questions like:
- Is there any other topic you’d like to see covered on our site? – this one is geared more towards sourcing content ideas. You can tailor it a bit and use it on a landing page designed to educate top-of-funnel visitors.
- What’s the ONE THING missing from this page? – this way of phrasing the question makes users single out the most glaring omissions in your site. If you want something that sounds a bit less aggressive, go with “Were you looking for anything you couldn’t find?”
- If we could do anything to WOW you, what would you want the most? – this goes beyond marketing and into customer experience as a whole. The answers here most often apply to customer service or product features. But if you have a good rapport with these teams in your company, do them a favor and ask away; they’d appreciate the feedback.
- What did you like the most about your experience on our site today? – I’m generally not a big fan of the “Can you pay us a compliment?” type of questions, but I appreciate their value. This one is handy after a major redesign or a rework in the visitor flow. It can help you see if users actually notice and appreciate some of the bolder decisions you’ve made.
When answering any “Why?” questions
I can give you question examples until we’re all blue in the face. But basically, whenever you’re analyzing quantitative data and struggling to explain the trends or trying to explain a customer’s behavior, you need some form of qualitative data. Don’t just pull hypotheses out of thin air and treat them as Gospel. More often than not, your audience will be ready to tell you what’s going on.
Methods of qualitative research
When we’re talking about qualitative data, our minds usually drift to surveys. And while regular customer surveys are great, you’d be better off using a mix of different qualitative research methods:
This is my favorite as it will help you gather in-depth information about your audience and their motivations. I’ve written in detail about interview practices, but the most important thing here is establishing a feeling of trust and keeping users talking. You will rarely need to do more than 20 interviews to see clear patterns emerge.
Of course, surveys are a staple of qualitative research. My main piece of advice here is to make it fun and focus on the most critical questions that will give you actionable information. When creating a survey, look at each question and ask yourself how your work will change course once you know the answers. If you can’t come up with something specific, kill the question.
I’d recommend you don’t make your surveys longer than 15-ish questions and no more than half of those should be open-ended.
Rather than sending out a lengthy survey in one blast, you can ask visitors questions in context while they are browsing your site. Pop-up questions are easier to fill in and can get you a continuous flow of feedback for particular parts of your site. Brevity is essential – you should limit yourself to 2-3 questions max.
This goes beyond just asking a question. With user testing, you ask subjects to conduct a particular series of actions and tell you about their experience. User testing deserves its own separate article, and thankfully the team at Hotjar has created one. There’s also a structured user testing methodology I recently learned about from CXL, and I’m itching to test the questions used there.
This is a less structured way of seeing user behavior in a live environment. The easiest way you can do it is to set up a visitor recording tool on your site and collect (anonymized) user data. It’s instrumental when investigating an anomaly with a specific page on your website, like a funnel drop-off point.
However, recordings require a lot of time to watch and only show you what the user does, not why. It will give you more context for user actions but way less information than structured user testing, where you’re hearing what the visitor thinks.
This is a tactic used explicitly in copywriting. It’s a process of analyzing written information for common patterns in what users think and what words they use. You just need the right source of information. It can be any place where prospects discuss your competitors in detail – review sites, online communities or discussions on social media. I’ve talked about message mining in detail and I definitely recommend using it when writing copy.
Sourcing subject matter expert opinions
I’m cheating a bit here, as this is simply a different type of interview. But I wanted to bring the point home. You can rely on “second-party data” in your qualitative research – that is, the insights other experts have on your audience through observing and interacting with it over the years. I love to run a workshop with the client’s team at the start of a project to discuss their customer’s journey. This helps me quickly grasp the context.
But there are two things you need to make sure of here. First, talk to people with real customer access – not some c-suite executive who never does groundwork. Second, keep in mind that subject matter experts are also prone to bias. So always try to validate their insights through your own research.
If you want to go deeper, here’s a maxi-list of research methods you can use. While it’s specifically designed for UX research, some methods might be useful for your marketing needs, too.
Finding research subjects
One common question that pops up whenever I discuss this topic with others is sourcing respondents. Here are the most common options I’ve used:
Well, that’s an obvious one, isn’t it? Of course, if you already have a customer base, talking to them would give you more relevant insights. It’s also much easier – people like helping brands they love. When researching existing customers, try to target a specific segment that will give you the most valuable information. Otherwise, you’ll get lots of different opinions, making it hard to find patterns in your data.
Industry groups and online communities
If you don’t have your own customers yet or want to expand in a new market segment, asking for opinions in public groups can work. These can be LinkedIn and Facebook groups or other online communities where your target group might gather. Make sure you don’t divulge too much about your product initially, though. This will prime respondents and influence their answers while it also feels promotional and might be at odds with community guidelines.
If you have good relationships with partners who cater to the same audience, you might ask them to share an invitation to participate in your research with their users. These can be other brands, trade organizations, or even media outlets you work with.
All of the methods above are free, but they aren’t. Sourcing candidates, especially from outside sources, can be extremely time-consuming, and still, you might not get research candidates that are a good fit. So if you’re working on an important project, you might use a paid platform to manage your research through:
User Interviews – a great platform that allows you to source interview candidates, manage payouts, and schedule interviews. We recently used it in a project targeting US event managers, and it was crazy easy to find the right interviewees.
Respondent – an alternative to User Interviews that I haven’t used personally but have heard good comments about.
Wynter – a platform specifically developed for copy testing. They’re focusing on B2B audiences and diving heavily into specialized niches.
User Testing – one of the leaders in UX research, but really expensive at this point. You can try out some other alternatives out there, but I haven’t tested any of them.
Usability Hub – as the name suggests, the platform is mainly directed at UX and UI researchers, but marketers can test ad copy, landing page messaging, and more. Their 5-second tests are a favorite way of mine for quick copy validation.
A note on research subject incentives
Another one of the common questions is whether or not you should pay your research subjects. While this usually depends on the type of research, I’d suggest you follow a few rules of thumb:
- For existing customers, you can offer a product-specific incentive. It can be an extra month of your premium tools for free or extra credit added to a customer account for future purchases.
- If you’re running a survey to an entirely new audience and posting an invitation for people to fill it in, you can also give your own product as an incentive. This can help weed out less engaged respondents who only fill out the survey to get the reward.
- When you’re aiming for a significant volume of research answers, you can either give a minor incentive to every participant (e.g., a code for 10% off on their next purchase) or a few bigger prizes in a raffle (e.g., three $100 Amazon gift cards).
- For interviews, you should definitely plan a gift for every participant. This can still be your own product or a gift card. The monetary value of the incentive depends on your market – here’s a stats-packed article on interview incentives you can use as a baseline.
Whether or not you should “pay” research participants is a question of its own. In general, the smaller the monetary incentive, the more you’ll need to bank on a pre-existing relationship with your survey participants. Hard, but not impossible.
The big secret: getting continuous feedback
Research projects often are a one-off kind of a deal. But they shouldn’t be. To really make the most of customer feedback, it needs to evolve into an ongoing practice, part of your day-to-day marketing activities.
Look into your processes and the journey of your personas and find touchpoints you can use for continuous feedback. Here are a few examples.
Email is a relationship-building tool and, as such, a great place to ask questions. I usually use the welcome or early onboarding series to gather insights about my audience. Then I sprinkle in regular check-ins to see what the customers’ experience is like.
In my blog newsletter intro series I ask a question right in the first welcome email:
Down the line, I collect feedback from readers at regular intervals – be it with surveys or specific questions.
Ask contextual questions at key funnel stages
Using pop-up questions can be a great way to assess what your users think and feel at key points in their journey. This can be as simple as checking whether or not they found value in a piece of content or what almost stopped them from buying your product.
One helpful tactic is to place such questions on Thank you pages – after a customer completes a transaction or signs up for your offer. This is a moment of heightened emotion, and it’s a prime spot to get some honest feedback.
However, be mindful when creating this type of feedback loops. You don’t want to distract the user from completing that purchase or filling in their new profile.
Conduct an annual survey
Annual reader surveys are common in the content world, and they can be used in other situations, too. Creating a cadence for your research will help you stay on track, and it will also let you compare data year over year. Some lovely patterns can emerge from longitudinal data.
Intercom does that with their reader survey, and if you follow their blog, you’ll see how the data collected impacts their content strategy. Timing a survey like that before your annual review can give you a new perspective on your content performance.
Talk to sales and customer support
Information doesn’t need to come directly to you – sales and support reps are a great source of data, too. For this to work, you need to make sure your colleagues know what information you’re looking for and how their feedback will influence the company.
From then on, it’s about building the muscle of collecting that information and folding it into your marketing strategy. If a pool company can teach its sales reps to jot down customer questions for future content pieces, you can do it, too. My advice would be to set up regular learning sessions where your teammates share their experiences from recent client chats.
How to analyze qualitative data
By now, you should have some idea of the ways you can use to gather your research data. Then comes the point of analyzing your results. We can’t just go into a survey tool or analytics platform and pull out a bunch of pretty graphs. There’s coding involved.
Coding is the process of reviewing customer feedback and categorizing it into separate thematic categories. The exact process will depend on the actual research method you’re using but, more often than not, it will look something like this:
- You add all your qualitative data in a spreadsheet, one piece of data per row.
- You go through your data to define any big themes seen in the answers. Then you mark the answers that fall in that same category.
- As you go along, you will probably uncover new themes – and you’ll add them to your spreadsheet, then go through the answers and mark any of them that mention that specific theme.
- In the end, you’ll probably see that things you’ve marked as separate themes are either the same or very closely related. You will then merge these themes into a broader category. On the other hand, something you though was one big theme might need to be split into two. You’ll then review the answers to mark which one of the new split theme they’re actually a part of.
- Once you’ve cleaned up your thematic categories, you can visualize the data to show the ones that get mentioned more often. Keep in mind, though that these aren’t statistically valid results! The fact that one category was mentioned 15 times and the other one appeared 12 times doesn’t necessarily mean one is more important than the other. However, if one category appears 15 times and the other just once, it’s safe to say you need to pay more attention to the former.
I’ve explained the coding process in detail when talking about customer interviews and message mining, so you can check out these pieces, too. Here’s a very detailed piece from Hotjar on analyzing open-ended questions that will show you screenshots for each step mentioned above.
In “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says grown-ups always ask the wrong questions – the ones about age, weight, and number of siblings. Marketers are often the same. We rely only on the quantitative information we can get. While the true answers are often hidden in the soft, fluffy, fluid information you can only get through qualitative research. So go talk to some customers now!
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