Harnessing the Power of Iterative Qualitative Research

Marketers and market researchers are put under incredible pressure to get their product or service “out the door” quickly and of course, well-tested and positioned for success.  The challenge for many is doing all the necessary qualification steps in the allocated time with a constrained budget.  Yes, there are lots of methodologies to solicit feedback – online bulletin boards, in-person, chat groups, mobile, etc., to get a broad audience and quickly.   These are alternative tools to solicit insight or feedback in a different modality and each have an appropriate time and place when they can be used productively.  However, let’s take a step back, what do you really need?   Most would agree that clients need consumer/customer (will use “consumer” for simplicity) driven, appealing approaches as quickly as possible.  As such, researchers should consider adding iterative qualitative research to their arsenal of qualification “tricks”.   It is a very simple, yet effective, way to make exponential progress in a compressed timeframe, often spending much less money than in a traditional qualification model.

So what exactly is iterative qualitative?  It is simply a very dynamic qualitative approach where insight and learning is gathered allowing ideas or concepts to be developed through repeated interfaces with a target audience.  Each “round” of research showcases a “new and improved” version of the idea or concept to take it to the next level for consumer feedback.   Generally, the changes are built from a consensus of core team members participating in the project.  These team members are essential for the process to work effectively.

Iterative qualitative is not about just one type of qualitative methodology.  While it can be very effective with in-person qualitative, it can be equally productive in telephone, online or other methodologies.   In some cases, the best iterative sessions benefit from a combination of methodologies to triangulate the feedback on the specific topic.  Because of the broad usage of different approaches, a successful study will need a moderator skilled in using a variety of modalities as well as being an effective group facilitator to keep this dynamic process moving forward smoothly with the core team.

An iterative qualitative research design allows for several benefits for the marketer and the researcher:

  • Dynamic improvement – The flexibility of the process combined with hands-on working sessions allows for the team to continually enhance the stimuli being developed.  The stimuli that starts the research in the early rounds might be completely different than what the team ends up with.  That’s good because you and your team have been able to take the feedback and make changes the consumer will embrace as the research progresses.  For example, a food product recipe can be tweaked for better flavor or a website design can be adjusted for better usability and a more logical flow.  Similarly, a written concept can be adjusted to better reflect consumer language or copy can be reworked in a storyboard.  The advantages of dynamic improvement can pretty much be applied to any research project where some type of tangible output is needed.
  • Shortened development cycle – The dynamic nature of the process can move an idea or approach from nothing to something in a short period of time; generally in 3-5 days.   If the entire team listens attentively and adjusts based on the feedback from respondents.  Generally, consecutive days are ideal, but that is not always the case.  If you need a usage experience with a product or service, you’ll need some time for the consumer to test the task at hand so the days involved may extend over a 2 week period.  Even the major torture test of creating a marketing concept can save a lot of time.  Developing concepts in the office, often means that pieces of paper are passed up and down the decision hierarchy with changes and adjustments to showcase a more final approach in qualitative.  In iterative, the team can basically start with the initial benefit or promise and create a concept over time.  Each part of the concept is consumer qualified, so the team knows that every piece in the prior round was already “approved” before adding more meat to the concept.  You get the language from your target audience instead of from internal employees who don’t necessarily think or speak like your consumer.  Less pre-paper pushing and written with consumer input, your concept will automatically be much better off and more quickly developed than any concept written in behind a desk.
  • Enhanced Teamwork with output champions – As previously mentioned iterative qualitative requires that the entire core team be invested for the duration of the work.  Although this requires a 3+ day commitment out of the office, the team works closely together and moves the product/service idea forward together with mutual agreement and respect.  In a typical office environment, this could take weeks of meetings and discussions to align the team.   The “backroom” process of ongoing adjustments vests the team; they “hold hands” and move forward together emoving that costly rework and the last minute “new idea” that someone grabs onto in the 11th hour.  These last minute ideas almost always throw the qualification cycle into a tailspin.  At the end of iterative, all the critical players have endorsed the progress and you have a virtual “army” of supporters when you and your team return to the office.   The team has become vested in the outcome.

When structuring a successful IQ project, 3 areas are of key importance.

First, you must select the appropriate target audience that is representative of your customer base.   The key is that the target audience needs to stay fairly stable for the duration so you and your team learn cumulatively from the target end user over the time period.  You don’t want a group of loyalists, then a group of rejecters, or males 18-25 followed up with females 26-45.  You’ll be fearful to make any adjustment if the target is whipsawed around in each session.  If you must use several targets, then every step needs to be showcased in front of each target before major changes can occur.   Generally, I do not recommend this, but sometimes it is a necessity.  Just remember that when you add a target, you pretty much double the amount of iterative research that must be completed.  Often a more effective approach is to work with a primary target, but tag on a few early and late research with a secondary target to get early buy-in and to disaster check at the end.

Second, the schedule must be carefully crafted.  The iterative days do not need to be sequential; however, often keeping the team focused and motivated is best accomplished when scheduled as a block.   Also, the schedule must accommodate “working sessions” where the core team can get together and discuss and agree upon changes between each round layered between back-to-back research sessions over several days.  The nature of project and what needs to be accomplished will determine exactly how much time must be scheduled, but rest assured, it won’t just be a ½ hour between research sessions.  For example, iterative food optimization needs adequate time to adjust and make recipes before reengaging with consumers. Something like storyboards may just need a few tweaks to agency copy before you’re back into a session.  Working iteratively on a bulletin board might mean a team meeting needs to happen at the end of each day once most of the responses are logged.  Conservatively, always schedule more time than you think you’ll need, inevitably, you’ll use it.

And finally, a core team with the “right” players must be part of the research.  If you are working on advertising refinement, make sure the agency is represented.  New concepts might mean that R&D will be critical to developing claim support.  Basically, you’ll want representation from the major individuals who will be responsible for moving the idea forward into commercialization.  At a minimum, this is often a marketer, a market researcher, R&D and possible sales.  Involvement with the agency will largely depend on what is being developed.

While many projects can benefit from iterative research the key is to recognize when it might be ideal.  Outlined below are a couple areas that would suggest a project ripe for the picking.  You have:

  • Many testably different ideas that need filtering and/or optimizing – your team has reason to believe that a variety of different concept approaches might make sense for your business based on previous learning.  That last thing you want to do is have a senior manager “pick her favorite.”  The iterative process allows you to identify the best candidates of the bunch and optimize them for the best chance of success.  It is critical anything you plan to qualify be noticeably different from a target audience perspective.  Often clients believe that changing a few words in an ad or a concept makes it completely different.  Unfortunately, most consumers will not even discern any real difference and you may find yourself spinning your wheels, which clearly is not productive.  That being said, as you refine iteratively, you may have different ways to express the same idea, which is exactly what you want.  At some point iterative will allow you to collapse these different ideas into one taking the lead approach as the one to move into the next phase. 
  • Time constraints – one of the many benefits of iterative is that a lot of work is done in a very compressed time frame.  While this does mean some very demanding days for the your core team, you’ll probably be more productive than you’d ever be in the office.  In 4 days, it is possible to go from insight mining to full blown, qualified positioning concepts.   Similarly, this can be done with graphics, packaging structure design, food development, advertising, etc.  The key is to have the right individuals with you on your core team who can make the necessary changes to the stimuli.  If you are working on food, have the chefs present; on advertising have the agency creative present.
  • Budget constraints – and finally, iterative ensures you have the best possible stimuli created before going into some expensive quantitative study.  I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve have received poorly tested stimuli, post quantitative, to determine what went wrong.  This is money your team just can’t afford to waste.  Iterative gives you the extra boost of confidence knowing that some element – language, color, main idea, flavor – won’t unnecessarily tank a quantitative test.  The iterative process generally leads to multiple pre-qualified output choices.  As such, you quantitative test is helping to selected the “best of the best”, rather than “tallest of the shortest straws.”

So the next time you’ve thinking of qualitative research, think broader than the tools think about a creative, iterative structure that will get you more for less.

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