Qualitative market research is a public relations and marketing professional’s best friend. It provides evidence and insights which inform communication strategies. It identifies issues and content to be addressed or included. And because the generation of qual is also an iterative, exploratory process, when an excellent researcher is interacting with the interviewee, the information gained can become very profound and useful.
Whilst it is generally professional market researchers who undertake qual, public relations professionals themselves also have the capability to step up to the plate in a most effective manner. This is because the best PR professionals are excellent interviewers. They need to have this skill because they need to be very good writers and to be a very good writer you need to be a very good interviewer.
Another benefit of a PR professional undertaking qual is they are actually applying the market research findings within the strategy they are formulating. Even if they are not the PR pro applying the research findings, they are wearing a PR strategy hat, so will be constantly thinking how they can use the information and insights gained within a potential communication strategy.
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As the strategy formulation is probably the reason the research is being undertaken, the nature of the questioning will be driven by this awareness. Therefore the questions will go down paths which only a communication strategist will have in their mindset. It will enable a richer amount of information to be generated which will be of greater use to whoever is actually undertaking strategy formulation.
PR leader’s think like market researchers
A public relations professional will be neither excellent or an effective strategist, either, unless the qual research mentality is inherent within their approach.
This manifests itself in the most prosaic of ways – the need to always ask: why?
- It is the PR leader’s task to be forensic in their examination of an organisation’s rationale for suggesting a specific approach to communication
- It is their role to challenge accepted orthodoxies
- It is their role to mine for insights, either to enrich, to reinforce or ascertain new and valuable insights to aid in an organisation achieving its objectives.
Empathy is critical to public relations
Public relations professionals need to be experts on empathy – understanding, and even predicting, the opinions, rationales and feelings of others before they even recognise them themselves.
This is because two-way symmetrical communication and its mixed-motive model have made it clear the only way for organisations to create meaningful, sustainable relationships with stakeholders is to understand them and bend at least somewhat to their wills. Public relations are the kings and queens of this mindset.
Empathy, it goes without saying, is fundamental to effective qual research. The interviewee needs to be put at ease, they need to feel they are being heard, they need to be asked questions which lead them to the heart of what is important to them (once again, without them even realising this is case much of the time).
Curiosity and intuition within public relations and market research
Other attributes any excellent PR pro will possess are curiosity and intuition.
Without possessing genuine curiosity in an issue and in people, the interviewer will not cut the mustard. Whether it is in PR or in qual market research. It will not enable the ‘humanity’ gene to kick in. The interviewer will remain an observer, rather than becoming a participant in the process of discovery. Without this trait he or she will not truly understand the person and where they are coming from.
A lateral manifestation of curiosity is intuition. This is interesting, because qual research is an obvious sister to the very useful quantitative research, this being the sister that is more clinical and the provider of hard statistics. Both are vastly valuable to the public relations and marketing professional.
Yet quant is more black and white, whereas qual takes into more of a grey area. An area where intuition has its place in helping to explore issues and points of view which are not entirely clear, nor do they have a necessarily clear or rational explanation. Intuition, therefore, can lead a skilled interviewer down a path with no immediately apparent return on investment, yet some startling insight or finding might prove the worth of this dialogic diversion.
Undertaking qual research during a communication program provides valuable feedback on how the program might be refined to help it achieve a greater degree of success.
Undertaking the qual after a program is complete helps an organisation prepare for next steps, especially through the identification of issues and content which can enrich future communication to generate more compelling content and achieve greater buy-in.
PR leading market research
PR strategy leaders will have, over the years, been exposed to and/or commissioned market research programs. A familiarity with market research processes helps educate the practitioner.
As they examine the methodology applied, as they review and refine the sort of questions which are asked, the topics which are addressed and the results of the research, they become increasingly educated and competent in the craft.
Unless they have been in such a market research leadership position, I don’t consider them educated to a sufficiently high level to actually implement a qual market research program personally.
They may still be very good interviewers, however – but this may be a factor to consider when commissioning a PR pro to undertake a qual market research program.
I should say none of this is to say market research professionals are not excellent at their qual research jobs. Most of the time they will definitely be better than PR professionals. Only a very few of the latter will be effective enough to match the market researchers’ skill sets and effectiveness.
But there are certainly benefits to considering certain PR pros in undertaking formal qual research tasks. It happens pretty frequently, though I’m the first to admit I’ve seen some PR pro versions of it I don’t rate highly.
Qualitative research obviously complements quantitative, with the former providing more profound intelligence on how a target audience, or those with an interest in an organisation, are thinking. Qual research, therefore, is of great value to the strategic approach organisations apply to communication.
Have you undertaken qual market research programs yourself? What sort of value did you gain for your organisation in the process? What did you learn? Did it help in your strategy formulation? Where have you seen qual market research programs fall down and do you have examples of where their findings helped your communication strategy and business outcomes?
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