Two weeks ago, I spoke at the Qual360 conference in Atlanta, hosted by the Merlien Institute. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I typically fold qualitative insight into a diverse research mix, so I went to the conference with a broad view of market research methodologies. But after connecting with qualitative researchers, marketers, academics, and thought leaders from around the globe, I left Qual360 with a renewed appreciation for the fundamental importance of qualitative insight, its deep impact on key business decisions, and its differentiated value in today’s data-driven culture. Here are a few of my takeaways from Qual360:

  • In a world where everything is getting faster, qualitative research must go slower. As Anita Watkins from TNS and Emily Williams of Newell Rubbermaid put it, qualitative research is not about testing, it is about illuminating context and understanding evolving beliefs. That means qualitative insight can’t be commoditized and sold with the promise of fast, bite-size deliveries. The true value of qualitative insight lies not in the verbatim data but in the accurate analysis of those words in the context of social, environmental, psychological, and emotional depth.
  • In a world where everything is going digital, qualitative research protects face-to-face interaction. Ilana Ron Levey of Gallup presented an ethnographic study conducted in Africa. She made the point that digital is not a panacea for qualitative researchers and that there will always be a role for face-to-face inquiry – again, because of the need to illustrate context. In addition to slowing down the research process, there is also value to being with participants in person and taking the time to truly understand their perspective.
  • In a world where data delivery means consumable infographics, qualitative insight requires activation. According to the cone of learning shared by Candy Lui and Marcel Slavenburg of SKIM, after two weeks, we remember 90% of what we do, 30% of what we see, and 10% of what we read. Therefore, business decision-makers need to live the experience of their customers to truly understand their context. Candy and Marcel spoke of (and re-enacted!) a medical research immersion session, in which the decision-makers are made to feel like patients: This includes sniffing pepper to simulate the feeling of a cold, running down a hallway with a straw in their mouth to simulate asthma, and sipping water while shaking hands to simulate Parkinson’s. Experience creation and immersion sessions like this allow clients to bring the customer into the boardroom and develop empathy for their customer’s experience.

Ultimately, qualitative insight is getting more visibility and deeper integration at the executive level. A panel discussion with Rick West of Field Agent, Manoj Fenelon of PepsiCo, and Rob Cartwright of Driesoff reinforced that today, with the abundance of data from device tracking to social listening analytics, qualitative elements are essential to turning metrics into strategy. Business leaders need to leverage the unique value of qualitative to truly understand the rational and emotional make-up of their customers. Organizations that find the most efficient way to harness context through qualitative insight will be most successful.