Explaining the Qualitative Market Research Methods | MDRG

Qualitative Market Research Methods

Investigating qualitative research methods: in-depth interviews (IDIs), focus groups, and ethnographic research


Market research is “the action or activity of gathering information about consumers’ needs and preferences.” It aims to keep the customer’s voice in the conversations directing new business strategies or plans. There are two main types of marketing research – qualitative and quantitative. Both types are applicable in different scenarios. For instance, qualitative research methods focus on exploring people’s opinions on a subject. Quantitative research gains insight from data which is then analyzed. In the past, firms would specialize in one area. Now, the focus is upon utilizing both methodologies to solve the problem in the most advantageous manner. Qualitative research methods are often not utilized due to their high cost and time constraints. But, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages of not using this type of market research.

Qualitative Research Background

Qualitative research, rooted in the social sciences, explores a participant’s emotional and subconscious responses relating to an overall question. The research focuses on exploring and understanding people’s thoughts, actions, and words. Often, qualitative methodology is viewed as more communicative and descriptive than quantitative research. After collection, the qualitative data is grouped into themes and insights by the researchers.

The most common qualitative research methods include in-depth interviews (IDIs), focus groups, and ethnographic research. These research types focus on small sample sizes in informal or formal settings, such as a researcher would do in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Supplemental qualitative research methods such as facial coding or metaphor elicitation enhance most research findings.

Why Use Qualitative Research Methods over Quantitative Research Methods

Qualitative research is preferred over quantitative research when developing hypotheses, understanding consumers’ needs, or other instances where the researcher is exploring a topic. It is often used to generate conversations around new products or services, investigating current products, services, or strategies, assessing website usability, or determining consumer input before developing a quantitative study. It cannot be used when statistical validation is needed or to find the best product. However, the qualitative techniques can be utilized to determine the qualities desired in the top products. In summary, qualitative research methods can be used to study a wide range of topics that need in-depth information to answer the business question. It is more expensive than quantitative data, but can provide more insights into the thoughts and feelings of consumers.

Qualitative Research Methods

In-Depth Interviews

In-depth interviews, also called IDIs, have been an integral component of market research since its inception in the 1920s. Interviews provide researchers with an in-depth understanding of the logic driving human behavior and perceptions in an effective manner. This market research method is useful when you want detailed information about a person’s thoughts and behaviors or want to explore new issues in depth. Researchers can understand a respondent’s opinions, likes or dislikes, and immediately explore any confusion or misunderstandings. By paying attention to word choice and tone changes, interviewers identify implicit assumptions and interpretations.

IDIs are held one-on-one between the respondent and the interview via a telephone, conducted in person, or through an online platform. In person interviews often provide additional insights since the researcher can examine facial expressions. Interviews are increasingly conducted online. For instance, moderators can share creative content with respondents in the moment and gather unfiltered reactions immediately. In-depth interviews usually last for at least a half hour. However, depending on the questions and level of detail desired, interviews could last up to two and a half hours.

The primary advantage of in-depth interviews is the amount of detailed information provided as compared to other data collection methods, such as surveys. They also may provide a more relaxed atmosphere in which to collect information. For example, people may feel more comfortable having a one-on-one conversation as opposed to participating in a focus group.

Continually, this qualitative research method provides context to other data (such as outcome data), offering a more complete picture of what happened and why. For example, you measured an increase in youth visits to a clinic. Through IDIs, you discover a youth noted that she went to the clinic because she saw a new sign outside of the clinic advertising youth hours. You might also interview a clinic staff member to find out their perspective on the clinic’s “youth friendliness.”

In-depth interview findings often refine future research methods such as surveys. For example, a company may want to discover how millennials feel about their product before embarking on a new advertising campaign. Additionally, IDIs are also useful for usability tests and testing websites in any stage of development. Moderators observe and trace respondent actions as they travel through sites and conduct tasks on their desktop or mobile devices.

However, IDIs can often be time-consuming to conduct, transcribe, and analyze. The moderator must quickly build trust with the respondent to gain the required information. Some participants may be unwilling to share deeply personal stories within a few minutes of meeting the interviewer. Additionally, the researcher must be sure to select a wide sample, not just a convenience sample, to avoid unintentional biases.

In-Depth Interview Summary:

  • Exploring sensitive research topics, because respondents are sometimes more comfortable sharing in an interview than a group setting – they can be more open and candid about their opinions and experiences
  • Understanding contextual and in-depth information, because interviews can provide a fuller and more detailed understanding of a respondent’s point of view
  • Avoiding the risk of allowing respondents to influence one another, which is particularly useful when seeking feedback on creative material
  • Reaching respondents that are geographically dispersed, because interviews can easily be conducted over the phone
  • Higher associated costs than other research methods

Focus Groups

The first focus groups were used by sociologists at Columbia University to measure the efficacy of war propaganda. Researchers invited individuals to listen to radio programs meant to boost moral for American involvement in the war. Respondents were initially asked to simply indicate how they felt about the programs: negative or positive. The method was termed “the focused interview” when the study was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1946. Since then, their range of application has expanded, and they have been repurposed to explore consumer insights.

Focus groups are used to elicit thoughts and feelings from a group of participants on a particular subject. Often comprised of 6 – 10 people, these groups aim to give feedback in a non-threatening environment. Several focus groups could be held to gain insight on the same topic. For example, a grocery store could hold focus groups among customers to learn about their feelings on a new store layout. The two focus groups would be split between frequent shoppers and infrequent shoppers to see how their opinions differed.

Participants are chosen for the research based on their subject knowledge or participation with the brand. These participants are then led through a series of questions, meant to mimic a natural conversation, by a moderator. Respondents can react to and build upon one another’s contributions. An effective moderator fosters an environment where respondents feel comfortable engaging with one another to produce productive conversations.

The primary advantage of focus groups is the ability to gain a large amount of detailed information in a short amount of time. Researchers can elaborate on topics as needed or spend less time depending on the group. Focus groups could provide as much information as in-depth interviews in a shorter and less expensive way. This qualitative research method is often used to test new products or concepts. It is also commonly used in gathering ideas for future quantitative studies.

Many times, the topic of conversation or target audience (teachers, for example) will call for a focus group environment. For example, an education policy institute might seek to understand the effects and results of policy changes in classrooms. This need would be best served through a focus group, which could allow teachers to compare and contrast their experiences with policy changes. A good focus group would make them feel comfortable voicing their opinions, reactions, and concerns about education policy. They could work together to identify what works about the policy changes, and what aspects of the policy need refinement.

Recently, MDRG conducted focus groups in connection with a larger research project for a healthcare client. First, MDRG conducted focus groups across Louisiana. The qualitative research findings revealed that the media campaign should focus on why consumers should care about second-hand smoke and empowering non-smokers. These data points then shaped the survey questions and results, resulting in successful advertisements. Further insights can be found within the Public Health Institute Advertising Testing case study.

However, though popularly used, a common challenge is encouraging honest and open communication among participants. If one member dominates, others may feel annoyed or less inclined to participate. Additionally, members must feel comfortable enough to share dissenting views. Moderators must pay close attention to ensure this scenario does not occur.

Focus Group Summary:

  • Naturally collaborative in nature – respondents react to and build upon one another’s contributions to produce insights that may not have arisen in one-on-one conversations with a moderator
  • Structured format yields valuable information in a shorter amount of time than conducting individual interviews
  • Immediate opportunity for moderator to further delve into interesting statements or opinions from respondents with opportunities for individuals to give detailed feedback
  • Provide insights to an existing study or guide future studies
  • Overzealous participants may hamper open communication from other participants, moderators must pay close attention to ensure all are sharing their views

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research, developed in the social sciences, involves researchers observing and/or interacting with the participants in the environment. The research explores the underlying socio-cultural meaning of human behavior and the socio-cultural elements affecting consumer behavior. The research explores the underlying socio-cultural meaning of human behavior and the socio-cultural elements affecting consumer behavior. It is the most in-depth observational method, and, therefore, heavily reliant on the researcher’s expertise to analyze and infer. Without a qualified and trained researcher, the ethnographic research may not be developed or analyzed correctly.

Ethnographic research requires a field site to understand how people interact with their social and physical environments, so researchers can observe behavior, rather than solely rely on self-reported information. This ‘newer’ qualitative research method can be a better fit for the circumstances or requirements of a specific research question. In other cases, it complements classic methods and adds value to research with supplementary approaches.

Online communities and online anthropology are two contemporary qualitative approaches particularly well suited to multi-method approaches. They are often used as a part of an exploratory phase that provides a hypothesis or analytical framework. The research can then be applied to subsequent qualitative research methods, such as focus groups, interviews, or mobile ethnography.

Types of Ethnographic Research

  • Mobile Ethnography Participants use their smartphones to record their experiences as they interact with businesses or products in mobile ethnography. Consumers provide real-time feedback, in a variety of mediums including audio and video, to the researcher’s questions and tasks. As the majority of Americans use cell phones daily, mobile ethnography captures experiences as they happen naturally in places or times that are normally difficult or impossible to observe (e.g. family making coffee in the early morning). Researchers observe everyday interactions and behaviors in their naturally occurring context to gain subject familiarity, understanding of key themes, and other in-depth information over an extended time period. One main benefit is that consumers are less apt to censor or filter their opinions since they often feel more comfortable sharing information through a mobile app. Therefore, respondents may share information that would not have said in the presence of others or while talking to a researcher. Another benefit is the convenience to the researcher and participant. The researcher devises the study but does not spend time following the participant around their daily lives as in the past. There are fewer constraints on both the participant and researcher.
  • Mobile ethnography provided valuable insights for a coffee company. The company asked MDRG to provide data on coffee purchasing behavior, brand loyalty, and the current coffee brand experience. The MDRG team conducted both in-depth interviews and developed a mobile ethnography component developing four key findings for the local client. More information on this methodology and results can be viewed at Exploring Coffee Consumption Using Mobile Ethnography.

  • Online Anthropology – The goal of this qualitative research method is to bring consumers to life through images, videos, and shared statements showing how they interact with the brand. Researchers gain an understanding of the socio-cultural elements that play into consumer behavior in spaces where consumers are already comfortable talking about the subject. Therefore, researchers could create or join an existing community for their research. A college football fanatic community may be easily found on existing fan boards, whereas lovers of a specific alcoholic brand may need to be brought together. The community will be under observation for about two weeks to gain adequate insight. However, the research could last longer depending on the business’ specific needs or questions. This type of qualitative research method is often used to identify themes of interest and develop familiarity with specific groups of people in the preliminary phases of a multi-method project. However, this strategic research technique can also be utilized as a stand-alone research method in industries such as healthcare or finance.
  • Online Communities Online communities, also known as insight communities, are comprised of similarly-minded, geographically dispersed individuals participating in conversations and structured exercises over an extended time period. Participants react and respond to each other, while also sharing their own content. The researcher will ask questions or share content to promote and guide conversation among the respondents. This research is utilized to find answers to multiple research questions or to study a wide geographic area of people.

Supplemental Qualitative Research Methods

  • Metaphor Elicitation Developed in 1990 by Jerry Zaltman, metaphor elicitation makes participants respond to questions with images. Respondents’ chosen images represent their thoughts or feelings, then the participants provide a written explanation of their choice. For example, if asked about an amusement park, the participant may choose a picture of a roller coaster. They then explain that the roller coaster represents excitement and they want to feel excited when entering an amusement park. By using this qualitative research technique, researchers gain deeper, subconscious thoughts and feelings from participants. Researchers use the responses to communicate their products or services more effectively to consumers. This type of research can be used in branding, consumer, or concept design research.

  • Facial Coding Charles Darwin first suggested that mammals revealed emotions in their faces. However, this idea was not put into practice until 1978 when Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen created the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). FACS took 43 unique facial positions and created a database of thousands of human expressions. Researchers could use this database to compare facial expressions and better determine how a participant felt. This system, with the advancement of technology, eventually evolved into facial coding.
    • Facial coding involves mapping combinations of facial expressions to emotions for real-time evaluation. Using a webcam, respondents watch a commercial on their computer as the webcam and program pick up on micro-expressions made during the commercial. An immediate facial response is pre-cognitive, which means it can be seen before a person is even aware of the emotion they are revealing, making facing coding an ideal tool for understanding the subconscious. The expressions are immediately recorded and analyzed. Therefore, a business can tell which emotions are present during every point of a commercial. This knowledge enables businesses to edit a commercial if the desired emotions are not present.
    • This supplemental qualitative method is usually used in creative testing as insight can be uncovered at specific points throughout the ad. Additionally, an overall reading can be produced indicating how the consumer feels without speaking. One example of facial coding in creative testing is detailed in MDRG’s result about a Fortune 200 company. However, it has also been utilized for website usability and developing product features.
    • As emotions drive spending, the importance placed on understanding and accurately coding emotions will grow in importance. A person’s emotions can predict future actions or purchases; knowing the emotions behind purchases will help businesses make better decisions.
    • Despite the benefits, facial coding can invoke privacy concerns from participants. For the technology to work, respondents must allow access to their computer or smartphone’s camera. With heightened privacy concerns, participants may be hesitant to allow access. Companies participating in facial coding should be aware of this and take extra steps to prevent leaked or hacked data. Additionally, the technology is currently only feasible for recording for short periods of time. An entire movie could not be currently facial coded, whereas a two-minute advertisement could be. As the technology advances, this concern will become obsolete.


    In conclusion, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic methods provide different strategic insights into customer’s actions, beliefs, and thoughts. However, each qualitative research method provides the ‘why’ answer, which is invaluable.

    For more information on MDRG’s experience in qualitative research methods, please fill out the following information form.

    Let's Talk!

      This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.