Not everything that counts can be counted

In this post I reflect on the value of qualitative insight. I propose that marketing managers step way from questions such as ‘how many’, ‘how much’ or ‘how quickly’ and focus, instead, on ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’.

The obsession with metrics has taken over social media. Firms monitor fervently the number of comments on blog posts, how many friends or likes they have on social network websites, how many times their comments or posts are shared, and so on. The obsession even gave rise to a new industry, social scoring. In essence, social scoring firms produce an estimate of the social media value of individuals or organisations, much like the credit rating of borrowers in the financial services industry. And then there are the consultants promising to improve your social media customer engagement, the return on social media investment, the social score, and so on and so forth.

But numbers are not enough.

As Einstein famously said: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. For the things that can not be counted, there is qualitative research.

Qualitative research in social media
Qualitative researchers are like detectives: looking beyond the facts in order to generate new insights into consumer behaviour. That is, to understand what really is going on.

Qualitative research can be used to understand the nature of the situation being studied; in other words, the WHAT. For instance, it helped consumer researchers Alexander Reppel and Isabelle Szmigin identify the perceived benefits of being able to manage one’s digital identity.

Qualitative research is also useful to explore the dynamics present in the scenario under study. That is the HOW. One example is Catherine Ashworth’s investigation of the drivers and inhibitors of social media use in the fashion sector.

Also important, is the ability to understand WHY something occurs. This was the goal of Mariann Hardey’s qualitative study. Specifically, it sought to understand why some highly connected, ‘always on’ individuals choose to ignore marketing messages delivered through social media.

The tools
In order to capture both factual and perceptual information, qualitative researchers can use the following tools:

Interviews – This is, possibly, the most popular data collection method. There are individual interviews, as well as group ones (known as focus groups).

Observations – Techniques such as mystery shopping or ethnographic observations help the research find out what consumers actually do, or in what order (as opposed to obtaining data about future intentions, hypothetical scenarios or memory of past actions).

Document analysis – Another technique is to study text or visual data such as packaging, advertising material or consumer diaries. Imagery such as video footage or pictures of brand usage in context seem to be particularly valued by marketing managers.

Often, studies will use more than one method simultaneously. For instance, insight about purchase intentions obtained through interviews can be complemented with observation of actual shopping behaviour (e.g., video footage, web-browsing records, scanner data, …). This process is called triangulation.

The simultaneous use of various methods is a unique strength of qualitative research. It deepens the understanding of what is being studied and it provides a solid basis for drawing conclusions.

The challenges
The variety of possible inputs and the richness and fullness of qualitative data create challenges for the qualitative researcher.

In the first place, it means that analysts are likely to have extensive and poorly ordered data to organise into meaningful datasets.

Then, it is necessary to analyse the numerous pages of interview transcripts, field notes and documents collected – and while there are now various software products that help with content analysis, it is still a demanding task.

Finally, it is important to communicate the findings of qualitative research in a way that makes it easy to draw conclusions and take managerial action. Extensive text often creates problems of information overload and there are only so many quotes one can include in a report or presentation.

Visual representations can be a powerful ally of the qualitative researcher. Flow charts, matrices, concept maps, networks and other visual displays can bring together information into meaningful patterns, conveying complex and subtle ideas better than words.

It’s challenging… but worthwhile because marketing is a discipline concerned primarily with interactions and exchanges. Qualitative research methods delve deep into consumers’ minds and, therefore, offer really good insight that goes beyond descriptions and measurements. Give it a go, because not everything that counts can be counted.

Are you using qualitative research to understand the use and the potential of social media? Please share what and how in the comments section below.

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