Conducting Actionable Research: 5 Essential Ingredients

When you embark on a qualitative research project, the outcome needs to be worth the investment. While we all agree with this in theory, truly actionable research can be hard to achieve. Here are some key pitfalls to avoid that will help you achieve the ROI that you expect from your qualitative research efforts.

1) Start with WHO you will learn from, not HOW you will learn it. We all know the term, “don’t put the cart before the horse.” In the case of qualitative research, however, we are suggesting that you do indeed put the cart first – or, that is, the consumer who is in that cart. By starting with the consumer and not the method, you will focus upon understanding who you need to learn from and what their behaviors are. These facts should drive the methodology you choose. Are they young and highly digital? Be sure to leverage mobile and images in your methodology. Are they older and conservative by nature? Consider one-on-one interviews or grouped conversations in their homes. If you let the nature of your audience drive HOW you learn from them, you are most likely to get rich and honest learning.

2) Commit to one objective. Qualitative research by its nature enables fluid learning. This is a good thing, but not if you lack focus. As Brenda Stull of Element Marketing puts it: “By focusing on the most vital elements, we focus on what matters most. This enables you to get real answers to the most important questions you are asking.” To do so, often times it is best to go broad in the planning process and create a laundry list of things you could learn on the topic… then conduct the essential next step of narrowing to the ONE key objective you have. This will ensure actionability later.

3) Establish trust to earn honesty. We all know the importance of gaining authentic responses in research. But are we really doing what is necessary to get such responses? When we place participants in artificial environments and fail to provide context for the research, we shortchange the learning and compromise its legitimacy. One of the best ways we have found to gain authentic sharing in a qualitative environment is to help the participants know how they will benefit by sharing honestly and openly. This is the classic WIFM: What’s in it for me? Whether they are paid to participate or not, people will be most motivated to give it their all if they truly understand WHY they should. Find that reason and make it known to them.

4) Engage all of their senses. Research shows that people who are telling the truth are able to share an experience using all of their senses. When asked to recall these specifics, their feedback becomes deeper and richer.*  Help participants get to this rich place by asking them about the sight, sound, feel, and even smell and taste of a product experience, a customer service experience, a brand perception. Also consider how they can literally use their senses in the research experience itself: let them touch and feel the product; show them or have them find pictures that cue brand perceptions; have them listen to an audio recording of a store transaction. Visual stimulus is particularly powerful. As Marcel Just, Director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University puts it: “Our ability to gather important insights from visual data as researchers is immense. Developing a research design that takes advantage of the unique insights of visual content … allows researchers to access deeper levels of knowledge.”

5) Commit to Actionable Outcomes. As you design the effort, do not stop the design at the methodology, recruiting and execution. Think through how you will bring the learning back to the organization and, most importantly, what will be done with it. Similar to the planning for the research itself, here you will want to determine who needs to be informed, what learning will impact them and how you will deliver this learning into action plans. Planning for actionability as you plan for the research will result in much better outcomes.

**Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005

Nancie Head Shot-Edit 200x300Noetic is a marketing consultancy specializing in brand strategy, research & training.

We are built upon an avid curiosity about varied businesses and their unique strategic challenges. We provide a fresh perspective and intelligent thinking without a rigid agenda that requires starting from scratch.

Our “I.D.E.A.” approach always starts with the vision our senior executive clients set. And our mission is to help our clients release their team’s full potential to achieve that vision.