Qualitative research: Take your pick

Michael J.McDermott

What's all this talk about the demise of the traditional focus group? Dig a little deeper and it appears that the buzz is blown out of proportion. Yes, exploding bandwidth and impressive advances in digital technologies are making all kinds of innovative alternatives to the conventional focus group feasible, accessible, and in some cases more cost-effective. But even the staunchest champions of these new tools concede that the focus group continues to play a critical role in qualitative research, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. The Spring 2012 GreenBook Research Industry Trends (GRIT) Report projected a slight increase in the proportion of qualitative versus quantitative research undertaken last year, but more than half the respondents expected their proportions to remain unchanged. Many brand marketers have seen declines in their overall research budgets over the past five or 10 years, and in some cases focus groups and other qualitative methodologies took the bigger hit. For example, her allocations for focus groups and their alternatives have "definitely" declined, says Theresa Lewis, vice president of market research at Wyndham Worldwide Corp.'s Wyndham Hotel Group, but the overall research budget has also shrunk over the years. Even when budgets recover, "it doesn't always go back to the same split for qualitative and quantitative," Lewis says. "It's just driven by the demands of the business. A lot of times you want to do qualitative, but there's no time or money. Qualitative is trending down, but in a perfect world it would still be 25 percent."