As marketing researchers, we’re often asked about the differences between conducting qualitative vs. quantitative research and when to choose one over the other. At its most basic, qualitative can provide answers to questions that start with ‘what’ and ‘why.’ Quantitative research answers questions about ‘how many,’ ‘how much,’ and ‘how often.’ While that distinction is helpful, it does not go far enough in describing the core benefits of each research approach and determining which is right for your needs.
Marketers should begin by considering the following:
- What type of question do I need to answer?
- What type of data will I need to collect to answer those questions?
- Who are the internal stakeholders that need to use this information?
- How will the information be used?
Qualitative – Learning About Human Nature
Imagine you needed to learn about the reasons consumers use a product or service. You would be interested in knowing the various reasons why people make that choice, what competitive products or services they use instead, as well as what perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs lead to use or non-use of the product or service. These are open-ended questions and do not lend themselves to statistical analysis. Therefore, qualitative methods are the most appropriate.
Other uses of qualitative research include observing certain consumer behaviors such as using a product in a natural setting or shopping at a retail location. A qualitative approach helps gather in-depth feedback to understand the reasoning and rationale motivating consumer behavior and brand preference. This makes qualitative an exceptional tool for a wide range of research needs including new product ideation, concept evaluation, brand positioning research, customer journey mapping, and communication checks.
Quantitative – Benchmarking and Tracking Progress
Quantitative research is best used when you need to answer questions that start with, “how many” or “how often” in order to validate or disprove assumptions. Whenever you need to understand the proportion of consumers who behave a certain way, or have certain attitudes or beliefs in common, you’ll need a quantitative measurement. The results will provide numerical data that can be analyzed statistically as the researcher looks for patterns and possible correlations between different factors.
Some of the common applications for quantitative research include brand awareness tracking, attitude and usage, purchase process, and customer experience studies.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative – At-A-Glance
The following chart summarizes the differences between qualitative and quantitative research:
Using a Hybrid Approach
Qualitative and quantitative research techniques are often most powerful when they are used together in a single project. Qualitative techniques are applied to better understand the research problem and to “hear” the language consumers use in discussing the experience, attitudes, and perceptions. Then, quantitative research can be designed to validate observations from the qualitative phase, quantify the prevalence of relevant attitudes, along with defining and measuring size of specific population sub-segments. Furthermore, the findings from a quantitative study may uncover the need to probe deeper to better understand the reasons for consumers’ responses to key issues (i.e., reasons for dissatisfaction, elaboration on suggestions for improvements, etc.). In that case, conducting some in-depth qualitative interviews as a follow-up to the quantitative phase should be considered.
Objectives Drive Selection
The meaningful differences between the two types of research are far greater than the numeric difference in sample size. Ultimately, the choice between approaches always comes back to your core objectives and the specific business decisions you need to make, which will be guided by the intelligence you expect to gain by conducting marketing research.