One of the key client service challenges is always the debrief. How will the client want it? Word? PowerPoint? Other? And more importantly, when will they want it? Today, clients are generally more positive about marketing researchers who produce substantive debriefs in a shorter timeframe (since client decisions don’t have weeks to wait). But what about the ultimate “shorter timeframe?”

Is it possible to produce an overnight debrief? More importantly, how? The answer is yes and, as Study Hall Research has learned, it can be a highly profitable “premium priced” offering. This article will outline our experience in overnight debriefs: How to best structure and use them, how to set expectations and parameters for them, key types of research for which an overnight debrief works best, and how to execute it (without panic!) when the client says “ok, I’d like that.”

What types of qualitative (and clients) are best-suited for overnight debriefs?
The overnight debrief isn’t for every type of qual, or for every client. Based on our experience, the best types of qualitative for overnight debriefs are those projects which:

  1. Are in one market only.
  2. Involve no more than three to four groups, all conducted on the same day (or, at the very least, on two consecutive days).
  3. Involve respondents that are similar, versus dramatically different target groups. (As an example, Study Hall produces overnight toplines for a client that is one of the top six QSR – fast food – brands. Our group recruits are always heavy category users who fall into two of the client’s specific user target segments.)
  4. Have a high degree of structured inquiry, such as creative evaluation, taste testing, or other types of qualitative where both the stimulus and the range of questions are consistent.
  5. Involve issues where the client is looking for more defined responses (e.g., “go vs. no go” on concepts, etc).

When deciding whether or not a client might be the right fit for overnight debriefs, that decision is best if based on a few key issues:

  1. Do you have a strong working relationship or partnership with the client?
  2. Have you already proven your analytical and debriefing abilities to the client?
  3. Is the client comfortable with less structured documents?
  4. Does the client have a degree of “fun” about them? (We have found that our more “fun” clients have proven the most open to overnight debriefs.)

If your client is this sort of engagement partner, consider floating the idea of an overnight debrief. Depending on your comfort level or experience, it may be best to consider offering a 48-hour debrief before you offer an overnight option!

What’s the best structure for overnight debriefs?
Because of the nature of anything “overnight,” this is clearly not an idea suited for lengthy PowerPoint decks or long narratives. While it is a critical part of client service to know how end clients want debriefs, an overnight debrief is best for all parties if it is delivered either via email, or as a brief topline memo. We have found that clients are willing to sacrifice longer narratives for timely and highly information-packed bullet points. This is how we coach clients when discussing overnight debriefs, and the idea of “immediacy and concise substance” vs. “longer timeframe and longer narrative” is a rather easy one to make under the right circumstances.

In terms of the actual structure of the debrief, consider the following as you set up a reporting format:

  1. Focus on what’s critical. A research project can easily morph into something it wasn’t intended to be at the start, making a debrief difficult and time consuming to write. Remember the primary objectives for an overnight. Determine (with the client) key reporting needs and what will most help their decision process.
  2. Omit the “small stuff” or anything unnecessary. For overnight debriefs, we do not include verbatims. (Partly because we have, over time, proven our analytical and observational skills to clients. This makes them comfortable without verbatims, since they trust we have seen and heard all the important comments and insights). Keep it simple and straightforward.
  3. Include strong and very direct recommendations, since the client is likely looking to make decisions quickly. But remind everyone that the recommendations and implications will be based on the core issues, and that the overnight debrief will not branch out into unrelated topics.
  4. Divide the debrief into key segments that telegraph what to do. Some examples of simple and effective sections: “What concepts worked,” “what concepts didn’t work,” and “what concepts are in the middle for now.” Don’t include conclusions or major findings that you haven’t had time to vet out completely/thoroughly.
  5. Create a custom reporting template for the debrief (for clients who will engage in similar projects on an ongoing basis).

Going into the actual fieldwork with this sort of structure in mind will greatly help how everyone thinks and engages with the research. It does not, in any way, diminish the ability to use the qual groups or interviews to probe deeply on issues or follow-up on new/divergent topics. It does help with the sort of “mindset” of all involved team members.

How to structure the actual fieldwork day to help with the debrief.
A client has decided they want an overnight debrief for the project, and you’re thinking, “now what do I do?” For starters, don’t panic! It’s actually quite simple – it requires a disciplined approach to the groups and a willingness to follow some key guidelines.

  1. Schedule groups strategically. Place at least 30 minutes between groups. This allows the research team to summarize key notes from a group while the room is being reset. This break is generally something clients want or need anyway, as it gives them time to check emails, etc. And work to schedule groups with an ending time before 7 p.m. to give time for debrief writing that evening.
  2. Utilize junior staff/consultants to observe the research and take detailed notes regarding the key objectives or key learning areas. It’s fun for them, it gives them client interaction time, and they have an opportunity to learn and work closely with senior consultants.
  3. Develop a template for concepts, ideas or key discussion topics. This will give you a common area for noting insights and make it easier to summarize after the groups.
  4. Develop your own “shorthand” for in-group moderator notes. Study Hall consultants use a series of pluses, minuses, key summary words and abbreviations (“RT” for recurring theme, “KI” for key insight and so on). When taking in-group moderator notes, these tactics reduce repetitive writing while also making clear the key takeaways from each group.
  5. Know the client and their research topics (concepts, campaigns, etc.) very well.
  6. Do an immediate “post group download” with clients where the moderator shares his or her immediate thoughts about what the groups all said. Yes, this requires some quick analytical and extemporaneous speaking skills, but it also a) gives the junior consultants very specific comments to take notes for; b) gives everyone a chance to share any “seen or heard” comments; and c) gets everyone on the client side engaged and going in the same direction on the same day.
  7. Commit to working that evening and the next morning. Assign specific parts of the debrief to any junior consultants and optimize “divide and conquer” opportunities. Again, it’s good practice for any consultant. Generally, for a series of two to four groups on one day, an overnight debrief takes about two to three hours of writing the same evening, and another one to three the following morning and it’s done! The end result is generally an email or a word document of no more than six or seven hard-hitting and bulleted pages.

A few words about the benefits for everyone involved.
While the idea of overnight debriefs may sound a bit challenging at first, it’s a reporting practice that gets much easier over time. And the benefits for both clients and research consultants are clear:

  1. Speed! The client gets what they need faster and the project can be closed faster, which means quicker “final billing” to a client and faster payment.
  2. Efficiency. There is less total effort required from everyone. The “day of and day after” effort is intense, but the end result is that clients get faster and more concise insights and recommendations without having to wade through lengthy debriefs.
  3. Relationships. The clients for whom we have deployed overnight debriefs are hugely appreciative, and see this as Study Hall working diligently to give them what they need. There are longer-term benefits relating to client relationships, partnerships, and the deepening of both.
  4. And finally, there is the revenue benefit for the consultancy. For a one- or two-day project (and again, one-day is optimal for overnight debriefs), a price premium of four to six percent of total project cost can be negotiated for overnight debriefs. Interestingly, Study Hall Research has a standard practice of delivering all qual debriefs in 10 business days or less. But in the current business climate, clients see the value in overnight debriefs and generally find that the price differential is worth it.

For those who decide to consider overnight debriefs, good luck! As a final bit of advice, gather your consultants and try a practice run. Find your strongest people in terms of analysis and writing compelling key points. And then add it to your arsenal of consulting tools that will deliver considerable value to clients.