I’ve been fortunate to work at companies of all different sizes. I’ve been part of a 20-person staff, hired as employee number 104 at a growing company, and worked at mid-size and global corporations. Today, I own a business celebrating its third anniversary in June. I’m also the founder of a less than one-year old startup, which is proving to be my most thrilling role yet.

Businesses face common challenges, regardless of size. One of the most critical is understanding the market and customer. Without this knowledge, it’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to achieve key business goals, such as growing market share, increasing revenue, positioning a brand or product, or improving customer satisfaction.

Another important challenge is listening, evaluating and acting on feedback from customers and prospects. This is always a hot topic, but today’s technology innovations have led to ever greater volumes of customer data and amplified the opportunity to harness its power.

Fortunately, market research offers a proven way to help businesses of all sizes address these challenges, with qualitative research playing a key role.

From a market researcher’s perspective, I’ve often spoken with clients, business owners or internal customers who associate most forms of research with big companies and big budgets. I routinely try to emphasize that this doesn’t have to be the case – and that qualitative research, in particular, can be conducted and leveraged successfully with even modest budgets. Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand how a variety of qualitative approaches have informed new product development, led to service enhancements, improved customer satisfaction and served as the basis for truly insightful discoveries.

Furthermore, qualitative research results can be used to tell compelling customer stories, inspire employees and business leaders, and help research stakeholders gain a better understanding of the unique perspectives and experiences of their customers and prospects.

Informing and Influencing: Qualitative Research in Action
From focus groups to triads, there are varied and distinct examples of how qualitative research is skillfully conducted and applied to support key business needs. The following studies stand out as memorable examples of effective qualitative research, thanks to a combination of clear research goals, skilled moderators and insightful findings. In each example, smaller, entrepreneurial organizations used qualitative research to inform their organizations and influence development of their products and services.

In these studies, qualitative research was used to:

  • Evaluate and improve program results, secure funding, and shape marketing and community outreach messages that resonated with key audiences;
  • Uncover consumer attitudes, beliefs and perceptions, leading to better opportunities to engage with customers who used an existing service; and
  • Inform development of a new product concept, where a small product team needed to think like a startup and quickly learn about a new market and potential customers.

Each of these qualitative research studies generated results that directly impacted the success of the program, service or product, and uncovered insights that wouldn’t have been possible by using quantitative data alone.

Focus Groups: The Power of Connection
Quantitative research is useful for measuring program results and customer satisfaction, but it can be challenging to bring data and numbers to life in a way that fully informs and engages an audience. Qualitative research can help bridge this gap.

Early in my career, I worked at an entrepreneurial non-profit. My role at the time didn’t directly include market research, but because we were a small organization of 20 or so employees, I had valuable exposure to market research studies.

As a non-profit, we needed to show we could achieve compelling results through the use of public and private donor funds. Programs and events were routinely evaluated, with results quantified through attendance numbers, surveys and other measures. The results provided important data for reporting and assessing program effectiveness.

For one program, the organization studied a young, at-risk population using a traditional focus group format. The small-scale study yielded feedback on the program’s usefulness and participant rating, but more than that, it contributed to a greater awareness of a population that was often marginalized.

I don’t recall the specific numbers associated with the study results, but I still remember some of the comments and experiences shared by participants. In this case, qualitative research was successfully used to help evaluate the program, inform the organization about its long-term effectiveness and create reporting and messaging that the program was helping participants and having an impact on their well-being. The participants’ voices and experiences contributed to a greater understanding and more compelling human connection than quantitative data alone could have achieved.

Triads: The Power of Discovery
It’s a challenge for growing companies to understand and manage customer expectations, especially when products, services and technologies are rapidly evolving.

In a qualitative research study for a growing consumer service, the goal was to gain feedback from current and prospective customers on their reasons for using or not using the service. Specifically, we wanted to uncover why consumers were hesitant to try the service and learn more about how communications, incentives or other variables could change their thinking.

To accomplish this, we conducted triad interviews at a research facility. The first interviews generated fairly predictable results: consumers voiced concerns about changing to a new and unknown service, perceived issues about quality and consistency, and concerns about service timeliness and not feeling confident about outcomes.

At one point in the discussion, the moderator tried a new tactic. He asked participants to sketch their understanding of the service process. Over several sessions, we learned that study participants had similar understandings of the service mechanics, but not about the people who supported the process. In fact, in some drawings, there were no people. The takeaway was that a service designed to provide a high quality and individualized output was being perceived as a warehouse-like event.

While this particular study generated useful feedback, customer commentary and insight into potential service enhancements, the customer sketches were among the study’s most visible and memorable outputs. They contributed to a better organizational understanding of customers’ beliefs and perceptions, and they generated insight into how service and communication enhancements could deliver a more personalized experience.

On-site Interviews: The Power of Context
Qualitative research is often conducted in professional focus group facilities. This approach has many benefits, from providing a safe and central setting to allowing stakeholders to observe behind one-way glass, but it can be equally beneficial to talk with study respondents in their own environments.

I once worked with a small product team to explore a new concept. The general idea was to offer a new online product that would be faster and more accurate than an existing manual system. The product presented a new business opportunity, timing was urgent and there were no dedicated project funds for the research. Together, the product team and I needed to think like a startup, maximizing time and limited resources to quickly learn more about the market and potential customers.

We decided to use a qualitative research approach based on in-person interviews at participants’ work locations. This would help us learn more about how the current process worked, gather feedback on potential interest and adoption of the new product, and observe current conditions that could influence the effort.

The results were eye-opening and led to important conclusions. Participants were generally open to the product concept as a way to streamline workflows. Their existing systems were disjointed, inefficient and differed by location, as we saw with our own eyes. The work environments varied greatly, from large, modern office complexes with newer technologies, to smaller stand-alone office locations with older computers and fax machines.

To successfully convince participants to adopt the product, we learned it would be more important to position it as a way to improve quality versus emphasizing an improved technology. We also learned that participants were more interested in a product that was built around common user needs and could better connect and inform users, as opposed to a product that was built to streamline a process and move it onto a screen.

In the end, we concluded that participants were interested in the product concept; they could readily understand its use and benefits and, in their view, the product technology took a backseat to its ability to improve quality. The qualitative research met each of the product team’s goals, while providing a better understanding of how to develop and potentially market the product.

Bottom Line: Good for Business
Qualitative research is a practical and valuable tool that can be used to inform and enlighten business of all sizes. It can provide timely, useful and relevant feedback directly from customers. It can help business owners and entrepreneurs get a better glimpse into customer mindsets and attitudes, along with insights into changing them. Finally, it can foster greater market and customer understanding by creating memorable contexts and connections between businesses and their key audiences.

Customer feedback comes in many forms. Qualitative research shouldn’t be reserved only for big organizations with big budgets. It can take many forms to accommodate various research objectives, timelines, budgets and business types.

For small businesses and startups, qualitative research provides the ability to hear directly from current and potential consumers. It can inform new business ideas, support product development and form the basis for further research or quantitative studies. Research results can be leveraged – as customer commentary or quotes in marketing materials, for stakeholder presentations, in white papers or other communication formats – to educate, engage and inspire. Many times, the most memorable studies also turn out to be the most insightful.

How Small Organizations Can Get Started with Qualitative Research

The reality for many startups and small businesses is that budgets are extremely tight. As market researchers, many of us need to stretch our budget dollars to ensure we’re getting the most insights for our money, but small organizations in particular may have limited funds or no budget at all for market research.

In this case, it’s important to remember that in-depth knowledge of the market and customer is critical to success. Insightful research can be used to grow a business, develop products and improve services. It’s even more expensive to spend time and money building a business without being fully informed up-front.

Smaller organizations can start or build their market research initiatives by:

  • Making connections. Many startups and small businesses are so engrossed in the daily race to stay afloat that they don’t have time to meet or develop connections with market researchers. Granted, not all market research agencies work with small clients, but those who do can form good business relationships early on that can benefit both parties as they grow.
  • Defining objectives. Before beginning any type of market research, it’s critical that businesses define their overarching goals and objectives. Who’s the audience? What’s most important to learn? How will findings be applied? For small businesses, this is a useful exercise in defining and setting goals, even if the research isn’t immediately initiated.
  • Considering methods. Many entrepreneurs and business owners have the perception that any type of market research is too expensive. In fact, newer technologies, such as online communities, panels and virtual meeting tools, can reduce costs. Market research firms who specialize in these approaches and can advise on options.
  • Getting started. We often hear about the challenges and opportunities inherent in dealing with big data, but many small businesses or startups may have no data. No customer, performance or satisfaction data. Businesses can get started by figuring out what they most need to know, then take steps to learn. Even simple first steps can lead to greater awareness and insight.

Qualitative research can benefit small businesses because it is not reliant on existing data, can offer an entry to further research and doesn’t have to be expensive. It makes good business sense for entrepreneurs and business owners to develop knowledgeable market research collaborators. And market research firms – know that small businesses will value your support early on and may become repeat customers as they grow.