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How to conduct B2B qualitative research – key tools and advice

How to conduct B2B qualitative research – key tools and advice
Contents

    1. Why is qualitative research necessary in B2B?
    2. What types of projects are best suited to qualitative research?
    3. What is best practice in B2B qualitative research?
    4. How can we recruit B2B decision-makers for qualitative research?
    5. What are the key methods for conducting B2B qualitative research?

1. Why is qualitative research necessary in B2B?

When people think of marketing research, they often think about quantitative research. There are several reasons for this:

  • It’s the methodology that people are most familiar with – newspapers regularly publish the results of surveys
  • It intuitively makes sense – you ask a lot of people for their opinion, aggregate the responses, and can make decisions with confidence
  • It’s statistically valid, and so people are more comfortable with the results

However, qualitative research is just as important a methodology as quantitative research for B2B researchers. In some respects, it is better suited to research in B2B markets than it is to research in B2C markets. Indeed, we think there are five reasons that qualitative research is better suited to B2B markets.

First, B2B markets are small, and the audiences can be niche. In some instances, the target audience may be so small that quantitative research may not even be possible.

In certain B2B markets, you can interview a representative sample of the target audience using just qualitative research.

Second, B2B markets are more complex. Products have more features and benefits, and the decision-making process has more steps and more people involved.

Therefore, understanding B2B markets requires more detailed/in-depth questions and an ability to revise the direction of questions during the research project. Qualitative research is better suited to both of those goals.

Third, the B2B decision-making process tends to be more opaque. B2B decision-makers are hard to reach, and so we don’t know a huge amount about their motivations and behavior.

Qualitative research is particularly well-suited to understanding the decision-making process because it is about the ‘how or why’ of specific behaviors and attitudes. It is crucial to discover underlying views because it allows us to pick up non-verbal signs.

Fourth, B2B decision-makers are accustomed to doing things on their terms. They tend to respond better to qualitative research than quantitative research.

That’s because qualitative research’s more open and exploratory approach allows decision-makers to respond in their own words, rather than forcing them to choose from fixed responses in a specific order.

Finally, B2B decision-makers often have relationships with an Account Manager. These Account Managers are generally aware of most of their clients’ needs and behavior. And any issues that are common to many clients will probably be fed back to central functions like marketing.

Of course, qualitative research has its downsides, and there are many situations when quantitative research is more appropriate. For example, if a company needs to make a critical business decision, the small sample sizes found in qualitative research may be insufficient.

That is why, on many projects, we recommend conducting qualitative research and then quantitative research. That way, a client gets the benefits of both techniques. Of course, the ideal is not always possible due to time and budget limitations.
 

2. What types of projects are best suited to qualitative research?

In our experience, qualitative research is the only way to undertake the following two project types:

  • Generating and developing new product and service ideas. Once a company develops a product, quantitative research is critical to validate that the target audience likes it, as well as to estimate the likely adoption rate. However, qualitative research is essential for the actual generation of ideas, and for the development of that idea into a concrete product concept
  • Getting a detailed understanding of processes. B2B decision-making processes are complex. There are multiple individuals with different inter-personal dynamics. And there are numerous steps in the process. Quantitative research doesn’t allow us to obtain a deep understanding of this process. Qualitative research is essential to explore how decisions are made, as well as to understand most processes (e.g., supply chain processes)

The following project types require quantitative and qualitative research. In other words, the project outputs will not be as high quality without qualitative research:

  • Evaluating reactions to websites, marketing communications or promotional materials. Quantitative research will tell us how people might react to different materials, which can be useful to decide whether to launch the documents or not. However, qualitative research is needed to explore why they react as they do, which can help to guide what needs to change to improve the materials
  • Exploring perceptions of a company, brand, category, or product. Quantitative research can explore attitudes, but it has its limits. Specifically, quantitative research is best at measuring functional perceptions of a brand, for example, ‘the percentage of people who see brand X as easy to work with.’ Qualitative research allows us to use techniques that unlock a deeper, more emotional, understanding of perceptions (e.g., projective questions – see later)
  • Identifying the optimal brand positioning or marketing strategy. If you’re going to design a brand positioning, or a messaging framework, or a channel strategy, you need a Only qualitative research can achieve that. Quantitative research should be used to validate the qualitative findings and test the recommended positioning or strategy
  • Developing market segments. Similarly, you can only build customer segments or personas if you have an understanding of the audience’s underlying needs and behavior, for which qualitative research is essential
  • Developing content marketing and thought leadership. Generally, most content marketing reports require quantitative research, which provides valid and statistically robust results. However, qualitative research is useful in providing quotes, case studies, and stories that bring the story to life

qual project types

 

3. What is best practice in B2B qualitative research?

The benefits of qualitative research only occur if the research is conducted in the right way. When doing any business-to-business qualitative research project, we suggest following three principles.

Don’t just speak to customers and prospects.

Internal stakeholders, particularly client-facing staff, likely have a wealth of insight into the target audience.

There are several benefits to conducting qualitative interviews among internal stakeholders:

  • It helps us to understand what internal knowledge already exists. That means we can build on the foundation rather than telling the business what it already knows
  • It provides us with some hypotheses that we can validate in the external interviews. If internal stakeholders are basing decisions on incorrect views, the research needs to correct that

Use skilled (and independent) qualitative interviewers and moderators.

There is a skill to B2B qualitative interviewing. A good interviewer can:

  • Persuade senior, time-poor decision-makers to open up
  • Listen to everything that is said, not just what confirms a hypothesis
  • Listen to what isn’t said, including non-verbal signs
  • Avoid introducing bias to the results, e.g., by avoiding leading questions,

Interviewing is typically best done by independent 3rd parties. That is partly to limit the bias that an in-house interviewer might have in favor of their team or project.

But it’s mainly because clients and prospects are more likely to divulge information to an objective third party rather than to a vendor.

Use a range of techniques to dig deeper and unlock hidden insights.

B2B decision-makers:

  • Don’t always know why they act the way they do
  • Are unaware of their subconscious thought processes
  • Are driven by emotions, not just functional variables

The benefit of qualitative research is the ability to ‘dig deeper’ and identify these emotional, subconscious factors. Adience uses a variety of techniques to achieve that goal.

Many of these techniques are what we would call ‘projective’ techniques. These techniques put a relatively low strain on participants. Besides, the unique nature of the questions can be enjoyable for interviewees. For example:

  • Image sorting. Many people are visual thinkers and can struggle to articulate their opinions. As a result, decision-makers are presented with photos or images, and asked to pick those that they most associate with an attribute or brand. The images may be things like celebrities, emojis, or other brands’ logos. The point is to allow participants to articulate their opinions in a way that unlocks underlying associations
  • Hypothetical scenarios and role play. For example, ‘if you had a magic wand to change one thing about the industry, what would you change?’ Or, ‘imagine that you were no longer able to outsource Service X. How would your organization respond?’ Scenarios like this work because they force participants to think about an issue in a way they haven’t previously. As a result, rather than answering on ‘auto-pilot,’ they may be provoked to respond with something they would not usually be able to articulate
  • Inversion. For example, rather than asking decision-makers what their ideal provider looks like, we ask them to design the World’s Worst Provider. This exercise works in a similar way to the hypothetical scenarios, but it has an added advantage. By focusing on the negative, we can often identify needs that we wouldn’t have if we just concentrated on the positive
  • Analogies and personification. For example, ‘if brand X was a city, which would it be? Who would be the citizens? Who would be the mayor?’ Or, ‘if brand Y was a person, who would they be? What gender? What would it look like? How would it behave?’ This exercise can identify emotional attributes that participants wouldn’t otherwise be able to articulate

We also use a few other techniques to elicit insights that we wouldn’t get from direct questions alone:

  • ‘In the moment’ data capture. In a normal research interview, we are relying on participants’ recollections. For example, when we ask them for their pain points when using a product, we are asking them to think back to a moment that could be recent or further back in time. Of course, there are limits to human memory. Some emotions and experiences are forgotten or diminished when the moment is recalled. ‘In the moment,’ data capture solves this issue by attempting to gather participants’ emotions and perceptions as they use a product or conduct a task. For example, asking a participant to film a mobile video of their experience of a product as they use it. That allows us to identify pain points and needs that we wouldn’t have discovered through standard research questions
  • Neuroscientific techniques. A lot of the above methods rely on research participants knowing why they behave as they do, with the focus on just helping participants to articulate the ‘why.’ But there are many situations where people just do not know the ‘why,’ typically when the subconscious mind is most active. To accommodate for this, we use neuroscientific techniques to extract insights. Some neuroscientific techniques aren’t appropriate in B2B research – for example, senior decision-makers are unlikely to agree to an EEG test of the electrical activity in their brain. However, eye-tracking and facial expression analysis are both techniques that allow us to identify subconscious emotions.

qual best practice

 

4. How can we recruit B2B decision-makers for qualitative research?

Consumer research agencies have it easy. Pretty much everyone is a consumer, so the pool of potential respondents for a research project can be vast.

It’s slightly different for B2B research agencies. Our respondents – decision-makers within organizations – are a scarce resource, especially when the study focuses on individuals in senior or niche roles.

The problem is not just that they are scarce. Securing the support of decision-makers is also tricky. Gatekeepers may protect them, they have limited time, and their focus is on improving their business, not taking part in research.

However, B2B respondents can be incentivized to take part in the research if you use the right approach.

The most powerful incentives are ‘soft’:

  • In most B2B markets, people buy from people, and buyers and sellers tend to have a strong relationship. Leveraging this relationship is the most powerful incentive of all
  • Another powerful soft incentive is appealing to the curiosity of a decision-maker. If the research topic, or technique, sounds interesting, decision-makers are more likely to consider taking part
  • B2B respondents are time-poor, so it’s important to emphasize that the time they do spend on the research will benefit them in the long-run. We recommend emphasizing how research participation will help them and their employer through innovations or service improvements

These soft incentives aren’t always possible, and may not be enough by themselves, so ‘hard’/tangible incentives can be required:

  • A common approach is to thank respondents for their time with a financial incentive, either a cash payment or a prize draw for a gift card or something like an iPad. That isn’t always appropriate, either legally (due to corporate bribery laws), ethically (due to the optics of giving well-remunerated decision-makers cash for their opinions), or practically (sometimes it isn’t even required)
  • A charity donation is a useful alternative – it rewards decision-makers for their time by appealing to their sense of charity, without any of the legal/ethical issues. It also allows clients, or respondents, to direct money to a charity that they support

In our experience, if you’re looking to persuade time-poor decision-makers to participate in research, a mix of soft and hard incentives works best.

 

5. What are the key methods for conducting B2B qualitative research?

There are three types of technique for conducting qualitative research, whether in consumer or B2B markets:

  • In-depth one-on-one interviews – can be conducted face-to-face or by telephone/videoconference
  • Group discussions – can be conducted face-to-face or online
  • Observation – can be conducted in-person or remotely using mobile apps

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach:

qual table

The nature of B2B markets influences how useful/feasible each of these techniques is.

First, conducting qualitative research among time-poor senior decision-makers can be difficult. They often don’t have time to attend F2F focus groups, or for observation techniques that require a lot of time to set-up.

Online groups and communities can work for time-poor decision-makers, as they allow participants to respond when they have time. However, online groups can also lead to low-quality responses if the exercise isn’t prioritized or given much attention by the participant.

Second, many B2B decision-makers work within offices that have strict security/privacy regulations. Also, many are participating in the research in their own time, and don’t necessarily want colleagues to know they are taking part in the study. As a result, face-to-face techniques which require interviewers to attend their offices (e.g., face-to-face interviews or observation) are often not realistic.

Third, the target audience for a study is often small and spread across multiple locations – getting respondents in one place for a face-to-face focus group can often be unrealistic.

Finally, decision-makers can often be unwilling to share confidential information in front of potential competitors, so group activities that require multiple people from the same sector don’t work.

As a result, B2B qualitative research tends to be dominated by one-on-one interviews by telephone/videoconference, especially for senior decision-makers. For less senior decision-makers, we also consider the following techniques:

  • Online groups or communities
  • In-person focus groups
  • Remote observation (by mobile app)

In-person observation and in-person one-on-one interviews are rarely used in B2B qualitative research.

Summary

1. Why is qualitative research necessary in B2B?

First, B2B markets are small, and the audience can be niche. In some instances, quantitative research isn’t even possible. Second, B2B markets are more complex, and understanding them requires more detailed questions. Third, the B2B decision-making process tends to be more opaque, and qualitative techniques allow us to pick up non-verbal signs. Fourth, B2B decision-makers are accustomed to doing things on their terms, and tend to respond better to more open, exploratory techniques.

2. What types of projects are best suited to qualitative research?

Qualitative research is the only way to generate and develop new product and service ideas, and to get a detailed understanding of B2B decision-making processes.
Qualitative research is also needed, in parallel with quantitative research, in order to: evaluate reactions to websites and promotional materials; explore perceptions of a company, brand or product; identify the optimal brand positioning or marketing strategy; develop market segments; develop content marketing and thought leadership

3. What is best practice in B2B qualitative research?

First, don’t just speak to customers and prospects, make sure to interview internal stakeholders. Second, use skilled (and independent) qualitative interviewers and moderators, who can limit bias and improve the quality of insights. Third, use a range of techniques (e.g. projective questions, neuroscientific techniques) to dig deeper and elicit responses you wouldn’t get through direct questions.

4. How can we recruit B2B decision-makers for qualitative research?

Use a mix of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ incentives to recruit time-poor decision-makers. ‘Soft’ incentives include: leveraging the relationship they have with their Account Manager; positioning the research so that it sounds interesting; emphasizing how the research will help them in the long-run. The best performing ‘hard’ incentives are prize draws, cash payments and charity donations.

5. What are the key methods for conducting B2B qualitative research?

It depends on the audience. For most audiences, one-on-one interviews via telephone/videoconference are used. For less senior decision-makers, we also consider online groups, in-person groups or remote observation by mobile app.

Chris Wells
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