Point of View   Tactics

When Being Too Data-Driven Can Lead You Astray: A very biased argument from a qualitative researcher

May 2, 2022
At DH, we love social change marketing, the practice of employing traditional marketing techniques to change behaviors in ways that promote equity and well-being. That means we love to create communication campaigns that support communities and the individuals within them, use innovative and unexpected tactics, and are tailored to suit specific cultural contexts. 

It also means we love market research … a lot. 

Our team of number crunchers and data miners will get nerdy sifting through quantitative data to pull out stats that uncover insightful details about an audience. Demographics. Their other interests. Where they are online. The fact that they are twice as likely to search for cutesy costumes for their fur babies. 

But we don’t stop there. If we did stop, our assumptions about this data might lead us down the wrong road. Traditional market research databases have biases that are baked into the media industry and often built on harmful stereotypes. Traditional market research doesn’t account for important contextual factors such as social vulnerability, historical trauma, or power dynamics. 

Take this example. Market research suggests that Spanish speakers in Washington state drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than other Washingtonians. We could stop after that data point and assume that using campaign tactics to deliver our messaging where these drinks are sold is a brilliant idea. If we did, we’d be missing the real story behind the data. The real story being that sugary drinks are disproportionately marketed toward Black and LatinX teens and youth, who are more at risk for obesity. That due to income inequality and federal food policies, not all families can afford healthier drink options. That zoning rules have led to a dearth of healthy food outlets, particularly in neighborhoods with more people of color. That because of disinvestment in public infrastructure, drinking water isn’t actually drinkable in some low-income communities.  

Any effective marketing program needs to understand their audience’s reality in order to connect with them. Quantitative and qualitative data go hand in hand.

With that in mind, here are four reasons to make the investment to add qualitative research to your process. 

You’ll learn what you didn’t know that you need to know.

Maybe your audience is different from you. Maybe their experiences are ones you don’t share. This is a juicy place to be! You have a chance to learn directly from your audience about what matters to them, how they orient to the behavior you are trying to change, and what changes would empower or hinder them from doing the thing you hope they’ll do. A good example is nearly every campaign we have done with youth audiences. Quantitative data showed some form of disengagement that could be mistaken for apathy, where conversations with youth showed people who cared deeply. Talking directly to your audience through surveys, focus groups, or online forums can surface the kind of unexpected but inspired tactics that will make your message stand out and make it meaningful.

You’ll get the chance to build new partnerships.

When you think of qualitative research, see it as a collaboration opportunity. Look for ways to shape your research together with your audience. Partner with a community-based organization to co-host a focus group together or develop culturally appropriate questions and activities. Work with researchers or firms who are rooted in that community, especially if they are underrepresented in industry or academia. Ensure compensation for all research participants and partners. Not only will co-designing your research yield richer results, it will also create new, mutually beneficial ways of working together.

You’ll build a relationship that can last.

Qualitative research requires listening. Good qualitative research in the context of social change marketing requires listening with empathy and intention. When you engage with a community by listening empathetically and are responsive to what you hear, you’re building a foundation for dialogue and understanding, cornerstones of any relationship. It’s not just about data collection, it’s about sharing knowledge both ways. Follow up with reports and research milestones or send a note to research partners if findings led to specific outcomes. How you show up both before and after a research program will set the tone for future interactions.

You’ll contribute to a more representative research field.

As we said above, data is fraught with stereotypes and biases that we don’t always know are there. That’s in part because research has roots in systems that value highly educated and majority culture voices. The antidote? Diverse representation in data collection and analysis. When you collaborate on qualitative research, you are facilitating the co-creation of knowledge and amplifying community voice. Engaging your audience in your research shifts power dynamics so that what you learn is informed by – and flows back to – the people you are learning about.  

Quantitative data gives you some high-level indicators to drive your communication strategy. Don’t skip this key step. But keep going further. What you learn through traditional market research is also a chance to open lines of further inquiry and – even better – a chance to collaborate with your audience as you go deep to find the answers.

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