How to Use Qualitative Research Methods for Digital Marketing

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(Welcome to Part II of this short research series, you can read Part I here)

While quantitative methods provide great insights into what your audience is doing, qualitative research is much more suited to understanding the reasons why they are doing it.

Before moving into a more detailed discussion about when to use qualitative research, its advantages and disadvantages, and how to ensure its validity, we must first comprehend what exactly are qualitative methods. SnapSurveys provides a straightforward definition:

Qualitative Research is primarily exploratory research. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. It provides insights into the problem or helps to develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research. Qualitative Research is also used to uncover trends in thought and opinions, and dive deeper into the problem [at hand].


Qualitative questions are open-ended inquiries, meaning that each participant can respond to the question as he or she wants. Therefore, these research methods normally generate unstructured data. In simple terms, the information is not structured following any established pattern or scale, making it unsuitable for quantitative analysis.

However, the fact that it does not involve conducting statistical analysis does not make qualitative research easier. Actually, qualitative research analysis can pose a series of challenges, and the data must be carefully analyzed to avoid unreliable conclusions and inferences.

When to Use Qualitative Research Methods

When, then, should you use qualitative research for digital marketing? Is it worth the effort? How often should you run qualitative surveys?

Perhaps you are already starting to visualize the huge potential of qualitative research for digital marketing. Here are a few situations when you might want to use qualitative methods:

  • Understanding why several of your customers abandoned their shipping carts at the last moment;
  • Detailing the psychological profile of your target market for building better personas;
  • Discovering trends in thoughts and perceptions of your target market with relation to your brand;
  • Establishing the context in which your brand is mentioned.

These are just a few examples of how qualitative research can contribute to a better understanding of your customer and of your market positioning.

Keep in mind, however, that simply sending an email with the link to your survey might not be enough. If you want to obtain valuable inputs from your users, you should offer something back in return for their effort.

Some ideas would include free relevant content to download, discount codes, among other small rewards. To help maximize the amount and the quality of your responses, Marketo provides a great guide on how to increase response rates for online surveys.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Qualitative Methods

Qualitative research offers deeper insights than quantitative methods. By surveying your audience through open-ended questions, you provide the opportunity for them to expand on their responses. This not only provides a more detailed perception of the issue at hand but also often leads to new topics not considered previously.

There are, however, a few drawbacks of qualitative methods. In opposition to quantitative surveys, it is very hard to automate the analysis of unstructured data. While you can throw thousands of lines of a quantitative survey into a statistical package and quickly run different types of analyses, qualitative results often require a closer look involving human interaction.

Another issue is that answers might be highly subjective and depend on the current situation of the interviewee. Therefore, it is harder to generalize the results to the entire population.

Validity and Reliability of Qualitative Methods

Validity and reliability of qualitative methods are better understood in terms of quality of the research. This can be broken down into four components: 

  1. Properly designing the qualitative survey: how are you phrasing your questions? Are you avoiding biases when creating the survey? Does the questionnaire follow a logical sequence?
  2. Using the right method to collect the data: are you using the appropriate venue to collect the data? Here is an example: to understand why a customer abandoned an online cart, it is better to set up a survey and kindly ask for their opinion rather than monitoring their online activity in social media. If, however, you want to understand your customers’ needs, monitoring social profiles is more appropriate as the information revealed there is usually not mentioned in questionnaires.
  3. Collecting the right type of data: what type of questions are you asking? Do they properly capture, from different perspectives, the phenomenon you want to analyze?
  4. Drawing appropriate conclusions: since qualitative inquiries normally use a small sample size, you should be careful not to generalize the results to the entire population. Instead, use the inputs to create working hypotheses that later will be tested in quantitative studies. 

Qualitative Methods for Digital Marketing

Last but not least, let’s go through some real examples of how qualitative methods can be used in digital marketing. Remember that qualitative research produces a high amount of unstructured data, and analytical tools are still limited in automating the evaluation of the results. There is a clear trade-off between obtaining more data and being able to make sense of all the information, and finding a balance is essential for effective research.

Online Qualitative Survey

Building an online qualitative survey is the most straightforward way of applying qualitative methods to your digital marketing strategy. 

To maximize the results of your inquiries, consider focusing on a specific behavior per survey. In other words, select a specific issue you want to understand, and send the survey only to the relevant people. If, for example, you want to understand why your abandonment rate increased, you should send the survey only to those users that actually dropped the cart.

This is one of the most important differences between qualitative and quantitative inputs. In the qualitative field, you want to restrict yourself to a specific group with a certain behavior to understand their motivation. You are not looking for more input, you are looking for the right type of input

This is why you must dedicate enough time and efforts to properly build the survey. The Nielsen Norman Group put together a list of best practices in the field. Some of the most relevant are:

  • Get feedback from your peers about your survey. Write the questions, revisit them a few days later, show them to your colleagues, and ask for feedback.
  • Present the most important questions first. We all hope that the respondents will complete the survey, but that rarely happens. Collect the important answers first, so you lose little value if the visitor drops the survey halfway through.
  • Decide the goal of the survey before creating it. Broad inquiries will give you broad answers and little benefit. It is better to create multiple surveys with specific objectives than a large unified survey.
  • Ask “why” and “how” questions, not what quantitative research and analytics can tell you.

Analyzing Social Media for Qualitative Inputs

Social media is one of the richest sources of data about your audience. It can be used both for quantitative and qualitative purposes.

Once you start gathering a good number of followers on your social profiles, you can start following their personal publications to look for valuable information. People constantly share posts about their personal aspirations, desires, needs, difficulties, moments of happiness.

By observing their actions, you will be able to identify what your visitors value, what makes them angry, what they would like to have, among other essential characteristics.

Following Your Online Mentions

Following your online mentions aims at identifying and analyzing the contexts and websites in which your pages and products are being mentioned. 

According to Brandwatch, Social Media Monitoring is broadly defined using a tool to listen to what websites and social media profiles are saying about a specific topic. This topic can be your own company, but it might also be something else you are interested in: perhaps your industry, broad categories of your products, or the general topics of your online content.

Here we have put together The Complete Guide to A Winning Social Listening Strategy.

Final Words: Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research

To obtain the best results, it is recommendable to combine qualitative and quantitative inputs. In the beginning of the article, we mentioned qualitative methods as the starting point for the generation of hypotheses about your audience’s behavior.

Once you have enough qualitative data, the next step is to test it through quantitative surveys. The latter provides the proper characteristics for generalization (not present in qualitative efforts), so you will be able to test whether certain behavior is a trend in the population under analysis or is just a specificity of one respondent.

By following our advice presented in this and in the previous article, we guarantee you will obtain great insights and a better understanding of your entire target market!

Which of these two research methods do you find the most insightful in your personal experience? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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