Five qual questions you always wanted to know about, but were too afraid to ask - What to expect from qualitative research

Qualitative research can be a powerful tool both to help you understand your key audiences, and to help you communicate better about the work that your organisation does.

Qualitative research can be a powerful tool both to help you understand your key audiences, and to help you communicate better about the work that your organisation does. More than just ‘adding life’ to quantitative data, qual can be used at any number of points along your research journey to help understand behaviours and get a deeper understanding of the ways that people engage with your charity. You might undertake some initial, exploratory research to understand what your supporters think sets you apart from other charities in your sector, and how they have come to choose to support you. Equally, you might want to expand your target audiences, and to understand more about public perceptions of your organisation and work, and what the barriers to engagement with your charity are. Later, you might use qual research to test fundraising, communications, or campaigns materials you are thinking about using, or in developing new products or services, to ensure the most successful take-up possible. In other cases, you might want to understand how your brand is perceived by key professional contacts in other organisations, in order to review, refresh, or even significantly change your brand.

Five common client questions about qualitative research

Between the members of our team we have a lot of experience guiding clients through the process of qualitative research, helping them to understand when qual is (and isn’t appropriate), key factors to consider when commissioning, and what they can expect in the way of insights and outputs from this kind of research, and what to expect from your research agency. There are a number of questions that come up frequently in our chats with clients, so we thought we’d put some of them down here, along with our views on the questions. These have come from clients with a broad range of experience, from first-time to regular buyers of research.

1. We’d rather not offer cash incentives to focus group participants, is that ok?

There are a number of important reasons for offering qualitative respondents a cash incentive to participate in research (or in some cases a high street or similar voucher). Most importantly, we are asking the individual to take time out of their week, often travelling to a venue away from their home, and you are using them as a resource to help find the information and insights you need. As part of our responsibility with you to protect the welfare of research participants, we feel strongly that we need to respect them by compensating them for their time and effort. Using cash incentives also helps to promote getting a diversity of respondents – so that, for example, people on lower incomes are not excluded from research because they can’t pay for a few hours of extra childcare. Occasionally (for example, existing supporters), a respondent may spontaneously offer to ‘donate’ their incentive back to the charity, and we would administer this process for you.

2. I’ve heard it’s now possible to do ‘online qualitative research’. Is that true, and what does it mean?

Online qualitative research methods are becoming increasingly common in commercial market research, and there is no reason why charities can’t also use these approaches. Online qual can cover a whole range of methods that can complement, or in some cases replace offline research. Examples include analysis of the content of existing chatroom or discussion threads (for example, on your website area for service users), guided discussion forums that may last several weeks in total, or fully moderated online focus groups, which utilise specialist web technologies and allow respondents to use a range of tools for viewing, commenting on media and creative stimulus, and even ‘side’ chats between a second moderator and a respondent with a different view than the rest of the group.

There are a range of reasons why you might consider online qual in addition, or instead of offline qual: to reach respondents who spread over a broad geographical area (who can’t all travel to a focus group venue), group discussions about sensitive or potentially embarrassing topics, or to do research to support a web-based fundraising or commscampaign – to that the experience is ‘truer’ for the respondent in their natural web-use environment than it would be in a traditional focus group.

3. Can we offer our existing supporters a t-shirt with our logo instead of a cash incentive to take part in research?

Unfortunately, no. When it comes to respondent incentives, charities are currently governed by the same guidelines and regulations as commercial organisations. The Market Research Society and the Information Commissioner’s Office have made it clear that ‘research activities’ must not contain a commercial message, nor promote the aims and ideals of the client. The main reason for this is to preserve the distinction between market research on the one hand and direct marketing activities, which are regulated by DM legislation. For the quality of research, it also helps to promote the neutrality of responses to research questions. So any incentives given to respondents can’t be branded, or in any other way be seen as ‘promoting the charity’ if the activity is to be classified as research. The same general principle also applies to incentives for quantitative research – for example, you can’t offer a branded t-shirt as a prize draw for survey respondents.

If this is something you really want to do, there may be other ways to address the issue - for example, by classifying the project as a ‘promotion’ - but this would be governed by different regulations and we would need to discuss the implications of this with you in detail.

4. Can we have the transcripts of the interviews after the fieldwork?

The answer to this question depends a lot on the type of project and the audiences involved. The overarching principle we follow is the protection of confidentiality of the individual’s responses. So in many cases, we are able to pass on transcripts, such as from focus groups with the general public, as long as any information that could identify individuals is removed so that the transcripts are fully anonymised. This can becomem more difficult in the case of interviews where there is a small potential pool of respondents (for example, service users in a particular town), which makes it difficult to guarantee that the respondent will not be identifiable. It can also be difficult in stakeholder research with partner or competitor organisations, as the potential pool of respondents will again often be quite small and individuals will be identifiable by their role (for example, if the project is interviewing Comms Directors or Chief Execs).

5. We think we want to do focus groups, but we only have enough budget for 2 focus groups. Is that enough?

Different agencies will have different views on this question. In our experience, we would always recommend carrying out at least 3 groups on a particular issue. The reason for this is so that if the first 2 groups produce drastically different responses, a third group allows us to explore some of these contrasts and help ‘resolve’ the question as much as possible. However, we also know that sometimes (particularly with smaller charities) there simply isn’t the budget for 3 or more focus groups. In these cases, we work with clients to see if there is an alternative approach that can deliver the insights needed – for example, a combination of groups and depth interviews, or mini-groups. We’re always happy to discuss these any other research-related questions with you, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at



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Five qual questions you always wanted to know about, but were too afraid to ask

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