Quantitative vs qualitative research: what’s the difference?

Quantitative vs qualitative research: what’s the difference?

Quantitative vs qualitative research: What’s the difference?

Not sure what the difference is between quantitative and qualitative research? Or which will provide the answers you’re looking for?

In this article, we’ll cover all the basics of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods – how they differ and when to use them. We’ll also share our best practices for using these methodologies in B2B research.

Quantitative research tends to be the approach that people are most familiar with. That may be because survey results and numerical data are regularly reported in the media – for example, political polls are an example of quantitative data.

Also, at work, people tend to be more comfortable basing decisions on aggregations that are statistically valid. For example, quantitative data finding that 86% of B2B firms made sizable changes to their growth strategy following COVID-19 may influence your own strategic decisions.

However, qualitative research is just as important and it’s often better suited to B2B audience research than B2C studies. We’ll explain why, as we review the differences in detail.

Contents

The difference between quantitative and qualitative research
What is quantitative research?
What is qualitative research?
How to choose between qualitative and quantitative research
How to analyze quantitative and qualitative data
Qualitative vs quantitative research: best practices in B2B
Summary

Using the right research methodology, or getting a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, can help you take many decisions – including:

  • Optimizing your sales and growth strategies
  • Discovering areas where you can reduce costs or resources
  • Identifying the most effective marcomms strategy
  • Targeting customers more accurately
  • Informing new product development

The difference between quantitative and qualitative research

Quantitative research mainly tests or validates information that can be counted, measured, and rated using numerical data. It reveals what people are doing and thinking – you can analyze the information in data tables, graphs, and analytics dashboards.

Meanwhile, qualitative research helps you understand information based on verbal communication, non-verbal communication, and other forms of language. It tells you why people behave and think a certain way.

What is quantitative research?

Here is an overview of quantitative research methods, as well as the pros and cons.

Methods used

There are three methods you can use in quantitative research:

  • Online: You can send the online survey to respondents via email, by embedding it in a website or newsletter, or by sharing the link on social media
  • Telephone: Also known as CATI, this is useful if only phone numbers are available for contacts rather than email addresses
  • Face-to-face: Capturing survey answers at an event or the respondent’s place of work

In most cases, B2B quantitative research is online. It’s the most time and cost-efficient method.

Sometimes CATI is necessary if the respondents are hard to reach, but it requires more time and resources.

Face-to-face quantitative research is very rare in B2B – most participants don’t want this, it’s the most expensive technique, and the format is better suited to qualitative research.

Advantages of quantitative research

  • Informing critical business decisions: You need insights that are statistically valid and robust, by speaking to a large number of relevant people
  • Reaching a consensus: To agree on a direction, internal stakeholders are more likely to accept results that challenge their views when they’re statistically valid
  • Ensuring consistency: Quantitative research is structured, so it’s easy to compare answers between different decision-makers
  • Combining results with other data sources: You can combine the survey results with CRM numerical data, to compare higher-revenue clients with lower ones – or national statistics, to model the size of a new opportunity
  • Providing data for advanced statistical analysis: You can interrogate the data further using regression or conjoint, to better understand complex markets

Disadvantages of quantitative research

  • Limited explanation of results: In isolation, it is usually difficult to learn the reasons behind the statistics in much detail
  • Narrow answer options: Aside from open-end boxes, which provide mixed results, respondents can only select the answer options provided and there may be gaps

What is qualitative research?

Now here are the qualitative research methods, plus the pros and cons.

Methods used

There are also three main methods in qualitative research:

  • One-on-one interviews: Usually conducted via telephone or videoconference
  • Group discussions: Focus groups or online communities
  • Observation: Conducted in-person or remotely using an app

In consumer research, sometimes all three are viable options – these are the pros and cons:

But in B2B qualitative research, one-on-one interviews via telephone or videoconference are the most common method.

Senior decision-makers don’t have enough time for one or two-hour focus groups or online discussions, and an observation exercise often isn’t appropriate for them either.

In some cases, these are potential options for less senior decision-makers though.

Advantages of qualitative research

  • Understanding a topic in more detail: Qualitative research is exploratory, so you can find out how something works or why it matters to your target audience
  • Mapping out buyers’ decision-making processes: You can work out complex customer journeys – for example, the B2B purchase process – by identifying key behaviors and attitudes, as well as the role played by underlying emotions
  • Hearing the audience in their own words: Qualitative research captures open-ended answers, rather than forcing respondents to choose from a narrow list
  • Getting insights from very niche audiences: Some audiences are too small for statistically-valid quantitative data, qualitative research insights are a very useful alternative for informing most sales or marketing strategies
  • Leveraging account manager relationships: In B2B, you can often reach the most relevant participants for qualitative research via their account manager, who’ll know whether they’ll be insightful – this is harder to do at scale for quantitative research

Disadvantages of qualitative research

  • Insufficient sample size to validate critical decisions: Qualitative research projects often include only 10-15 respondents
  • Risk of interviewer bias impacting the results: Inexperienced interviewers may ask leading questions or overlook important information due to their subjectivity

How to choose between qualitative and quantitative research

Always choose the best methodology for your research and business objectives. In our experience, quantitative research is the only option for four research project types.

For the first two, you need to model and forecast different scenarios based on statistics. For the second two, you need to measure metrics and numbers over time, consistently – B2B brand tracking research is a popular example:

  • Testing and validating product or service concepts
  • Finding the optimal pricing strategy
  • Tracking brand perceptions and managing performance
  • Tracking changes in market trends

Meanwhile, qualitative research is the only option for the below projects, because you need to take an exploratory approach for the best results:

  • Generating new product or service concepts and ideas
  • Getting a better understanding of the buying process

Some project types – such as a B2B customer segmentation – need both methodologies, otherwise, the results will be limited.

That’s because you need robust statistics from quantitative data collection methods to validate your decisions or claims, but also qualitative research to learn how your target audience will react and why:

  • Evaluating reactions to websites, marcomms, or promotional materials
  • Exploring brand, company, category, or product perceptions
  • Finding the optimal brand positioning or marketing strategy
  • Developing a go-to-market strategy
  • Developing market segments
  • Creating content marketing and thought leadership

How to analyze quantitative and qualitative data

While there are many techniques and analysts have different preferences when it comes to analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, here are some principles to keep in mind:

Analyzing quantitative data

  • Check it: Remove respondents that haven’t answered a question properly, have completed the survey too quickly, or have given contradictory answers
  • Format the data into tables: This will make analysis less time-consuming, as you can cut the data into key segments and compare them side-by-side
  • Focus on the original project objectives: This approach will prioritize the most important and relevant stories, rather than just the most interesting ones
  • Look for statistically significant stories: Add significance testing to the tables – that way, some of the most noteworthy findings will stand out 
  • Set aside data that isn’t interesting or unique: You don’t have to include the answers to every question in your report

Analyzing qualitative data

  • Conduct a review: Transcribe or write up the interviews, organize them by segment and share them among your analysis team
  • Identify initial themes: Look for common patterns and insights that address your project objectives
  • Brainstorm the findings: Meet up as a team to discuss the relevant themes and identify areas to analyze in more detail
  • Review the themes and revise: Based on the brainstorm, revisit the initial insights, revise if necessary and fill in the gaps – conduct extra interviews if needed
  • Storyboard the findings: Map out the key findings as visually as possible for ease of sharing and absorbing

Qualitative vs quantitative research: best practices in B2B

As specialists in B2B research, we know that the standard practices when researching a consumer audience don’t always work as well when targeting businesses.

Whether you need qualitative or quantitative data, here are our best practices in B2B research:

Best practices in B2B quantitative research

#1. Expect smaller sample sizes than B2C

B2B markets are smaller than B2C ones. Therefore, there are fewer B2B respondents to recruit, so the sample size will be smaller too. 

That’s fine – you just need enough responses for the data to be reliable, segment distribution that reflects your target market, and the respondents to be genuine. 

It may mean you can’t split the data as much as you initially intend – perhaps you can cut it by country or sector, but not both.

#2. Take care when sourcing genuine B2B respondents

In B2C research, panels are a common source of research respondents – B2B panels with genuine respondents are much rarer though.

The senior decision-makers you want to hear from are unlikely to have time to participate in panel surveys, although you may find enough from SMBs.

All B2B online surveys should include screening questions designed to catch out these fake respondents, such as ‘red herring’ answers and balanced scales.

#3. Use any qualitative insights to inform your approach

As mentioned, we often recommend conducting qualitative research to answer your ‘why’ questions before getting quantitative data – but don’t wait long to analyze the former.

Too many agencies and clients don’t set aside enough time to incorporate learnings from the qualitative research phase into their quantitative research design.

Qualitative research provides background knowledge, hypotheses, and key terms you can validate with quantitative data. If you don’t take the time to incorporate these, you’re reducing the value of your qualitative research.

#4. Explore subconscious decision-making with statistical techniques

Sometimes if you take respondents’ answers at face value, you’re not seeing the full picture. They’ll struggle to articulate their subconscious thought processes and the role played by their emotions.

You can often get a better understanding of B2B decision-makers by using advanced statistical techniques.

For example, regression analysis can help you see past any over-rationalization or exaggerated claims to see the true relative impact of different criteria on their choices.

Best practices in B2B qualitative research

#1. Speak to internal stakeholders too, not just customers and prospects

Your client-facing staff in particular will know a lot about your target audience. Consider running some one-to-one interviews with them at the outset of your qualitative research.

It’s a good way to make sure that the rest of the project will build on a foundation of existing internal knowledge. Therefore, it avoids the risk that the analysis will focus on things that key staff already know.

Moreover, the internal interviews should provide some hypotheses to test in the rest of the project. The external interviews may support these views, or contradict them – either way, that’s valuable insight.

#2. Use skilled and independent qualitative interviewers

While we listed interviewer bias as a disadvantage of qualitative research, you can solve the problem by using an experienced interviewer who is careful not to ask leading questions.

Also, by using an independent rather than an in-house interviewer, respondents are more likely to share honest opinions. An independent interviewer will share the feedback objectively, without softening any bad news or criticism.

Experienced B2B interviewers are also adept at persuading senior decision-makers who are short of time to not only take part but open up during the interview.

#3. Use projective techniques to identify emotional and subconscious factors

An experienced interviewer also knows how to pick up on non-verbal cues and identify the subconscious factors behind what respondents are saying.

Contrary to what you might expect, B2B decisions aren’t fully rational – emotions play a part in B2B buying behavior.

You need to use projective interview techniques to dig deeper and identify the subconscious factors that are relevant. Examples of these include presenting a respondent with analogies, hypothetical scenarios, personification tasks, inversion techniques, and so on.

#4. Aim for in-the-moment and behavioral data collection methods where possible

As mentioned earlier, there are only a few occasions in B2B research where in-the-moment and behavioral data collection techniques are viable – but they’re worth it when feasible.

Eye-tracking and facial expression techniques are great for product testing and marcomms research, for example.

Also, a video diary lets you see the target audience’s experiences in context, without relying on their claimed reporting or accurate memories.

Summary

The difference between quantitative and qualitative research

Quantitative research tests or validates information that can be counted, measured, and rated. It reveals what people are doing and thinking.

Advantages include: informing critical business decisions; reaching a consensus; ensuring consistency; combining results with other data sources; providing data for advanced statistical analysis.

Qualitative research helps you understand information based on verbal communication, non-verbal communication, and other forms of language. It tells you why people behave or think a certain way.

Advantages include: understanding a topic in more detail; mapping out buyers’ decision-making processes; hearing the audience in their own words; getting insights from very niche audiences; leveraging account manager relationships.

How to choose between qualitative and quantitative research

In our experience, quantitative research is the only option for the following four research project types: testing and validating product or service concepts; finding the optimal pricing strategy; tracking brand perceptions and managing performance; tracking changes in market trends.

Qualitative research is the only option for two project types: generating new product or service concepts and ideas; getting a better understanding of the buying process.

Other project types need both methodologies.

How to analyze quantitative and qualitative data

Analyzing quantitative data: check it; format the data into tables; focus on the original project objectives; look for statistically significant stories; set aside data that isn’t interesting or unique.

Analyzing qualitative data: conduct a review; identify initial themes; brainstorm the findings; review the themes and revise; storyboard the findings.

Qualitative vs quantitative research: best practices in B2B

Here are some of our best practices for B2B quantitative research: expect smaller sample sizes; take care when sourcing genuine B2B respondents; use any qualitative insights to inform your approach; explore subconscious decision-making with statistical techniques.

And for B2B qualitative research: speak to internal stakeholders too, not just customers and prospects; use skilled and independent qualitative interviewers; use projective techniques to identify emotional and subconscious factors; aim for in-the-moment and behavioral data collection methods where possible.

Chris Wells
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