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Good to the Last Drop: 10 Ways to Save Money on Qualitative Research

When you have a constrained research budget – and a long wish list of projects – you probably spend a lot of valuable time wondering how you can wring a little more value from every dollar.

Clients often wonder why good research is so expensive, and qualitative is no exception. Unlike the cost of chip technology, which drops over time, the main components of good qualitative are not dropping, and are not likely to drop any time soon, because they are largely driven by people, not technology.

Here’s the good news – there are 10 good ways to make your dollars go farther.

1. Keep a tight focus on objectives

It’s possible to conduct excellent qualitative on a small budget, which may be all that’s available. The key is to bring the qualitative research consultant (QRC) into the project early, and be upfront about the budget constraints. You need to then focus on a very short and tight list of must-have objectives. With this in hand, a QRC can often come up with some clever ways to maximize learning and minimize spending.

I recently helped a small technology company get some packaging insights from three different segments targeted for the launch. We used groups of three and four people (triads and mini-groups), ran short sessions back-to-back in one evening, and gained insight on major issues prior to launch. The client’s key learning from a tightly focused project helped them create a more successful launch strategy.

2. Reduce the number of participants

Conducting in-depth interviews with a selected small number of exactly the right people can often generate more depth of insight than using more research participants and other methodologies. Smaller focus groups often yield good results as well, because each individual gets more air-time, and the discussion can go deeper. Highly paid professionals and executives can be difficult to get into a focus group at any level of incentive – a short on-site interview will sometimes generate more interest in the project at a lower incentive budget and reduced facility costs.

3. Cut the travel

One way technology has really helped qualitative is by offering high-quality method options that involve no travel. Discussion forums (also called bulletin boards), online focus groups (text-based chat), web-meetings, and web-cams are well-established methodologies that can reach consumers nearly anywhere on the planet. Newer methods involving the use of SMS/text messaging are growing in popularity, and are accessible to anyone with a handheld device, not even necessarily a smart phone. Respondent-generated video and respondent blogs can provide incredible depth and rich insights without the client or the researcher leaving home. While some of these technologies have field costs beyond what a focus group would have, the costs are often easily offset by savings in travel expense.

When face-to-face methods are used in multiple markets, consider how many people need to be present, and whether live-streaming the sessions would be an alternative to travel.

4. Manage the number of markets you touch

Some markets are costly to research – focus group room rental rates are higher and respondent incentives are higher. Other markets require native language moderators and skilled translation support. These expenses may be unavoidable, but don’t let habit make the decision for you.

The key question is to determine when in the insight process you need multi-market work done, and what actions the organization can take based on the learning. For example, will you produce different creative for each market? Or do you just need to ensure your message is not offensive? As always, there are trade-offs, and your QRC can give you an honest assessment of what the trade-offs are in your specific situation.

5. Manage back-room catering demands

I think anyone who has been involved with focus groups can sympathize with a project team spending their days or evenings in a dark room somewhere wanting to offset restlessness with a really great meal or two. However, if your budget is tight, a good way to manage costs is to keep your back-room catering under control.

6. Decide if you need transcripts, video and other goodies

Still-camera video/DVD is often included as a standard item in focus group facility rentals, with no extra charge. Anything beyond this (such as operator-managed video) will add to costs. Some researchers use transcripts, or a stripped-down version we call “notes” as part of their analysis process, but not always. Others simply refer to the audio or video or their own jottings to jog their memory for the report.

Video highlights clips can be a wonderful way to communicate research findings, but there is a cost to this approach in the time to select the clips, edit and merge into a highlights reel. The key is to avoid asking for something you may not use.

7. Work with realistic deadlines

Doing things at a rush is costly in out-of-pocket terms, especially for rush recruits. Tight deadlines also leave little time for the percolating process that improves research design and analysis. This means you get less value from the dollars you do spend. When the budget is tight, you want your researcher to take time to think about design options.

Consider also that rush projects can be more prone to last-minute changes such as cancellation fees. Last-minute travel is often much costlier than advance bookings.

Failing all else, consider the possibilities of planning in advance for the rush project that you suspect will happen.

8. Remember that the screener is not a survey project

Shorter screeners cost less for recruiters to administer, and this will be reflected in your costs of recruiting. You should not compromise the respondent selection process, but lengthy screeners can add cost without really adding a lot of value.

9. Consider your written report needs

Clients vary considerably in terms of what they want for a report. Some request very short reports that focus on key learning and recommendations. Others want full documentation of the analysis, as well as an executive summary and recommendations.

A well-written detailed report with verbatim quotes takes about as many hours as doing the fieldwork takes, and sometimes longer. These can have tremendous value, but are not really needed on every project. By having the discussion with your researcher up front, you can settle on what you really need without compromising the quality of the fieldwork.

10. Be a valued client, easy to work with

Clients develop reputations for being easy to work with, or hard to work with. (No doubt researchers develop similar reputations.) Over time, clients that are hard to work with are likely to pay more.

Being hard to work with is not about expecting excellence in the work – it’s about having too many meetings, too many phone calls, requesting multiple versions of proposals and quotes – anything that adds little value to the research process but takes up professional time.

One of the great joys of my professional life has been learning that the top companies in any industry are often the easiest to work with – they want excellent work at a fair price, they take a collaborative approach to research, and they hate wasting time and effort on meaningless processes.


These are times when organizations need insight more than ever to compete, but every expenditure is under scrutiny. A collaborative approach with a skilled researcher will help you get more for your research dollars without sacrificing quality of insight.

Originally published on AMA