Accounting for practice in commercial qualitative market research

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 12 June 2009



Campbell, R. (2009), "Accounting for practice in commercial qualitative market research", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 12 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Accounting for practice in commercial qualitative market research

Article Type: Practitioner perspectives From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Volume 12, Issue 3

Methodological reporting in commercial qualitative research resides in a rather greyer area than it does in academic accounts – at least in so far as there are no “standard” procedures or practices followed in this regard. A tradition of reasonably brief process descriptions would be commonly accepted as “normal” and generally sufficient. For example, the sample make up, duration, and something (brief) about the style of the interaction might be all the evidence required in a project report alongside, in some cases, an appended “Discussion guide”.

John Branch’s suggestion of an “assumption of standardisation” within the marketing population has credence, amongst a (commercial buyer) community often, if not always, far more concerned about the outcomes, conclusions and practical implications of the analysis than the processes and available “data” which led to such an analysis - or, indeed, its post-reporting.

In a very real sense, the commercial researcher has been “bought” as a consultant and the research outcomes and recommendations are – and are expected to be – heavily coloured with the impressions, influences, analysis, interpretation and “advice” of the individual or individuals conducting and reporting the research.

However, this does not assume a charter of amateurism, ignorance of theory, pure idiosyncracy or, indeed, serendipity amongst the commercial qualitative researcher universe. This is illustrated by observations about the commercial world and reporting of analysis:

  • Commercial clients are increasingly involved – and often present – during research groups or depth interviews. This means that the immediate “data” is evident to all parties – as a consequence, the need for specificity, transparency, and explanation in the analysis process and presentation are highlighted. There will always be a need for discussion of the effects, not only of the moderator but also of viewers and, of course, the peculiar atmospherics of viewing facilities in which clients observe the group process (Desai, 2002).

  • Commercial qualitative research projects are very differently reported to those in academic spheres. Rhetorically, our accounts fulfil the purchased brief, and are often circumscribed by time constraints. There may well be no final written document. Instead, there may be a very full verbal, charted presentation. This will be the result of detailed analysis and interpretation of the fieldwork and will include specific conclusions and recommendations. The way in which the methodology is “reported” will be a mixture of structural (e.g. groups, depths, workshops – and the composition of these) and impressionistic/anecdotal (observations, reflections, contextual constraints etc).

  • Selling research promotes a competitive climate between suppliers; differentiation along philosophical, procedural and methodological lines has inevitably emerged to create niched appeal. In turn, the promotion of methodological prowess has favoured the development of “specialisms”. Most recently, for example, we have seen the (re)adoption of ethnographic approaches (Sunderland and Denny, 2007) by many commercial qualitative research companies. These approaches often employ complex analysis lenses whereby “naturally occurring data” is overlaid with cultural contextualisation (Desai, 2007). This is a neat example of commerce driving re-engagement with methodology and its more open, transparent and detailed description.

We are, in the commercial world, arguably “kept on our toes” theoretically (and in terms of “necessary” methodological accounting) precisely by the – commercial – culture of marketing!

If – in John Branch’s view – there is a tendency to cut away and slim down the Methodology sections within Journal reports, and if this is in some way a contributor to “scepticism among critics of qualitative” (Branch, above), I can see this might suggest an “apologist” stance. Reflexive accounting, as suggested within much anthropological ethnography (Seale, 1999) as well as in the context of narrative methods (Boje, 2001), may feel too complex, opinionated, simply too personal and “slippery” to be included in a full and transparent manner. This is a shame, since the “legitimisation” (indeed essential quality) of involved personal viewpoint in qualitative enquiry is precisely what differentiates it from quantitative enquiry – and moreover, is part of how it works.

It may, then, be precisely the commercial pressures to differentiate that have fostered a more “open process” accounting style amongst commercial qualitative practitioners. But, equally, the commercial researcher generally works in a world where there is an (enviable, maybe, from the academic’s perspective) acceptance of qualitative approaches, processes and analysis. We do not generally confront “cynicism” about the seriousness, value or rigour of qualitative processes. What we tend to confront is interest in effect. The research results are, ideally, expected to produce commercially valuable change. So, if an analysis of communications reveals exciting possibilities about how a client might talk to consumers – using the most powerful and motivating words and phrases – it might also be quite redundant to the client that the “findings” emerged through a process of discourse analysis, a semiotic (template) analysis or, indeed, the classic (based on Grounded Theory approaches, Goulding, 2002) listen-transcribe-annotate-hypothesise-review process.

The colonisation of the key word “Think” as the talismanic and levelling appeal to populations of drivers, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians in relation to road safety emerged - and was rightly seized upon by the advertising agency and client - after one such process … which I would wager all parties have now “forgotten”.

So, perhaps the question is, why do we want the methodological explication; to satisfy the “sceptic’s” eye, or prove commercial value? To keep the account “open”? To make the prejudice (intended or not) of the analyst evident? To help the reader glean more insight, learn anew? A description of methodological procedure needs, thus, to be tailored to its role.

I would argue that methodological openness, a reflexive account of process in so far as it is practical (time and space-wise) is valuable in any qualitative research account because it helps to describe the “reality of different realities” and affirm the essential characteristic that qualitative processes are not acts of mining from which specific, particular “truths” emerge. Rather they are processes of insight-generation, from which many different roads are likely to emerge – one of which will hopefully lead to a better place for the reader, client or self-educating observer.

Rosie Campbell


Boje, D. (2001), Narrative Methods for Organisational and Communication Research, Sage Publications, London

Desai, P. (2002), Methods Beyond Interviewing in Qualitative Research, Sage Publications, London

Desai, P. (2007), “Ethnography and market research”, International Journal of Market Research, p. 48(6

Goulding, C. (2002), Grounded Theory, Sage Publications, London

Seale, C. (1999), The Quality of Qualitative Research, Sage Publications, London

Sunderland, P. and Denny, R. (2007), Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA

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