Insights vs. Metrics: Finding Meaning in Online Qualitative Research

The use of projective techniques in qualitative marketing research has become an accepted as well as expected practice in the industry.   Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews (whether face-to-face or online) are particularly suitable for activities that go beyond the question-response format.  There are any number of reasons for using projective techniques but they essentially boil down to something similar to the statement from AQR: “What these techniques have in common is that they enable participants to say more about the research subject than they can say spontaneously, accessing thoughts, feelings or meanings which are not immediately available.”  Or, something along the lines of tearing down walls as from Applied Marketing Research: “Projective techniques are important in breaking through the wall of rationalizations consumers use on a daily basis to justify the purchase or likes/dislikes of products or brands.”

Projective techniques come in a variety of flavors.  In addition to those listed on the AQR site – collage, personification, bubble drawing, role playing, etc. – there is also guided imagery, picture sorts, sentence completion, tarot cards, and more.  The types of projective techniques used by researchers has grown over the years (and continues to grow), primarily because many researchers believe (although, I am not one of them) that there is no limit to what is acceptable as a projective technique, and online resources such as Pinterest have broadened the projective possibilities.

Researchers have promoted and defended their use of projective techniques based on the ability to tap into the less-public portion of people’s minds and thereby gain a ‘truer’ picture of the ‘real’ attitudes and emotions that drive behavior.  By ‘digging deep’, researchers offer their clients rich results with new insights that might otherwise be left undiscovered.   Although this blog has discussed the limitations and inappropriate uses of projective techniques, there is no question that the proper projectives in the hands of skilled qualitative researchers can move the research measurably closer to understanding how people think.

In the continuing fast-paced evolution of online qualitative research, let’s hope that the value of offline qualitative skills such as projective techniques are not being ignored or overshadowed by the increasingly-loud buzz of social media metrics.  While these metrics are potentially useful in tracking stated attitudes and behavior, they do little in helping us understand what lurks behind individual patterns of thinking.   Michael Wolfe’s recent blog post describes BBDO’s “proprietary approach for ‘scoring’ textual [online] conversations” and how that is used to create the “Service Engagement Index” which has been used to  link service and consumer demand (in this case, hotel bookings).  Netbase utilizes their “high-precision natural language processing engine” to parse and analyze social media content to, among other things, “uncover unmet needs” and ultimately derive their “Brand Passion Index.”  Ray Poynter at Vision Critical recently discussed “How to Use Google Insights as a Research Tool,” outlining how Google Insights gives social media researchers a new, free tool to assess Google searches by key word, time period, and geographic location.  These are just a small few of the initiatives underway that tap into the social media metric mania.

All of this tracking has the potential to provide marketers with some idea of what some portion of their target audience is saying or doing at a particular moment in time – insight with a small ‘i’.  But let’s not confuse that with the ever-present need to understand how people think – Insight with a big ‘I’.  It is encouraging to see useful online qualitative research tools – such as Pinterest, Webcam research (such as that from FocusVision), mobile device technology, and others – that enable researchers to continue to build on their offline skills that dig behind the obvious and attempt to reveal how people truly think.  The future is promising for more to come.


  1. I completely agree. We run an online qual platform and we advocate the use of prone tubes, and far from limiting their use the online world enables so many more options. Especially when you consider the array of websites you can link to that your participants are regular users of and feel at home using. This can offer something over and above what software can do. These are exciting times.


  2. I’m a big believer in projective techniques as I know that the reasons for most of human behaviour is hidden from consciousness. It can be teased out through projective techniques as well as other indirect measurements. Social media research provides just one of those indirect measurements and, like any other technique, should never be used in isolation. Long live Rorschach but long live multi-mode.


    1. Thanks, Annie. And I’m a big believer in multi-mode — Isn’t it great that we live in an age when there are so many modes to choose from! — and the idea that particularly online methods should not be used in isolation. But the depth of understanding I am referring to in this post is not really a multi-mode issue. The depth of clarity I am talking about is not about just taking on data from other sources, it’s about gaining a clear understanding (Insight) of the research participants within the frame.


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