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Unlocking Market Insights: A Checklist for Actionable Qualitative Research

Updated: May 28

I once sat in on an expert interview at the start of a market research project, as a silent observer. I had to bite my tongue as the interviewer diligently followed the interview guide and missed several opportunities to dive deeper into a nugget of insight that the expert had touched on. As a junior strategy consultant, leading these expert interviews was a core part of my role so I’ve led hundreds of discussions and probably made every type of mistake along the way.

Qualitative research can be hugely valuable in providing a rich and nuanced understanding of your market and customers, whether standalone or alongside a quantitative research approach. However, if not set up correctly, it runs the risk of missing the below the surface details that are most useful and actionable. I want to share my tips for getting the most out of a qualitative research exercise.

This guide is focussed on market expert, competitor and customer research interviews to inform strategic choices and marketing plans. We will cover focus groups, which are often used for brand positioning, product/service design and user feedback, in a subsequent article.

Some example use cases for this type of research might be:

  • Refining your proposition and ICP [link]: Getting a better understanding of your customers’ decision criteria and for which types of customer your product or service is most differentiated

  • Entering a new geography: Speaking to potential customers to understand if and how customer needs differ in that geography, and therefore how you may need to adjust your product, technology, sales channels,

  • Investments and acquisitions: Getting an overview of a market, the competitive dynamics and how a potential acquisition target is currently positioned and where the opportunities are for them.

  • Pricing strategy: Understanding customer’s perceived value, key decision factors, willingness to pay and competitor pricing models to inform your pricing strategy.

Here’s my checklist for great qualitative research interviews:

Planning your research interviews

  1. Get really clear on the objectives. You will only be able to cover a small number of subjects in each interview, especially if you want to have time to dig into the details

  2. Start with hypotheses. It's worth spending the time upfront to get really clear on hypotheses you want to test rather than broad subject areas.

    1. e.g. ‘We think xyz security feature is going to be more important in this geography due to regulatory laws’ rather than ‘What features are customers interested in?’

    2. I’ve found it really useful to run a workshop with the key stakeholders from my client to shape and refine these hypotheses up front.

  3. Focus on the hypotheses that will drive decisions and actions. For example, if you are entering a large and growing market where your company will have a tiny market share, you don’t need to spend ages understanding whether the market is growing at 5% or 10%. Focus instead on understanding your initial target niche and relevant routes to market.

  4. How many do you want to do? The right answer will depend on the topic and how many different audience segments you want to cover. I usually find after 4-5 interviews within a topic and segment, you usually start to hear the same themes. I usually aim for 15-30 interviews to get a good overview across a range of interviewee types (e.g. Enterprise customers, small customers, subject matter experts, competitors).

Qualitiative research interview preparation

Sourcing your interviewees

  1. Make sure you source the right people to speak to. If you are using an expert network, it is worth spending the time with them to get the right interviewees; it often takes a few iterations. Some things to think about:

    1. Do you want to have a sample across each of your key segments e.g. SMEs, mid market, and Enterprise customers

    2. What role will best be able to speak to the subject area and level of detail that you are looking for? For example, if your client sells a MarTech product, Marketing Directors are more likely to speak to key decision criteria, whereas marketing managers who use the product day-to-day may have more specific insights on features and pain points.

    3. Use screening questions to make sure you get people who can speak to the specific topics you are interested in, as job titles can mean very different things across organisations.

  2. Existing customers can be a great source for interviews and are likely to be more honest and less biased if speaking to an external third party. I’ve found that customers are usually quite happy to make time for interviews, especially if it’s framed as an effort to better understand and serve your customers. Here’s some example wording you or your client's team might use to request these interviews:

“We have partnered with [Coppett Hill] to support us with [xyz project]. As part of this they are conducting a series of interviews aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of our customers’ experiences, challenges and needs.

Your perspective as a [long standing/recent/valued] customer is incredibly important to us, and I was wondering if you would be willing to spare some time for a brief interview? The insights gathered will be instrumental in helping us tailor our product to better meet your needs. Your comments will be kept anonymous, and the insights only shared with us at a summary level.

The interview would be scheduled at your convenience and should not take more than 30 minutes. If you are willing to participate, please let me know and I will coordinate with [Coppett Hill to set up the interview at a time that suits you best.

Designing your interview guide

  1. Limit yourself to 6-8 question topics. I can admit to finding it hard to follow my own advice on this one, but you typically only have time to cover 6-8 overarching questions in an hour. This allows you enough time to get into the details within each topic and forces you to prioritise those which are most important.

    1. I have in the past split interviews into 2 groups, with a different focus for each, when I’ve had too many topics to cover in one session.

  2. Craft open ended questions. Design questions that encourage richer, detailed responses rather than simple 'yes' or 'no' answers.

  3. Sequence questions logically. Start with broader, more general questions to set the scene and ease in to the topic, before moving on to more specific lines of questioning.

  4. Iterate as you learn. Iterate your guide after the first 2-3 interviews and don't be afraid to keep iterating based on what you're hearing. You'll likely start hearing the same themes coming up and figure out which areas you want to deep dive on.

  5. Focus on real behaviour. As with survey questions, focussing on actual, recent behaviour rather than hypothetical situations or intentions is likely to get you a more honest answer.

  6. Collect hard data... Where relevant, it can be really useful to ask for quantitative data, even if you will only have a relatively small sample size. For example

    1. Company size (especially useful for segmenting insights across a large sample) I.e. revenue, # employees, growth rate

    2. Net Promoter Score to understand customer advocacy

    3. Pricing information

  7. ...but don’t over-promise how much you will gather. You may not have the time to gather this data in every call, and some respondents may decline to answer. However, sometimes conducting a large number of interviews is the only way to gather quantitative data. I once did a project where we had to speak to 170 Local Authorities across the UK to gather market data. This is an expensive approach to take, so use it wisely!

Conducting the interviews

  1. Make sure the person doing the interviews understands the business and the context. I cannot emphasise this enough. If you have an outside provider conducting these interviews, it’s well worth the upfront time to educate them on your product or service and market context so that they can deep dive skilfully and pick up on subtle but important points.

  2. Follow the natural flow of conversation. Treat the interview guide as just that, a ‘guide’ not a set of instructions. If the interviewee brings up an interesting point, take the opportunity to follow the thread and ask follow up questions when relevant, rather than sticking rigidly to a question guide.

  3. Don’t stop at the first answer. Ask follow up questions and keep probing. Try to get specific details, and even better, real life examples. For example, most people will say price is an important decision factor, but ask them if they have recently or ever moved provider because of that? Then ask them to talk through the decision-making process for that change.

    1. ‘Tell me more...’ and avoiding the impulse to fill uncomfortable silences. Leaving a pause is very effective in encouraging interviewees to share more.

  4. Go beyond active listening. Don’t hesitate to take the opportunity to seek clarifications and make sure you’ve really understood what the interviewee is saying. For key points, it’s well worth checking ‘So I think what I’ve heard you say is…?’. Their clarification will often surface valuable insights that they hadn’t shared the first time around.

  5. Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Notice what energises them and where they show frustration, these are likely to be areas that are worth digging in to.

  6. Take thorough notes.

    1. If permissible, use recording software that will give you a transcription, if not then take detailed notes. I usually find it most helpful to take notes of the key points myself, then using the transcription to go back and fill in the details. An easy-to-use transcription tool I’ve used for note taking for video calls is For very detailed or complex topics it can be worth having a second person to take notes so you can focus on leading the conversation.

    2. Try to structure your notes against the key hypotheses. This will make it easier to see key themes across a large volume of qualitative data.

    3. Don’t lose the details. Often the specific details and direct quotes are the most useful, especially for internal stakeholders. You might summarise these when presenting to the Board, but make sure to capture the details in a way that can be shared with internal stakeholders.

Qualitative research can be hugely valuable in informing your strategy, and this checklist should help to ensure a high quality and actionable output. If I’ve missed any common pitfalls or items from your own checklist, please let me know.

If you’d like to discuss how to run primaryesearch for your business, please Contact Us.

All views expressed in this post are the author's own and should not be relied upon for any reason. Clearly.



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