Exploratory qualitative insight: Using ‘parallel worlds’ to anticipate the future 

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Exploratory qualitative insight: Using

‘parallel worlds’ to anticipate the future 

You can find the original article here

Using the COVID-19 crisis as an example, Jonathan Williams shares how researchers can take familiar focus group research principles and apply them to the online space. 

“If the internet can be seen as the world’s largest focus group, how can we make the most of this amazing resource to get insights that help anticipate the future, in a more agile way?”  

Like me you’ve probably heard these words, or something similar, many times. I heard them again recently on a webinar, spoken by the head of insights of one of the world’s largest health and well-being companies. The recent COVID crisis has been accelerating these conversations and the push for better digital insight solutions. We’ve known for a long time the answers to many of our questions already exist out there online. Now is the time to embrace the digital solutions that help us find them.  

If you’ve worked with the outputs from social media monitoring and analytics tools, you may have found they rarely deliver the deeper, more qualitative insights that add a much needed rich layer of emotional human understanding. All too often social solutions pipe in huge data sets where the focus is maximizing coverage. Great if you want to size and track conversations and trends at topline level. Not so great if you’re digging for nuggets of rich qualitative insight.  

Typically, a social media data set will be swamped by the relative noise of Twitter and Instagram chatter. Finding the key nuggets of insight and connecting them together becomes challenging, often because the best potential sources of insight aren’t included in the data set to begin with. It’s a bit like trying to do consumer qualitative research by saying, “Let’s ask everybody about everything and then use complex search terms to find the answer.” Anyone who’s struggled with Boolean searches will likely empathize with this. As one frustrated client said about their experience of Boolean searches, “If I knew which search terms to brief I wouldn’t need to do the research in the first place.” 

The answer, I believe, is to take the principles we are familiar with from traditional focus group research and apply them in a similar way to the online space; the principle of sampling. We should see the choice of sources as part of the problem solving and creative process, not an exercise in volume and coverage.   

 

Uncovering new insights  

For any given question we should choose online sources that stretch our thinking on a particular subject, that dig into parallel and analogous worlds to uncover new insights. This means combining a rich mix of sources (consumer, expert, brand and cultural) drawn from a range of areas chosen for how they expand a view of any given topic, not ensure 100% coverage of a narrowly defined topic. 

I’ve used this sample based, parallel worlds sourcing principle. For example, when one brand asked us to explore what time meant to people, we sampled websites about gap years, bucket lists, retirement, the work-life balance of entrepreneurs and even terminal illness. This approach provided a far richer source of insight than any social media search on time would have done. This example is somewhat esoteric but helps demonstrate the principle, a principle which has worked successfully for questions spanning trends, cultural insight, consumer targets, positioning, purpose innovation and comms development. 

COVID-19: long-term impact  

More recently, we ran research into COVID-19 and the long-term impact of social distancing to anticipate what the new normal might be. The social distancing experience is so new to people, they’re at the very start of this journey and would likely struggle to predict or articulate their future response to an evolving situation. We needed to go beyond people’s experience of COVID-19 today to find insights into the long-term human impact.  

So, we sampled online sources where people are talking about other life changing and traumatic experience that have led to isolation, loneliness and separation, and where they had come through these experiences and found their new normal. Experiences such as divorce, imprisonment, losing your life partner, suffering from severe illness, mental health issues, working in isolating jobs, self-isolating through adventure, retirement, ageing and loneliness. These are not easy experiences for anyone, and from the shared online conversations and resources we saw, there were very human stories of trauma, uncertainty, loss … but also of coping, resilience and renewal. 

We analyzed these stories and experiences, and identified four human insight themes that may provide us with clues for what a post COVID-19 future may be like. We found that:  

  1. People will feel strong in themselves. Post COVID-19, people will be more self-reliant, creative and resourceful, with less need for governments, companies and brands to point the way on what “right” looks like and how to live their lives.  
  1. People will redefine who they are. People will have a stronger sense of identity, and be less defined by what they consume, impacting how brands should build relationships with them.  
  1. People will forge empowering social bonds. People will be evaluating everyone around them (including brands) in the context of their social connections and ability to provide support and love to others.  
  1. People will find more meaning in experiences. People will not just value experiences above objects, they may value the experiences brands can give them based on the meaning they bring to their lives.  

The discovery phase 

Sampling online sources and digging into parallel worlds in this way is a fresh approach to exploratory qualitative insight and provides a more agile alternative in the discovery phase of projects. The source material for analysis is far more extensive, rich, and diverse than traditional consumer research, the results just as rich and insightful. And it’s a global digital solution, which can be done for a fraction of the time and cost of traditional methodologies.  

Now more than ever I believe it’s the time to embrace new digital insight solutions and unlock the depth of rich human insights that can be found online.