Fresh Focus for Qualitative

Article excerpt

A healthy obsession with new methods and added value sees qualitative on the up

To judge by newspaper comments, you'd think the country was being run by a new and dangerous form of government called the focus group. Never mind that those newspapers are themselves major users of focus groups, or that groups have been used to guide marketing decisions for years.

Focus or discussion groups are among the stock in trade of the qualitative (qual) research industry, along with in-depth interviews, accompanied shopping trips and the like. Qual's role is to provide insights into why people think and act as they do.

In this year's Marketing survey, qual accounts for [pounds]95.8m, or 16% of total turnover. The figure a year ago was 14%. This is not necessarily a long-term shift in the balance between quant and qual, however. Practitioners such as Bill Pegram of Pegram Walters insist that the balance can shift unpredictably, year to year. His own company conducted [pounds]1.3m-worth more qualitative work in 1997 than in 1996, but total turnover rose by only [pounds]600,000.

Within the total qual figure of [pounds]95.8m, it is likely that 75%-80% is consumer, rather than business-to-business. We can't be sure, however, because some companies were unable to provide a breakdown.

Most of the big companies saw a significant increase in their income from qual work. This is especially true of Research International (RI), which added almost [pounds]3m to pip The Research Business International (TRBI) to the top slot.

RI director Daniel Dumoulin says part of its growth came from the recognition that it needed to expand its staff, particularly at a senior level, to exploit the opportunities available to it. RI was also successful in selling international and global projects.

And, in truth, TRBI didn't have the best year. Its turnover from qual, the major part of its income, increased by [pounds]1m, but that's mainly because its figures this time include those of sister company Maritz Research.

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"The turnover figure for TRBI itself has been pretty flat," admits managing director Laurence Curtis, "but we have put a lot more effort into becoming more profitable. We have been much more critical about our overheads, and about controlling our costs to make sure our budgets are met."

He blames the figures on staff changes over the last couple of years. …