Re-Thinking the Rules of Engagement for Virtual Research Theatre

Covid-19 has changed the rules of human engagement. Behaviors such as hugging, kissing, laughing out loud, that we use to show connection and engagement, are no longer acceptable without wearing a face covering or social distancing.  As the frequency of online qual research accelerates, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to adapt and create new best practices to facilitate a different, deeper, more meaningful interaction.

This article presents five guidelines that can be deployed to elevate engagement for a more insightful qualitative study, whether in-person or virtual, and may inspire you to re-think your approaches to engagement.

Read the full article here:

Same but different: Qualitative Research with Charities


Audience insight projects with charities (not-for-profits) can be extremely rewarding for qualitative researchers: the content is usually rich and deeply human, clients are usually highly engaged and supportive, and there is a real sense that the insights gained are helping make a difference to people’s lives.

However, the research process is often more complicated and demanding than in commercial projects. Here are some golden rules for conducting highly effective qualitative research with charities.

Multiple stakeholders – when researching fundraising ideas and communications with supporters and potential supporters, be aware that their feedback is only part of the picture. Other stakeholders involved with the charity (beneficiaries, staff, volunteers and corporate partners, for example) are likely to have strong views but may not be part of the official decision-making team. To avoid problems further down the line, try to involve as many of these groups as possible in the qualitative fieldwork – they are often very keen to take part, so are easy to recruit and a pleasure to interview. This will help deliver insights which take into account all of the voices that matter.

Manage guilt – charity supporters and potential supporters are driven by a variety of emotions when they consider giving their money and time – compassion, pity, anger and duty all play a part. The ‘elephant in the room’, however, is guilt – from potential supporters who feel bad that they aren’t giving at all; and from current supporters who feel they should be giving more. Unfortunately this sense of guilt manifests itself in lots of unhelpful ways – for example blaming governments, passing the buck, or becoming defensive or judgmental. The best way round this is to set up the discussion in a depersonalised way – to reassure participants that the research is designed to explore issues, not to coerce them into support – and to fully explore the issues facing the charity with your participants before testing any fundraising ideas.

Steer clear of toxic myths around the category – unfortunately a number of unhelpful myths have sprung up around the charitable sector – of widespread corruption, overpaid senior staff, mismanaged funds, and so on. Years ago these criticisms were only levelled at international development charities, but recently home-grown charities are coming under increasing fire. But in many cases these accusations are flimsy – driven by cynicism, personal guilt, or lack of imagination. Be confident in refuting these accusations within your research sessions (and ask your client for some positive supporting statistics if necessary), or ask participants to save them until the end of the discussion.

Prioritise content over channel – when exploring fundraising and comms with members of the public, two issues are raised time and time again: aggressive fundraising (especially on-street) and pushy requests for increased support (by post, email or telephone). Negative feedback on these techniques can easily railroad a research discussion and draw focus away from the issues being researched. Furthermore, feedback on comms channels can also be deeply misleading (for instance, most people claim to throw away hard copy direct mail but to read fundraising emails, when in fact the reverse is often true). The moral of the story? Don’t discuss fundraising channels in qualitative research: instead use the time available to gain creative, open, constructive feedback on the content that you are testing.

Propositions – charities often script their fundraising propositions as a corporate would: with insights, benefits, reasons to believe and calls to action. Fundamentally this is fine, but there are two pitfalls to be avoided here.

  • The first is using sales-speak, implying that support for a charity is a commercial transaction (what’s in it for me / what’s in it for you) – which doesn’t allow audiences to access their emotions and often drives a cynical response. Try to work with clients to create conversational, emotionally-led content – ideally using narrative rather than the language of marketing.
  • The second is including the call to action in the main concept: this immediately triggers a sense of expectation and guilt which can kill positive discussion around the rest of the concept. Instead, introduce the client’s concepts as ‘ideas to kick around’, and cover the call to action separately, and in a depersonalised manner (e.g. not “would you do this?” but “what would happen if the charity asked for this”?)

All this requires is a slight shift of focus to the techniques we use in commercial research. Bear in mind these golden rules, and your charity clients will thank you for it!


Rethinking Incentives – Finding and Engaging Participants without Paying Incentives


A German start-up assigned IKM with a user analysis of their potential target group. The difficulty: as a start-up the client’s budget was tight, and they could not afford to pay any incentive to participants. Therefore, an alternative to the traditional incentive-based recruiting had to be applied to find respondents willing to participate for free.

Solution / Considerations

Social Media channels such as Facebook were used to recruit potential participants. Social media groups often center on common interests, so the research team joined social groups that potentially could be relevant to the study. An online community platform was used, allowing for full anonymity, and participants could enroll themselves using a link shared on social media.

A few key elements were essential for this kind of recruitment. First of all, establishing relationships based on transparency and trust is key. This would allow them to trust the study and the purpose and open up to the questions. Secondly, participants have to understand the reason for the research and what is expected of them so they can identify with the cause of the study. Thirdly, the participation process has to be kept very simple. The access to the study has to be straight forward and the process has to be as little complex as possible. Furthermore, all questions should be published up front so participants can see all that is expected of them. Asking them to come back for new questions might decrease the rate of participation.


The recruitment of non-paid participants takes more time and involvement from the researcher and is more challenging compared to getting incentive-based participants. However, the richness of data from those non-paid participants, without even probing them, was beyond expectations. The ease of use of the platform as well as full transparency for the participants proved key in establishing a relationship of trust.

Overall, participants did not participate for an incentive but to see a change. The answers of these participants were often more detailed, providing comprehensive pictures of specific situations. With an established trust relationship and without a financial motive, the recruited participants were willing to share more honest opinions and deeper insights.

How Good Working Relationships Can Contribute to Seriously Useful Research


Discussions about what constitutes useful research and insights will probably focus on the role of the research provider’s team, and what they should and should not do. I would, however, like to contend that producing useful research results should be a shared responsibility and requires collaboration between the research and client teams.

“Distributed by the author of the enclosed article with permission from SAMRA”.

SAMRA Journal 2018 by Corette Haf

Design Thinking

Much is heard about Design Thinking and much is discussed of how we, Qualitative Researchers, can use it in our practises as a problem solution methodology to help our clients maximise the potential of their innovation processes and deliver outstanding results.  But what is Design Thinking?

How it works

A method for practical, creative resolution of business problems.  It’s a form of collective solution-focused thinking with the intent of producing a constructive future result.

The Design Thinking Process can be synthetized in 5 key steps:


Qualitative Research is at the heart of Stages 1 and 5.

The first stage of Design Thinking EMPHATHIZE is the foundation of a human-centered design process.  It is about understanding the people for whom we are designing and the key stakeholders in the process.

In Qualitative Researchers words, it’s a hands-on exploratory piece of ethnographic research about our consumers.

To empathize, we need to get everyone involved in the process to:

  • View consumers and their behavior in the context of their lives.
  • Interact with and interview consumers through both scheduled and short ‘intercept’ encounters.
  • Experience what our consumers experiences.

Watching what consumers do and how they interact with their environment gives us clues about what they think and feel.  It helps us to learn about what they need.  By watching people we can capture physical manifestations of their experiences, what they do and say.  This will allow us to interpret intangible meaning of those experiences in order to uncover insights.  These insights will lead you to the innovative solutions.  The best solutions come out of the best insights into human behavior.

But we need to learn to see things “with a fresh set of eyes” – tools for empathy, along with a human-centered mindset, is what gives us those new eyes.

This can be done by sending all team members of the process to conduct in-home ethnographic interviews, interact with consumers in an online ethnographic Study or via observation trip to the key consumption points of our target, getting everyone in the research team spending a day living our consumers lives.

Once we’ve collected all our in-depth observation and in-depth knowledge about our target, we’ll move into Stage 2, which is Define.

In the Define Stage we’ll share, unpack and synthesize the hundreds of findings of the field day into compelling needs and insights which we’ll then translate into problem statements.

It’s a stage of the process where we organise all the information and focus on what’s relevant to our overall business problem.

In practical terms, this will be a half a day session with the key stakeholders in the process, where all Download all the observations and findings from the emphasize phase, synthetize them and convert them into problem statements.

During this stage, we set clear tasks to the workshop participants, by convert all their relevant observations and findings into meaningful post its, one post it per finding, including the source.

We’ll then get everyone to post their many post-its in the wall and present them back to the audience. These post-its will then be groups into relevant themes, to then be translated into problem statements to be solved.

Once problem statements have been prioritized, it’s time to move to the Stage 3 of the process, which is Ideation, the mode of the design process where we aim to generate radical design alternatives. This usually takes about half a day.

Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes—it is a mode of “flaring” rather than “focus.” The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space – both a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among those ideas.

From this vast depository of ideas we will build prototypes to test.

We ideate in order to transition from identifying problems into solutions.

Once we have prioritised the best solutions, it’s time to move to Stage 4 of the process – Prototype.

Prototyping is getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form – be it a wall of post-it notes, a role-playing activity, a space, an object, an illustration, an interface, or even a storyboard.

Prototypes are most successful when people (the design team, the consumer and others) can experience and interact with them.  What we learn from those interactions can help us drive deeper empathy, as well as shape successful solutions.

Once we have strong prototypes developed, it’s then time to do what we, Qualitative Researchers, do so often – test creative solutions.


Testing with consumers is a fundamental part of a human-centered design approach.  We test with users to refine the solution and also to get deeper understanding of the people for whom we are designing.

When we test prototypes we should consider both their feedback on our solution and use the opportunity to gain more empathy.  We are back in a learning and empathy mode when we engage users with a prototype.


Buy-ology: A book review of Martin Lindstrom’s book about neuromarketing research and its importance for marketers

Trying to draw strict borders around consciousness is like trying to stick post-it notes on the ocean.

book cover

Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, by Martin Lindstrom

I read this book a few months ago and thought that it would be great to share with the reader some of the most interesting cases of Neuromarketing explained in the book. It is very illustrative of some the misconceptions that still exist among brand managers when they decide to launch a product or a campaign without conducting proper market research. Buy-ology:Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, by Martin Lindstrom (Currency, 2010) talks about Neuromarketing using examples that are wonderful and very illustrative. Martin Lindstom is a Danish author and a columnist for TIME Magazine, Harvard Business Review and frequently contributes to NBC’s Today show.

Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, is his first title written for consumers, for which Lindstrom conducted a $3 million word-of-mouth marketing experiment– inspired by the 2009 film, The Joneses – to study the effects of social influence on purchasing decisions.

Lindstrom has been involved in hundreds of Neuromarketing experiments and has used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to explain some of his theories. This type of resonance measures the magnetic properties of hemoglobin (the components of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body). That is, an fMRI measures how oxygenated the blood is in the brain and can mark areas as small as 1 millimeter.

When the brain performs different activities, it demands more oxygen and glucose. So the more intensely a certain part of the brain works, the greater the oxygenated blood flow to that section. During an fMRI, that area will shine with a strong color.

By following these activated areas, neuroscientists can determine which part of the brain is working and thus identify according to brain maps what is the function of each of those areas (for example, memory, or speech, or control of emotions, or sadness, etc.)

The largest neuromarketing study ever done

It was a study in London, about smokers. All participants smoking Marlboro or Camel.

At that moment, the medical issues related to smoking implied a social cost of approximately $167 billion per year … however, cigarette makers continue inventing ‘innovative ways to kill us’. For example, Philip Morris created a ‘Marlboro Intense’: a mini-cigarette with high nicotine content and lasted only 7 puffs, to be smoked during those moments where one does not have too much time, but craves a cigarette, for example between work meetings or a short break.

Studies have shown that smoking levels seem to indicate that smokers selectively choose to be blind to the labels and messages that “smoking kills”. Are smokers braver than usual? Or secretly believe themselves immortal? Or do they realize the danger but they just don’t care?

Exactly this is what the fMRI in this study tried to answer. In 2004 the study was carried out, with a cost $7 million dollars (paid by 8 companies).

They used an fMRI and an electroencephalogram called SST (steady state typography) that measures brain waves in real time.

All the necessary measures were taken to avoid any biases and participants were carefully recruited. The questions during the study were:

  • Are you affected by the warning signs that come in the packs? – A high percentage answered yes.
  • Do you smoke less as a result of seeing these notices? – A high percentage answered yes.

Results from the fMRI were totally unexpected: the hazard warnings that are put on the cigarette packs front, sides and in the back did NOT have the effect of suppressing the craving for smoking. Zero!!! That is to say, that the horrible photos that we now see in all the packs, plus the millions of dollars spent on campaigns against smoking and all the regulations shared by dozens of governments and countries, are just a waste of resources and time.

But this is not all. According to the study – notices that smoking kills, causes emphysema, heart failure and other chronic conditions – actually STIMULATED the area in the brain known as nucleus accumbens, which is exactly the craving area in our brains. It is the region of the brain that is activated when the body has a craving (be it alcohol, food, drugs, sex or gambling).

In summary, the fMRI showed that the notices in the packs not only do not serve to move smokers away from cigarettes, but rather, encourage smokers to light a cigarette.

Although responding to the questions asked in the study, most participants verbally said that they are affected by the pictures and notices on the packs (maybe because they thought that this was the expected answer, or because they felt guilty) … the reality is that the participant’s brain showed a totally contradictory truth.

We all have behaviors for which we do not have a logical explanation. And this is truer than ever, because of the world we live in, full of stress, on information and technology, where there are terrorist threats, political battles, earthquakes, floods and violence.

The more stress we have, the more frightened and insecure we feel, and the more irrational our behavior tends to be. For example:

In 2005, $7.3 billion was spent on market research in the USA. In 2007 this number went up to $12 billion … and this does not include the amount spent on marketing, packaging, commercials, banners, payment to celebrities who advertise the product, etc. and that could perhaps increase the figure to $117 billion. (In 2005, 156 thousand products were launched globally, equivalent to a new product every 3 minutes)

But if these strategies still work, why do they fail 8 out of 10 products released to the market? Because what we say in a group session or survey may not correspond to the reaction we are having in some section of the brain.

Marketing of the future: more fear

Martin Lindstrom predicts that we will see more marketing based on fear. The more stress and instability we have in our lives, the more we seek a solid foundation. The more we seek stability, the more dependent we become on dopamine (routine). And the more dopamine is in our brain, the more we want to have “things”.

Maybe that’s why Bush after the 9/11 event answered the question “what should Americans do?” And he said “shop”.

Neuromarketing continues in its childhood. And although we may never find the button that orders “purchase”, it will help predict trends and preferences.

Customer Decision-Making: Going Beyond the Rational

One of the most consistent findings of behavioral science: people all think their decision-making is completely rational, yet in reality, emotions play a major role in their final decisions.  In research situations, when asked a question about decision-making, participants tend to look for the rational answer.  How do we get beyond that thinking, to access the true factors in their decisions?  Following are two approaches.

Utilize cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes situations where people do things that contradict their beliefs.  For example, let’s say I believe I am very careful when it comes to spending money, yet I buy an expensive car.  Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort that comes with that type of discrepancy.  Human beings look to reduce those feelings of discomfort; in this example, I would need to add a belief that resolves the contradiction.  For example, I might tell myself that the car is well-built and therefore worth the investment.  Or that it’s important that others consider me to be a successful person.

It can be very valuable to uncover those conflicting beliefs among our customers and prospects.  Here’s a technique we’ve used successfully:  Ask research participants what people say about your product or service.  That will get you all the rational things participants think about it.  Then ask them what people really think about the product.  That one question does wonders at getting at the irrational beliefs people don’t want to admit to.  Note that the question is asked about “other people,” so participants can feel that they’re still rational, and they’re just telling us about the thoughts of all those other irrational people!

Understand the customer’s relationship to the brand   

We’ve all experienced situations where we try to ask deep probing questions about customers’ relationship with our brand, and they look at us blankly with a response like “what do you mean?  I needed X, Brand Y’s product was good, so I bought it.  End of story.”

But there’s more to it than that!  We recently borrowed from an exercise used in life coaching to ask research participants about the values that are most important to them, and then asked about ways in which the brand helps them achieve those values.

Here’s how we presented the exercise:

Different things are important to different people.  Following is a list of needs.  You might say all of them are desirable or important… but if you had to choose just five, which five would you say are the MOST important to you personally?

The list included 15 different values, such as the following:

  • Security: certainty, predictability
  • Compensation: money and/or benefits
  • Achievement: mastery of a task
  • Variety: diversity of activities, people, and tasks
  • Affiliation: connect with people

We followed up with questions about how the company we were researching might help them realize those important values.  After answering the question about which values were important, participants seemed to be in a more thoughtful state of mind and went much deeper with ways the brand helps them achieve the values than they had in prior research.


If we only ask research participants for answers to direct questions (e.g., “why do you prefer Brand X”), we’re only getting half the story.  We should always include exercises that look at emotional and contextual factors, in addition to rational considerations.  While these exercises are particularly well-suited to qualitative research, many of these approaches can be adapted to work in quantitative research, too.

Want more information? Please contact or for more information about the projects or the methodologies discussed, or to arrange for a presentation.