The difference between qualitative and quantitative research is a fundamental distinction within research practice. Below, we outline how "qual" and "quant" data vary, and the implications for market researchers.

Quantitative research – the emphasis is on measurement

Quantitative research is concerned with measurement of a market or population. Within market research, this may include, but is not limited to:

  • Market sizing: For instance, estimating market sizes through asking questions about purchasing patterns, frequencies and future buying intent
  • Measuring brand health: e.g. measuring brand awareness, consideration, usage and advocacy. This often involves monitoring responses over time in order to test the efficacy of a brand’s sales and marketing efforts
  • Market segmentation: Grouping customers and prospects in a market according to shared attitudes, behaviours and/or needs. In order to robustly ascertain this, large numbers of responses are often required.
  • Customer satisfaction surveys: Especially to measure customer loyalty and satisfaction levels over time, or on different aspects of an organization’s products and services.
  • Advertising effectiveness research: For instance, measuring the impact of a market campaign on advertising awareness or brand associations by taking a measurement before and after the campaign (also known as pre- and post-testing)

A quantitative research technique will be used where a stable and representative measurement of the market is required.

Stability is important in any instance where research is to be repeated and in cases where there is an interest in detecting changes over time. Due to the nature of survey sampling, researchers need to be mindful of margins-of-error and their implications for reporting. Increasing a sample size is often a good way to narrow the level of error.

Representativeness becomes very important where market research is to be used to support business decision-making. Quantitative research conducted on a random-sampling basis is well suited to this task. Sufficiently large, quantitative samples are able to cover a wide (and therefore representative) cross-section of the market.

Qualitative research – the emphasis is on understanding

Qualitative information is harder to define but the emphasis is on ‘understanding’ rather than simple measurement. For example, quantitative research may tell you that Advert A is recalled more often than Advert B, but how does A work as an advert and why is it more effective than B? This is when qualitative research is needed.

Qualitative research is often concerned with empathizing with the customer and establishing the meanings he or she attaches to products, brands and other marketing objects. Another focus is motivation: For example, why does one product meet customer needs over another – and what are these needs that are being met?

Qualitative research is conducted amongst smaller samples compared to quantitative research. In the case of attitudes to brands, for example, qualitative research may determine a specific view held about the brand, whereas quantitative research would tell us what proportion holds that view.

Examples of qualitative research methods used in market research include:

Each technique has its own specific advantages, depending on the nature of the target audience and the type of information that needs to be collected. For instance, while techniques such as interviews rely more on direct questioning of research subjects, ethnographic studies are predicated on observation.

Qualitative vs. quantitative research: Not always a straightforward choice

Quantitative and qualitative research work in tandem. The qualitative element frequently takes place at the front end of the study, exploring values that need measuring in the subsequent quantitative phase. In this way, qualitative research can help to improve the usefulness and efficacy of quantitative research studies.

Qualitative research may offer a diagnostic understanding of what is wrong, while the quantitative research provides hard data across different respondent groups that can lead to specific recommendations with measures that can be used as controls to determine the effectiveness of actions.

A professional market research company will take care in designing a research study to align the most appropriate techniques with the research objectives. Of course, there are also practical considerations around which methods to use: In more niche business-to-business industries, the number of target organizations may be limited. In such cases, qualitative methods may be the only feasible means of conducting the research.

In the table below, we outline some of the typical characteristics of these different research methods:

CharacteristicQualitative market researchQuantitative market research
Is well suited to…
  • Understanding the "how" or "why" behind specific behaviors or attitudes
  • Projects where the dynamics of a market or decision-making process are not well-understood
  • Niche audiences, because quantitative research may not be possible
  • The initial stages of a larger program of research – especially to further scope or refine the design of later phases of the project
  • Studies where measurement is the primary objective
  • Mass market audiences – such as consumer markets or small businesses
  • Projects that require a high level of statistical confidence in the results
  • Where the structure of a market is known and research respondents are familiar with the language that is used in questions
Sample sizes (number of interviews, observations etc.)Small numbers – Frequently fewer than 100 responsesLarger numbers – Survey sample sizes are often in the 100s or 1000s
Time takenDependent on sample sizes, but simple qual studies can be completed in days or just a few weeksThe fieldwork phase for quant studies may take many weeks or months to complete
How the data is reportedData are presented thematically, capturing the main "stories" behind the data. Individual responses in the form of videos, quotes and audio are often used to demonstrate a specific theme.Usually charts, aggregated tables and other statistical plots.