Qualitative research can yield powerful stories and insights about your constituents’ experiences, perceptions, and feelings about your institution. Unlike quantitative research (such as survey data), qualitative research uses conversation or observation, allowing for constituent-led exploration of your particular research objectives. With such an open-ended methodology, where do you start? When designing your own qualitative research at your institution, try to keep the following tips in mind:
1. Conduct qualitative research to complement a quantitative survey
Qualitative research is informative both as an input or follow-up to a quantitative survey. Starting your research plan with qualitative research yields a more focused and better-designed survey instrument, generated in part by your constituents themselves, and less influenced by your own team’s assumptions. On the other hand, if there are issues you’d like to explore further, following-up a quantitative survey with qualitative can add nuance and depth—more than you can get in a survey rating or checkbox.
2. Determine your methodology based on your research objectives and target participants
There are a variety of qualitative research methodologies, and each has its pros and cons. Selecting the best methodology for your study will depend on what you want to know and who you need to ask. If you’re redesigning your alumni magazine, conduct in-person focus groups so your alumni can physically hold mock-ups of the magazine, react to visuals and generate ideas together. If your goal is to learn about your high-level donors’ motivations for giving, conduct one-on-one telephone interviews to give these “high-touch” constituents personalized attention. If you want feedback on your university’s Alumni Weekend, consider immersing yourself in ethnographic research by conducting short intercept interviews with attendees and making on-site observations during the event.
3. Harness the power of online qualitative research
There is a multitude of innovative platforms available now, allowing participants to share their feedback via computer, smartphone, or other handheld devices. You can hold live, virtual focus groups using web cams and any free teleconference platform like Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. Other platforms specifically designed for online qualitative research support asynchronous (or non-live) methods such conversation-based discussion boards, activity-based exercises (such as uploading of photos/videos), image mark-ups, ranking and sorting, etc. – the possibilities are endless!
Conducting qualitative research online allows you to:
- CONNECT: Online qualitative research allows your constituents to participate remotely and on their own time, so they can participate anytime, from anywhere. This is ideal when you want to reach constituents who are difficult to schedule (busy professionals) or difficult to reach (international alumni).
- GET CONTEXT: Do you really know what it’s like to be in your constituents’ shoes? Let them show you! With online qualitative, your participants can take research with them “on the go.” If you’re curious about prospective students’ impressions of your institution, have them capture photos and videos with accompanying commentary during a school fair or campus visit. If you want a better understanding of student life, recruit current students to record a typical day for them on campus.
- BE IN THE MOMENT: Conduct research as it happens, when your constituents are experiencing an activity or in the process of making a decision. You can obtain more accurate and detailed information from your audience immediately – instead of relying on their recall. This is frequently used in website usability testing, when the researcher watches alongside the participant and ask questions as the participant clicks through your website.
4. Prioritize quality over quantity
It can be tempting to invite anyone to participate in your qualitative research in order to hear from as many people as possible. The more opinions, the better… right? Not at all. For qualitative research, be strategic in whom you invite to participate. Carefully consider your eligibility criteria and implement a recruitment screener (a brief series of questions) to find those who qualify, and segment them accordingly. This may be by level of engagement in alumni activities, schools under consideration for prospective students, history of donation, demographic characteristics, etc. If a key criteria is finding the most “out of the box” thinkers, ask them a creative question like “How many ways can you use a brick?” and see how they respond!
5. Get creative
Have some fun with it! Include projective exercises that challenge participants to think outside the box. These creative activities can uncover beliefs, feelings, and motivations which may be otherwise difficult to articulate, such as brand perceptions about your institution or program. Ask them, “What would your institution be like as a person?” Or have your respondents draw a picture that depicts their relationship to your institution. Having your constituents run through some abstract ideation exercises may reveal their ultimate desires and deepest needs. For example, “If you could design the ideal alumni event for you, what would it look like? If you were designing a new Student Life Center, what would you include?” Creative exercises are fun and can produce surprisingly insightful results.
This post was written by Anne Lee Groves, founder of Lee Groves Consulting. Lee Groves Consulting conducts targeted market research and strategic consulting for education, arts and culture, healthcare, and other non-profit institutions. Her work sparks ideas for growth, innovation, and a deeper connection with your constituents. Lee Groves Consulting partners with Constituent Research on qualitative research across the student lifecycle.