BLOG 23rd July 2019

What's the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?

Research that’s so easy, even your granny can do it...

I’ve heard a lot that people are easily put off by research. People often say it’s too numbers-heavy, involves hard-core statistics, and takes too much time, money, and resources that are often non-existent in the cultural sector.

So, what if I told you that research is actually so easy, that even my son’s granny can do it?

How she does it

My mother-in-law is fantastic, and came to me the other day with loads of information on playgroups and nurseries for my son. (So much so, that I’m still processing it!). Now, she didn’t go about it by what people normally think research is all about – conducting a survey. Instead, she simply went about phoning several schools to ask questions, then talked to loads of friends and other grannies to ask about their opinions and experiences with the different playgroups in the area.

Now, you’re probably thinking that this isn’t research! Where are the stats and figures?

This is where you’re wrong. Research doesn’t always have to involve numbers, statistics, or even a survey. It can involve something as easy as having your box office staff chat to customers, or even observing visitor patterns in your museum. Don’t believe us? Then let me explain the different types of research: quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative research: it’s all about the numbers

Quantitative (also known as 'quant') research is what people traditionally think research is all about – measuring things through numbers and statistics. Quant research can involve surveys (either online, paper and pen, or in-person interviews), or data mining (e.g., looking at info in existing ticketing databases, CRM platforms, etc.).

The aim of using quant research is to quantify something, and measure how prevalent something is within a group of people. For example, after sending a survey to your entire email list, you may be able to say that 75% of your respondents said they were very likely to recommend your venue to a friend. Another example is looking at your CRM or ticketing database, and finding out the percent of people who had been to your venue more than once in the past year.

Why should you use quant research?

Quant research is great because you can use the results to help you to make a case for something, whether it’s to illustrate your organisation’s impact, to apply for funding, or to evaluate the success of a recent performance, workshop, or festival.

One particular benefit from quant research is that you can get a wide breadth of results. In surveys, you can ask a variety of questions, and depending on the number of responses you have, you can then cut the data to look at different groups of people. However, this also means that you’ll need to have a strong idea of what you want to measure. For instance, do you want to find out what percent of customers were impressed with your last event? Or do you want to see what percent of customers attended your festival in large groups vs. came by themselves?

If you’re not sure what you want to measure, then qualitative research may be more helpful to you.

So… what is qualitative research?

Let’s start with what it’s not. Quant research is like being a surgeon – it’s very tactical, and you have a specific area of focus and know exactly what type of things you want to measure. Qualitative (or 'qual') research is more like being a therapist – it’s very exploratory and observational, and gives you better insights into the 'why' and 'how' people do certain things.

Qual research involves exploring information that’s out there in a more open-ended way

This can be done through observational research, such as a mystery-shop to see how well a venue and its staff are performing, or through an ethnography, which may involve following a customer and observing their personal experience (e.g., experience walking through a museum, or purchasing a ticket). Other examples of qual research include asking questions in focus groups or one-on-one interviews. During these discussions, you can ask a series of questions, exploring what people did, how and why they did things, what emotions they felt, and their attitude towards it in the end. While quant research measures things and gives you a wide breadth of responses, qual research gives you greater depth, helping you better understand the thoughts and feelings that underpin people’s actions. The added benefit of qual research is that unlike quant research, you don’t need a large number of responses, so long as they are representative of the audience you’re looking to study.

Bringing it back to granny

Now while my mother-in-law didn’t necessarily go out thinking “I’m going to do qualitative research,” it’s precisely what she’s done. She went out and conducted informal one-on-one interviews with friends and family who’ve had personal experience with local playgroups and nurseries, and told me a summary of her key themes and findings. Still don’t think this qualifies as research? This is exactly what qualitative moderators do, but for £££ an hour.

So what research can you do?

This all depends on your main objectives. If you have a good idea of what you want to measure (such as your audience’s likelihood to re-attend after going to an event), an online survey that’s emailed to bookers might be a good way of finding out. Or, if you want to explore more and get a better understanding of the visitor experience at your venue, you could do a mystery shop, where an external person assesses each part of the visitor experience (including your digital presence) in an unbiased way.

Research doesn’t have to be complicated if you don’t want it to be

We know that large-scale surveys aren’t for everyone, and neither are focus groups. However, it doesn’t hurt to listen to your audience every now and then. Read your comment cards. Read and respond (nicely and professionally) to people’s comments on your social media pages. Encourage your front of house staff and volunteers to engage in friendly conversation with customers, and have them ask questions like “how did you hear about us?” and have them feedback that information to you on a regular basis. And lastly, don’t neglect your ticketing/CRM database – with a few clicks, you may be able to uncover a whole treasure trove of insights into your audiences.

Talk to your audiences. Listen. Then based on your new insights, create a plan of action.


Need help with any or all of the above? You can book a free one-to-one chat with us to see how we can help you with your research needs. Or if you already have a survey, but want to make it better, we can help you optimise it.

This is by no means a definitive guide to quantitative and qualitative research, so if you have any questions at all, feel free to drop me an email.

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