Facts Vs. Feelings: How to Measure What's Really Important

"Not all things that can be counted count, and not all things that count can be counted." — Albert Einstein

One of the most frequent questions we receive from companies interested in learning more about their customers and employees relates to the issue of methodology or approach. Should we do a survey? What about focus groups? Is qualitative research really valid?

And the answer is, that depends... on what you're trying to do with the research, on the nature of your target audience and on the type of insight you are seeking.

Counting Noses
The major advantage of conducting a survey is that we can count noses and obtain hard numbers that describe customers and employees. These can then be used as baselines or compared with previous survey results to gauge progress. While focus groups are very useful in helping us to understand how people think and feel, they do not give us percentages or allow us to definitively prioritize information. Only a survey will provide that kind of quantitative information.

Within the past six months JRS Consulting has surveyed consumers and employees via telephone, online and by mail to:

• Establish baselines for a Fortune 100 company's corporate communications department interested in measuring its effectiveness on an ongoing basis;

• Determine awareness, trial and usage among Americans for Mangos from Mexico;

• Measure familiarity among employees of a global packaged goods company's corporate vision.

Quantitative measurement is extremely valuable, particularly for establishing baselines, gauging progress and focusing on "the bottom line." For example, at Exelon Corporation, through a baseline communications survey, we recommended changes in the utilization of communications vehicles that resulted in savings in the six figures. We then conducted a follow-up audit that quantified the Exelon corporate communications department's resulting increase in effectiveness. The bottom line: We helped Exelon save money while improving communications results.

But counting noses doesn't always tell the whole story. Surveys give us numbers, but they don't provide the "why" behind those numbers.

We can track a corporate communications department's effectiveness over multiple years, but if ratings suddenly plummet, we won't know what's behind the decrease. Likewise, a survey can measure the amount an exotic fruit is used or tried but doesn't identify the barriers to usage.

Identifying the "Why"
Qualitative research — often conducted via focus groups — goes beyond hard numbers and explores the feelings, beliefs, secret fears and private habits that would never show up in a quantitative survey (i.e. "Why don't employees believe the company vision? "How do consumers decide to purchase an exotic fruit that comes from another country?"). It's also the medium by which new product ideas are created or explored and new media messages are tested, expanded or tweaked for maximum impact.

Qualitative market research is an indispensable customized tool that, when used skillfully by a trained moderator, digs beneath the surface and beyond the "what" to discover that mysterious realm of the often-unconscious "why."

For example, we have conducted focus groups to:
• Determine what employees need to get on with business after experiencing a major corporate reorganization;
• Test vision, mission and corporate values language among global employees - are the statements credible and compelling? How can they be improved?
• Explore the appeal of advertising campaigns among target consumers;
• Understand the process that kids use to select after-school activities.

"Aha" Moments
It might surprise you to learn that companies don't always know their customers or employees. In fact, they are sometimes quite shocked to learn that people purchase products or work for an employer for reasons they never imagined.

For example, while testing messages in focus groups for a large retail chain that wished to improve its image as an employer, we reviewed themes identified as important by the marketing department. These included the fact that the organization sponsored a sporting event to raise funds for a major charity each year.

"That's very nice of them to do," noted a prospective employee, "But it doesn't make me want to go work there. What's in it for me?"

An "aha" moment for the marketing department — the most meaningful messages for their target audiences went beyond "nice to know." The most compelling messages were those that directly impacted current and potential employees. For the retail chain, these messages involved providing employees with flexible work hours and formal on-the-job training.

Identifying Emotional Benefits
Qualitative research is critical for identifying the emotional benefits that people associate with services and products. An emotional connection between customers and the brand builds the trust that leads to loyalty. With the connection firmly in place, loyal customers will be less likely to abandon the brand because they know they can count on it. In fact, "Does your company create an emotional bond with its customers?" is the top item on Fast Company's "10 Make-or-Break Questions" that address what a fast company is today (May 2004).

When public relations agency Kemper Lesnik introduced Renova, a Johnson & Johnson prescription drug that reduces wrinkles, JRS Consulting, Inc. conducted focus groups to explore how women felt about the aging process. Our in-depth discussions revealed that when it comes to wrinkles, women think "beauty" and not "medicine." Feeling attractive because of reduced wrinkles was an emotional benefit that women associated with using Renova. However, they told us in focus groups that feeling attractive was more likely to be associated with a setting that suggested pampering and self-improvement than with the clinical setting of a physician's office.

To convey this idea, Kemper Lesnik effectively positioned Renova as a cosmetic rather than a prescribed medication. They offered dermatologists in Nordstrom's cosmetic counters and booked dermatologists on the air to link skin care and beauty with Renova. According to Kemper Lesnik, Renova prescriptions increased dramatically as thousands lined up at Nordstrom's cosmetic counters. Understanding the emotional benefit that women associated with Renova allowed the PR firm to position the product in a way that established an emotional connection with the end user.

Mixing Facts With Feelings
Overall, the most valuable research findings result from not being overly rigid about using a particular approach but employing methodologies that will provide the best insights for achieving one's goals. Obtaining hard numbers is of unquestionable value but it is also important to understand what's behind the data, particularly if you want to make progress. More times than not, this involves a mix of both quantitative and qualitative research.


Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007