Interview with Kevin Hughes

Various microphones aligned at press conference isolated over aIt’s January, when people often act on their New Year’s resolution to find a better job. With that in mind, I interviewed Kevin Hughes, president of Parallel Futures, a market-research recruitment firm in Baltimore, about the demand for qualitative researchers.

Q: Since the economic recession hit in 2008, how have the career trajectories of qualitative and quantitative researchers differed, if at all?

A: Let’s look at qual first. There has been a constant demand for qual even if it has always been less than the demand for quant. However, there is less demand for the traditional moderators who live on the road and have done thousands of focus groups. Hiring managers have needed more creative design, more client equity, and solid team playing. What we have seen is that the people who are moderators, having been freelancers for a big part of their career, are deemed as less valuable, capping out their salaries at around $120,000 – even for someone with more than two decades as a moderator. For permanent hires, managers are looking away from those who have been freelancers, afraid they are not team-oriented players.

On the supplier side, where hires are always a risk, the hope there is that such freelancers would bring a book of business and incremental revenue. The seller-doer has been the way forward in qual, and their base salaries have gone up way above the $120,000 level, commensurate with the revenues they drive.

On the quant side – and the ratio of hiring has increased towards quant – there is a healthy need and massive growth for the mid- to lower-level quant ranks. On the qual side, we don’t see the same mid- to lower-level focus. The account director in quant who hasn’t the desire or confidence to generate revenue directly tends to cap out at $110,000. This is on par with qualies who don’t have the desire to build client equity. Getting above this ceiling requires team management and revenues that they indirectly or directly create and/or manage.

Q: What’s the current outlook for jobs for qualitative researchers?

A: Traditional qualitative is not a big growth area, as a lot of people continue to use freelancers to do just the moderating and look to what are perceived as more creative people to coordinate with those freelancers. The outlook is good for people who are creating their own value. The person in demand is the seller-doer, building client equity, solving problems, adjusting to the way things are done now, listening to what the clients really want. They use new qual, new methods, and creative designs, often integrating with the quant. They work with a team, do more, and are more strategic.

The irony is that while hiring organizations want to see people with that spark, with creative design, and client equity, and teamwork, they often still want people who have done thousands of focus groups rather than someone without as much experience who can provide better balance.

Q: What do you see as the future for qualies?

A: The future is absolutely solid for qualitative – AI won’t do their jobs, and behavioral economics doesn’t give you everything. What I think, and what I hear, is that strategic qual may be informal, with researchers who probe people and observe reactions and dig deeper and test assumptions and pull apart issues. We need those who understand human nature and have a desire to find out how people truly feel and not just how they answer the question.

Online qual will get bigger and better but it still depends on the people skills of qualitative researchers.

While there will be a lot more expansion on the quant side, the value of quant will go down, while the importance of qual will remain. Quant will be abundant; qual will be important for digging deeper. Good people who can be that value-added partner – not just be the researcher, but be the client’s strategic partner, creative about getting those insights quickly – are always going to be valuable.

Qualies do need to be happy working with quant methods and quant people. We still see some of the best companies being true problem solvers, being method agnostic not method specific, addressing problems with the best solution. The people who will do well in these companies are increasingly consultative. They may not be the seasoned moderator but someone doing a bit of qual. Combining whatever other methods to do what the client needs, bringing qual together with quant, being open to being strong in both methods, or strong enough in each. Some quants are mathematically and statistically minded but don’t have good people skills (which are hard to train); some qualies who don’t think their math skills are good can still learn when and how in principle to apply these methods or work with experts who can use multivariate choice models, maxdiff, regression, segmentation etc. We need ambidextrous people who may not be masters of both but know when to do both, or who at least can do in-context qual, laddering, triads. They may not be cultural anthropologists or ethnographers but they can do basic qual in a positive way.

For qualies who don’t want to do any quant, that is not a good career approach, as we are going to see less and less demand from suppliers that separate qual and quant teams.

Q: What impact do you see for qualitative research at quantitative scale, such as social media monitoring, text analysis, online community surveys?

A: Dovetailing qual with quant is such an important thing to our future. With the increased capabilities of using digital and social media and the blogosphere, we can test ideas online completely. Our ideation used to be focus groups purely, but now that we can involve consumers digitally there is increased demand from firms with more quant capabilities for help to mediate and moderate these online discussions, as part of a holistic approach. There has been huge growth in just the last 18 months for doing co-creation in digital ways. There will always be a need for qual with quant for the big global multi-country studies, for innovative product development and for finding out what are people saying about and to the brand on social media.

Q: With the growing importance of data synthesis, a core skill of qualitative researchers, on the one hand, and the growth of Big Data, on the other hand, do you think qualitative or quantitative researchers have a brighter future?

I think it depends on what people do. I see a massive increase in the volume of roles within the quant side. Quant is exploding, as people are talking about harnessing the power of Big Data. Qual will be a specialist skill and not grow as massively in its number of roles.

But the sheer growth of people in quant spaces will mean the value of each becomes less, becomes more of a commodity. Qual will hold its value. Qualitative researchers will have their own future in their own way, with lots of people in diverse roles.

Again, for both, if people are a seller-doer and are a problem solver for their clients, they will do well. Think of a research firm that emulates management consultants in the demand for problem solving with the ability to do research. Increasingly, they won’t hire someone who is entirely one way, either qual or quant – not given the importance of problem solving and analysis and people skills. Good hires have that understanding of both and are providing added value. Yes, management consulting firms might seem lightweight in the area of gathering research. But it’s all very well being the insight firm that goes to the Nth degree to get more data and more accuracy: it is useless unless you can articulate it, using the research methods to define the strategy and help change your clients’ companies.

Jeffrey Henning, PRC, is president of Researchscape International, which provides “Do It For You” custom surveys at Do It Yourself prices. He is a Director at Large on the Marketing Research Association’s Board of Directors. You can follow him on Twitter @jhenning.


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