The Power of Qualitative Public Opinion Research

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

Both in academia and in the real world, there is often a rather silly debate between believers of quantitative (surveys, polls) and qualitative (focus group discussions) public opinion research. In my experience, the two mutually complement each other. Simply put, the focus groups explain the “why” behind the numbers of a survey. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, focus groups are also a great tool to listen to, and to feel the electorate.

Focus group participants are carefully selected and are being interviewed for about two hours using a semi-structured discussion guide. Clients who are new to this often ask me how such of group of about eight people could be representative. Two key points in that respect: first, you never do one focus group. It should be a series of them and then one observes the patterns that emerge. I have carried out projects with four groups or with up to twelve groups and the one thing that never ceases to fascinate me is that patterns will always pretty clearly emerge. Secondly, focus groups are not about the numbers. We are not looking at how many respondents vote for or against an issue or a candidate, but the reasoning behind the voting. Focus groups tell us what voters know or don’t know about a candidate, party or issue, and what spontaneous associations they make about it. The purpose is to find out the best narrative to sell the candidate or party or to explore what pieces of legislation are most desired by voters. Based on focus groups, I have told clients what projects to focus on and even how to name them, how to make up for mistakes during a crisis, and how to take advantage of the competition’s weaknesses. Focus groups have revealed what campaign tools to use, what ads to air and how to tweak them to make them more effective. I’ve even used it to explore how to change the physical appearance or behavior of the top candidate. And yes, there have been occasions during the past ten years that I have told clients, based on data, not to run (those who followed my advice were forever grateful).

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