Market Research: The Difference Between Quantitative and Qualitative

To paint an extraordinary picture, artists must often work with varied brushes.  They all have the same function—applying paint—but they serve distinct purposes, each valuable in the hands of someone who understands where to put the pressure.

Researchers are more like artists than we ever get credit for. A large part of performing excellent market research lies in knowing what sort of methodology is best suited to your eventual outcome, and then choosing the method or methods that will most appropriately help meet your goals.

At the very base of making that decision lie the concepts of quantitative and qualitative research, two methodologies that stand opposed to one another in the same way as Yin and Yang inhabit a circle.

It’s important to have an understanding of how these two relate to each other, and how they’re different.  Most people have an idea, but it’s a conversation that’s more complex than some realize.  So I sat down with Tim Furdui, the head of research at our sister company Atomik Research, to come to a greater understanding of the nuances separating the two styles.

Qualitative Research


We begin today with qualitative research, but should take a minor detour to note that these words are widely applicable, and that may be part of why they’re difficult to define. The word ‘qualitative’ can be used in reference to a broad philosophy of how one ought to research, or it can be applied to a specific method. Context is key in each instance.

To begin defining qualitative, we must first think of what we already know, or don’t.  Qualitative research takes some of its inspiration in not knowing something, and that’s why researchers perform it.

“Qualitative research is an empirical type of research,” Furdui said. “It’s trying to establish specific insights, but it’s not starting from a specific theory—it’s trying to study something and then develop a theory from it.”

The idea of developing something for further study is important in qualitative research, and lends itself to some more flexible methods of questioning and discovery.

“That’s why you typically run qualitative research first,” Furdui said. “Because that lets you decide what your goal should be, and build insight around how people feel.  It’s easier to generalize after that.”

Another big part of what makes research qualitative is in involving people, and literally asking them how they feel.  The most immediate example of qualitative research is the focus group, which sits a bunch of people down and aims for tailored insight.

If research were represented on a road, qualitative research would be curvy.  You could back up, hit a corner again, or peel off down some sweet Arkansas gravel. The point is, qualitative research aims for quality insights—the kind garnered by talking to people, asking them questions, and then probing for follow ups and more specific answers.

Quantitative Research


Quantitative research differs from qualitative in a variety of ways, but having defined one will make defining the other much easier.

Quantitative research is more narrow in scope, intended to be conclusive and is theoretical in that you perform quantitative research once you already have a theory you’re looking to prove. Quantitative research also places the emphasis entirely on the generation of data in large quantities.

Another important factor when looking to differentiate the two types of research is that quantitative research is overall much more objective.  Furdui told me the objectivity comes in several forms, but said the lack of researcher influence combined with automation plays a great part.

“Quantitative research is much more objective because it’s automated, and probably 90 percent outside the influence of the researcher,” Furdui said. “The thing about quantitative research is that majority primes over minority. If you’re trying to validate something you already believe, you want to run a survey, because you need a big sample of people to react to your theory.”

The level of automation involved in quantitative research is important on another level—synthesizing the results.  In quantitative research, much of the data generated from a survey is analyzed by software and then presented in an easy-to-digest way, which also makes quantitative research much faster; Atomik can survey 2,000 people in 48 hours.  Qualitative research does not have the same luxury, and is so subjective because it relies on the researcher to synthesize information that’s already complex—you know, stuff like “how does this make you feel?”  It’s a delicate game.

So Can These Two Work Together?

Absolutely, but that’s a discussion for another day.

These definitions were about opening the door to greater conversations, and ultimately providing even deeper insight into the research capacity of 4media Group and its sister companies.

If you want to talk about the performance of research—quantitative or qualitative—then give us a call.

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