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Volume 21 No. 38
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Quantitative and qualitative research: A marriage of necessity

Being involved in sports consumer research for almost 35 years, I have seen lots of things that pass for research but are woefully inadequate. Research is not something you do when you have some spare time; it is something that needs to be part of the overall strategic planning process. Research can be done internally if you have the right resources. If not, it can be outsourced to a number of competent vendors. The key is that research must be conducted throughout the year to effectively plan and to ensure that you have the pulse of your constituents.

My issue is sometimes relying too heavily on the numbers without a follow-up procedure that is qualitative and provides the respondent the opportunity to explain their answers, feelings, frustrations or concerns. Thus, knowing the fan base or consumer base means not only hearing the consumer but also understanding what that person is saying. Because of that issue, I’m always interested in following up quantitative surveys with qualitative interviews or focus groups to make sure of several considerations:

How to establish a research dialogue

Establish an in-house consumer research group or hire an outside firm to conduct quarterly or at least semi-annual quantitative surveys with specific goals.
Follow up with interviews, focus groups, fan forums, town meetings and other qualitative methods to dive deeper and better understand the issues identified in the surveys.
Communicate the results and findings of the quantitative and qualitative research to the fan base and identify what the organization intends to do next.
Secure a panel of the respondents from both research endeavors to be a follow-up or longitudinal audience that can react to the effectiveness of the proposed and implemented changes.
Make decisions by having a complete understanding of the numbers and the feelings and concerns that produced those numbers.

Did the respondent have a clear understanding of the questions being asked in the survey?

What is the rationale for the response or the rating provided by the respondent?

Is there a personal concern or issue influencing the response?

This last consideration is prominent because I have learned that the “What’s in it for me?” or “How does this affect me?” element can be a critical factor in how the questions are answered. As I pointed out in an earlier column this year (SportsBusiness Journal, Jan. 11-17), Maslow’s hierarchy has definite applications with regard to how surveys are answered and even more so in a qualitative setting where the personal issues can be probed by the moderator. The bottom of the fan hierarchy that I created had a base that stipulated that ticket prices, parking, and food and beverage were issues that needed to be resolved for the relationship between the fan and the organization to evolve and develop. These issues are critical because they affect the fan on multiple occasions, sometimes for every game attended.

These issues are also sometimes emotional, and often a Likert scale or a yes/no question doesn’t get to the real issue. I was recently working for a client and in following up a survey with more than 3,000 responses, we elected to conduct some focus groups because some of the results from the survey were close to a 50/50 response of interest vs. noninterest. The organization wanted to introduce some concepts and possibilities that were not currently in existence, and the survey was intended to determine whether there was an interest in the organization providing these types of goods, services and amenities.

The focus group results proved interesting. The participants indicated that they couldn’t begin to consider any new concepts because there were unresolved issues that would need to be addressed before moving forward. So, if the organization accepted the 50/50 response on the question and moved ahead, it would be making a crucial mistake. It would not have uncovered the real issues that were revealed via the qualitative stage of the research.

This isn’t the first time I have had an experience like this and it probably won’t be the last, but it led to me to think further on some issues.

I interpret what I have experienced and learned to be as follows:

If an organization has demonstrated competence, then the affected parties are more likely to have confidence in the organization, and if they are confident in the organization, they will be better able to consider changes or proposed innovations.

That’s not earth-shaking, as it as the basis for consumer trust in Wall Street and other financial entities. But this model goes beyond just research findings; it affects how a sports organization is perceived by its fan base and ultimately affects both the quality and length of that relationship — the lifetime value of that relationship. If an organization is competent on and off the field, the relationship will flourish and grow. If an organization is experiencing problems on the team-performance side, this competence and confidence can provide a reservoir of good will that can sustain the relationship until the team improves. And interestingly enough, if the competence and confidence is rooted solely in the team performance, that can sustain itself in many cases because, as we often joke, “Winning is the ultimate cure for everything.”

But not every team can be successful consistently on the playing field, so the relationships built between the fan base and the organization as a whole are critical to long-term relationships and growth.

So let’s return to the original premise about research. At its core, research is a communication tool designed to provide the organization with a better understanding of its fan base. If you can accept that premise, then let’s move on to this: Surveys are also forms of communication but are more one-way tools. They are essential to establish and measure benchmarks, but it is qualitative research that can create a dialogue — a two-way exchange of information.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.