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Conducting Discovery: Qualitative Interviews

Marketing Discovery: Qualitative Interviews uncover emotional insights from your audience that will be used to inform creative execution.

This work involves conducting interviews with your target audience and analyzing the content of the interviews to identify insights. Activities include development of documentation to inform the research interviews (a Research Brief and Discussion Guide), recruiting and scheduling respondents for participation, holding the interviews, and documenting findings and implications in a presentation or report.

Outputs include a Research Brief, Discussion Guide, completed interviews, identified insights, audience personas, and an audience research presentation deck or report that summarizes and documents all findings. The outputs of this phase inform the development of the strategic approach and creative brief Strategy Definition phase.

Why it matters

Qualitative interviews add context to your existing knowledge with insight into what your audience really cares about.

Most product and program managers have a deep understanding of the audience they serve. This understanding tends to focus on the functional - what your audience does, when, and how they do it.

In marketing, we work to understand emotional drivers - the “why.” What are the aspirations, motivations, and worries underlying our audience’s behaviors? These insights change how we communicate – moving us from talking about what we want our audience to know to the things they actually care about.

For example, you may know your audience is more likely to enroll in your program at certain times of the year – say, around New Year’s. You may think this is related to New Year’s resolutions, but it may turn out in interviews that the emotional driver is primarily related to budget concerns after spending a lot during the holidays. This insight would potentially change how you frame things in any campaign.

How it works

Interviews are held with your target audience to gain insight into their behaviors, motivations, aspirations, and fears. These interviews are similar to traditional “user” research interviews except the focus here is to uncover the emotion around your audience’s experience. Questions are asked to explore how your audience feels, why they feel that way, and what feeling that way means for them and their ability to “make progress.”

1. Interview Format

30-minute discussions are held with your target audience. Interviews can be done by video conference or in-person.

The C+E Lab targets at least 6-12 interviews per audience segment, but you can get by with as few as 3-6, especially if your desk research is robust.

For products or programs with multiple audiences, you will want to try and conduct 6-12 interviews per audience. For example, if your program supports people with training so they can secure a higher paying job, you likely have at least three different audiences you’d want to speak to:

  1. Unemployed individuals
  2. Underemployed individuals
  3. Career transitioners

In that case, you’d want to try and talk to 6-12 people per audience, which is 18-36 interviews in total.

If possible, we recommend conducting interviews with individual audience members so they feel safe to speak openly and are not influenced by other interviewee responses or opinions.

The priority is to conduct interviews, regardless of the format, so if timing or logistical constraints mean it’s more feasible to conduct a “focus group” (where a few people are interviewed at the same time) that’s fine. If you do go with a focus group, it’s recommended you limit participation to no more than 6 interviewees per session.

2. Recruiting Respondents

Recruiting interviewees from specific target populations can be challenging. We recommend working through community-based organizations and service providers as well as using public communication channels to help recruit interview subjects. If possible, you also want to compensate research subjects for their time - even a modest gift card for a coffee helps. This is particularly important to ensure you can speak with low-income or other marginalized individuals, who cannot afford to miss even an hour of work, and would otherwise not be represented in your interviews or focus groups.

3. Conducting the Interviews

You’ll want to have a semi-structured interview script to work from, but you’ll likely want to give yourself the flexibility to deviate from the script to follow the insights and emotion when they pop up during your discussion. Remember: these interviews are intended to elicit insights into the interviewees emotions and motivations, so let the conversation flow naturally.

The C+E Lab typically conducts interviews with two people from our team present – one to facilitate the discussion, and the second to take notes and ask ad hoc questions should they arise during the discussion.

4. Unpacking and Analyzing Research Findings

After your research interviews are complete, the findings and implications should be documented in a final presentation or report.

Sometimes analysis of research findings can be straightforward. This happens when you have a respondent or two that is able to articulate a key insight for you (e.g., “Free money is always nice, but it’s not the same thing as having a thriving business. What I really need from the State is help to succeed.”), or when key themes emerge during the interviews. This gives you a north star to build your analysis around.

Other times the insights or themes are not immediately obvious. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there, it may just require a bit of time to unpack and digest what you heard.

How long it takes

On average 4-6 weeks, assuming you are targeting one audience with 6-12 total interviews and those people are easy to reach. You can overlap phases (except for final analysis) to speed things up. If you have multiple audiences you want to talk to you will need to increase the amount of time budgeted both for recruiting and interviewing.

Some audiences are hard to reach and can take significantly longer to recruit and interview. Hard to reach audiences include those who are unhoused, undocumented, or anyone under 18 (parental consent is required before recruitment can begin).

Ultimately every project is different so timelines vary, and you may need to be flexible to account for challenges in recruitment that may arise.

Here is the breakdown of baseline timing:

  • Research Brief & Discussion Guide = 1-2 weeks
  • Outreach & Recruiting = 1-2 weeks
  • Conduct interviews = 1-2 weeks
  • Analysis & presentation of findings = 2 weeks

Do it in a day

The single most impactful action you can take is to gain insight into your audience’s motivation. If you have a physical presence, grab a few visitors and talk to them in person. You don’t have to conduct a formal interview process to capture emotional insights from your users. These insights can be used to refine your messaging or develop new messages to test. This rapid approach isn’t meant to replace the full research process, but to help you iterate and make quick progress along the way.

Red Flag

“Imposter” interviews are increasingly problematic in audience research. This is when a respondent misrepresents themself to qualify for the research and be compensated for participation. The C+E Lab will be publishing a guide to preventing imposter interviews this summer.

Red Flag

If you’re planning on engaging vulnerable populations – for example, residents that have undergone a traumatic experience, constituents that are unhoused, or minors – it’s incredibly important that the interviewer has undergone human-subjects or trauma-informed research training.

Pro Tip

Talk to both “users” and “non-users” (people who could use your product but aren’t) of your product or service. Non-users especially help you uncover barriers to usage - is it a lack of awareness that it exists, are they aware but don’t think it is for them, or are they skeptical the benefit is attainable? Once the barriers are uncovered, you can test solutions to address them.

Pro Tip

End your interview 5 minutes early and ask your interviewee if there is anything else they’d like to tell you or that you should know. Often the best insights come during these last five minutes when the interview is “over” and your respondent relaxes and lets their truest thoughts and feelings spill out.


Qualitative research uses a series of frameworks that organize your efforts in support of your campaign’s objectives and audience understanding. It culminates with a presentation that summarizes learnings and implications for moving forward.

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