Many of us safely assume we know everything about our clients and prospects. We analyze their site visits, we audit which headlines they click on and which ones they by-pass. We make decisions based on their open rates. But you might think twice if you had a conversation with them.

It is easy to lose sight of this truism when big data collection and automation has become the Holy Grail. Most businesses, including professional services firms like yours, are involved in at least some method of “social listening”, monitoring social media platforms or amassing large volumes of information using common quantitative research tools like Google Analytics and Survey Monkey.

But social media analytics and surveys can only tell part of the story because they lack the context behind who said what and why they said it.  Another drawback is that they inevitably reflect biases, both conscious and unconscious: who chooses or refuses to participate in a survey, and questions that are left unanswered, mean that your results may not be objective or complete. Your data may not reflect your target audience, represent the whole story or reveal the emotions that guide your customers’ behaviour. A few negative posts can distract and mislead organizations into making wrong decisions (or, more likely, maintaining the status quo).

Numbers may not lie — but data can be skewed

The challenge is to take “listening” to a deeper level. This is where conversational research comes into play.

Conversational research harks back to traditional journalism practices and is designed to uncover not only what is said but also the emotion behind it. The interview is a conversation where the respondent is encouraged to tell the story of their feelings and experiences about your brand and products.

While surveys are mostly comprised of closed-ended true/false or multiple-choice questions that narrow the agenda and generate a low validity rate, conversational research provides the opportunity to clarify or dig deeper into what lies beneath a response. It also gives stakeholders the chance to share their brand experience in their own way and on their own terms.

Good questions result in meaningful answers

Conversational research is most effective when conducted by professional interviewers, such as journalists or researchers. It also helps to engage a third party so that the conversations can be confidential and candid. Interviews can be conducted over the phone, and usually 20 to 30 minutes is all that’s required to yield the desired data.

On occasion, stakeholders can be reluctant to say anything negative, but a good interviewer can help encourage respondents to open up by reinforcing how the insights will benefit everyone. Other times, a respondent may use euphemisms or credit an emotion to a third party. Having an opportunity to probe and ask for clarification provides more authentic information.

Over the many years we’ve conducted conversational research studies, we’ve consistently seen a rise in brand engagement — regardless of the feelings expressed. Ironically, even though we’re asked to rate and rank brands more than ever before, stakeholders often feel that their views and opinions get lost in the time of big data. Conversely, conversational research participants share that they feel more valued — that the brand is serious about their contribution to the business and addressing their needs.

We all want to be heard. Conversational research gives your customers a voice.