Finding An Unexpected Passion: An Interview with Members of Edge Research

Welcome to The Research Happy Hour. Where we sit down with qualitative research professionals to learn about their career paths, passions and experiences.

As part of our next feature interview in the Research Happy Hour series, we had the privilege of sitting down to speak with three members of the Edge Research Team: Pam Loeb (Principal),  Lisa Dropkin (Principal) and Nathan Flores (Senior Director, Field and Business Operations). Together, they shared their individual career transitions into qualitative research, experiences with resistance to the online research process and favourite parts about working in the qualitative research field.

Read on to hear more about their backgrounds, common challenges in the field and what fulfilment they’ve discovered as qualitative research professionals.

Qualitative Research: An Unexpected Passion

"We really got into this because we loved politics, but, we learned that we actually loved market research. As we learned all the tools and the methodologies, that's what we became passionate about.” - Pam Loeb, Principal, Edge Research

As we’ve discovered so far in this series, within the dynamic realm of market research the paths that insight professionals take to reach their current positions are often unexpected. For Nathan, Lisa, and Pam, this was exactly the case as they each each begin their careers in different specialities and fields.

Can you each tell us a little bit about the path that led you to a career in qualitative market research?

Pam: I started in market research in 1991, so it's been a really long time. The way that I got involved with qualitative is completely random. I was in political polling, I was working for two partners who decided to separate the firm after the 92 election cycle and my boss said to me - “We can't afford to pay for outside moderators anymore, you're good at asking questions and like to talk a lot. You're going to become a moderator.” And that is how I became one. Loved it immediately. And I have conducted thousands upon thousands of focus groups and in depth interviews. Since then, it's been 32 years.

And what has kept you working in qualitative research for so long?

Pam: I still love doing focus groups and in depth interviews. It's probably my favorite part of the job, even though it can get old after you're 20th focus group on the same topic. I just have natural curiosity, I like to ask questions, I like to understand people and industries. One of the things that I love about this job is the diversity and the fact that we have worked for so many different clients, audiences and verticals. It’s easy to keep things fresh.

Lisa: I started my moderating career in politics and I will be totally honest, that was probably my least favorite type of moderating. Political polling focus groups are about asking people to think about candidates and politics. This includes a lot of things that they feel uncomfortable, distasteful toward and bored with. So that work, I would say felt a lot more of a grind. But, when we left that world and shifted over into a marketing research focus, that’s when I really started to enjoy qualitative research more. I enjoyed the breadth of topics and the different types of clients whether that be products, services, or brands. Qualitative research was just so much more. You felt like you were learning a little bit about a lot of different things just by talking to all kinds of people. I think that's when it got really fun.

Pam: The only thing I will just add for Lisa and me is that we got into research because we loved and wanted to work in politics. But, we learned that we actually loved market research. As we learned all the tools and the methodologies that's what we became passionate about.

Like Pam and Lisa, Nathan initially had no intentions of pursuing qualitative market research as a line of work. And despite his initial aspiration of being a Creative Director, once Nathan started his career in research as a participant recruiter, he quickly came to realize the passion and enthusiasm he had for project management in the market research space.

“I think qualitative insights just add so much color to the work that we do.” Nathan Flores, Senior Director, Field and Business Operations

Nathan: I started off in market research about seven years ago exclusively working in qualitative. I started off at a research facility recruiting and eventually found my niche in project management.

I did that for a few years and eventually oversaw qualitative operations for the firm I was at last before I joined Edge. When I started, I didn't touch a single ounce of quantitative and avoided it at every cost. But then, when I joined Edge I flipped the script a little bit and had to learn that whole entire world. Through my experiences, I have definitely developed a passion for qualitative. I think qualitative insights just add so much color to the work that we do.

Did you always know you wanted to work in market research?

Nathan: I just stumbled into market research with no intentions of doing this kind of work. Before my last job I thought I was going to be an art director at an ad agency. I do still have a creative mind, although, I try to express it in different outlets now to keep those knives sharpened.

Resistance to the Online Research Process

From navigating non-existing segments, to client resistant to online research, Pam, Lisa, and Nathan shared some of the most common challenges they face day-to-day in their roles.

What have you found most challenging working in qualitative research so far?

Pam: The most common challenge is when clients don’t trust the process. It's usually “These aren't our people, they're not the right people to talk to”, particularly if they're not saying what they want to hear. Or we might also hear “You're taking too long on the warm up” or “get to the burning question” because they really just want to listen to one thing for five minutes.

We also do a lot of projective techniques in qualitative and sometimes they can seem really abstract and bizarre but the analysis is really powerful. So, the challenge can be having the patience to wade through that with us.

Lisa: I also had an experience this year where Nathan and the team that he was managing deserve a lot of credit. My client asked us to recruit for these segments, but I think these different market segments were just completely made up in their head.

And one of the things that we were able to show the client just through the recruitment and how hard Nathan and that team worked, was these segments don't exist. When we brought the people into the room and they really listened from the back room, they said “You're right. Our segments don't exist.”

Clients also like to ask quantitative questions in qualitative research because they want to cut to the chase. They want to ask about how much, and how many, and when. That’s when we have to say no, this is about why, this is about how. This can be a huge challenge.

Are there any other challenges that you have faced in your roles?

Lisa: We’ve also had clients who have been very resistant to online research. Many of their backgrounds, especially CPG clients, are very much in the in-person and in-home ethnography world. But, with time and effort, they have come around on online research. What’s great is that they’ve begun to see the richness you can get to with online research. So, it’s been a challenge taking things online but it's one that we're winning.

"I think the biggest challenge with this transition was making sure that people felt comfortable with the online world..." - Nathan Flores, Senior Director, Field and Business Operations

Nathan: I think the biggest challenge in transitioning to online was just making sure it was turned around quickly. We had to completely switch the business to a virtual world and that came with a lot of different things in terms of developing process and training. That was a big undertaking in general that came with its challenges.

I think the biggest challenge with this transition in my experience was making sure that people felt comfortable with the online world, especially clients. We made to sure to have materials produced that were clear cut to help with the transition. We learned a lot that clients are capable, but not as capable as we think sometimes.

Now online research seems like second nature for us and just natural at this point. It's not  something we think about too often now that we've put everything in place to make sure that it operates seamlessly.

Addressing Assumptions and Creating Empathy

“When the project is truly exploratory and when you’re really trying to help a client to build empathy, that is one of the biggest contributions we can make as qualitative researchers.” - Lisa Dropkin, Principal, Edge Research

While Pam, Lisa and Nathan have navigated a variety of challenges in their market research careers, they all shared the same appreciation for the personal fulfillment that qualitative research has to offer.

What do each of you find the most fulfilling about working in qualitative research?

Pam: Mixed data projects are probably the most fun. Back in the day, you always did quant, right? That was the way things were done. You had open ended conversations, based on that you wrote a survey, and you got the quantitative data to either back up or refute what you learned qualitatively. We now have changed our approach where we do that sometimes, but a lot of times we do the quantitative first and then we do the qualitative. For example, we use qualitative to dig in a layer deeper and understand a segment if we do segmentation in our quantitative. If there's something that we just can't get to the kernel of truth, those projects to me are the most fun.

Can you elaborate more on why you like this approach so much?

Pam: When the data is mixed and hard to understand, and you need to get to that kernel of truth, you really need to have a very specific conversation with people. Just recently we had a client who was going to do something pretty radical. The data supported it to some extent but after looking further, we thought that maybe there was a bigger problem that couldn’t be solved by this radical solution. And we couldn’t figure this out until we did qualitative research. Essentially, they were trying to solve a problem with the wrong solution. That’s what’s really interesting to me. Being able to dig into the data and figuring out what's really going on in people's minds.

Lisa: When the project is truly exploratory and when you are really trying to help a client to build empathy, that I think is one of the biggest contributions we can make as qualitative researchers. They're looking to us to help amplify the voice of the customer in a way that the people in the organization can really hear it and understand it. To help stop making assumptions about people, or come in with ideas about how to talk to their customers.

I also love when you get those projects where you get to help a product team at a company or a creative team at an agency that really understand who it is they're trying to reach. Those are really fun.

"I've learned so many different things that I would never have been able to speak to, if I didn’t do this type of work." - Nathan Flores, Senior Director, Field and Business Operations

Nathan: I think Pam said this in the beginning, it's just the diversity of work that we do. From how many different clients we're able to touch, to the respondents that we're able to talk to and learn from. I've learned so many different things that I would never have been able to speak to if I didn’t do this type of work.

Conclusion

Despite initially entering the field from different backgrounds the Edge Research team have all found fulfillment in the diversity and curiosity that qualitative research offers - even if it comes with its challenges such as doubtful clients or digging deep into mixed data. Thank you Pam, Lisa and Nathan for sharing your time and sharing your experiences with us!

About Edge Research

Edge Research is a woman-owned small business that provides marketing research services to corporations, nonprofits, health care systems, universities, professional membership and trade associations, and government agencies. Established 26 years ago, Edge takes pride in its strong staff of seasoned researchers; while still being a nimble, responsive, high-energy company which goes the distance on every project. Edge counts as its clients Fortune 1,000 companies and global NGOs, but also assists smaller organizations and start-ups with their unique challenges. Most of our clients are either repeat business or referrals. Why? Because we customize our approach, meet deadlines, offer Principal-level attention on every project, and most importantly, we strategically focus on the bottom line — connecting the research with a client’s ultimate decisions.

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