Kristen Marino

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Asking the Right Questions

While learning the answers to close-ended questions might be interesting, one can easily find those from a survey. To understand why a person feels, thinks or behaves a certain way, researchers must ask questions in qualitative methods of data collection that prompt storytelling.

Using open-ended, thought-provoking prompts encourage participants to reveal the underlying emotional or attitudinal drivers of behavior. This can help organizations design campaigns that will resonate with the audience.


Here are some examples of poorly worded questions and how you might improve them.

  • Have you ever sent a text message while driving?
    • Tell me about what you do when you’re driving.
    • Tell me about a time when you were driving and had to communicate with a friend or family member.
  • Would you say you travel abroad frequently?
    • Tell me about the last time you traveled abroad
    • Take us back to the last time you traveled abroad. Can you describe it?
  • Do you post a lot of pictures on Instagram?
    • You just came back from a fun social gathering with your friends and took a lot of pictures. What will you do with them?
    • How do you share your pictures with the world?
  • Do you prefer to shop at big boxes or locally owned stores?
    • Walk me through a typical shopping day.
    • What are some of your favorite stores to shop in – and why?
  • How often do you eat sweets?
    • Tell me about the last time you ate something sweet.
    • How do you balance being healthy and enjoying sweets?
  • Do you tend to buy things that are on sale?
    • How do you weigh price and brand name, or quality?
    • Walk me through how you decide whether to purchase a product.
  • Do you like to eat pumpernickel bread?
    • Tell me about a time you ate pumpernickel bread.
    • What first comes to mind when you hear “pumpernickel bread?”

Asking the right questions is crucial because it allows researchers to discover the true reasons for behaviors or attitudes. It also gives them opportunities to learn new, unexpected information or insights because it lets participants speak freely and express their streams of consciousness. By using open-ended questions, researchers approach the interview with an open mind without trying to fish for specific answers and allow participants to lead them to important discoveries.

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The Art and Science of Being Insightful

We make observations every day. Whenever we notice what someone is doing, thinking or saying, we are making factual claims about the people and companies around us. This process is essential for organizations and individuals to start thinking about how they should best build meaningful relationships with their publics.

But…those observations are not enough.

Professionals must interpret the findings. They must critically analyze the observations, as well as consider context and psychodemographics, to deduce the WHY behind the facts. Only then will companies have unique findings that can lead to compelling, emotionally and culturally relevant strategies and tactics. These can resonate with audiences and allow companies to reach them effectively, efficiently, uniquely and appropriately.

Suppose, for example, that you are the lead for a social campaign designed to encourage phone calls among teens. You would most likely find this data during your secondary research:


After examining this, you would find that teens do make phone calls – but mostly after first using at least one other method. This suggests that teens reserve their phone calls to people they have spoken with multiple times before – presumably, those with whom they are close.

Those facts are a start. But simply knowing them will not enable you to launch an effective campaign. Instead, you need insight. You must understand WHY teens display this behavior before you can persuade them to change.

Perhaps after primary research you find that teens lack adequate social skills to think on their feet during a phone conversation with someone they do not know well, which gives them feelings of anxiety and makes them resort to texting. Or, perhaps there are teens who prefer phone calls, but due to peer pressure do not engage for fear of ostracism.

Those insights would let you craft an effective, multi-faceted campaign. They allow you to narrow your target – teens who give into peer pressure or who lack social skills – which helps tailor your messaging. If you relied on facts alone, you’d be unlikely to cause a behavior change because you wouldn’t be attacking the core driver of the action. Being insightful is a science and an art; it is using your facts, context, analytical skills and creativity to determine the reasons behind behavior so that professionals can create meaningful change.

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