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Qualitative by the Numbers – Blog Four: Four Stages of a Qualitative Research Event [QRE]

Posted on October 15, 2021 by Riva Market Research Training Institute

Focus groups are the most often used QRE in the family of qualitative methodologies and early cases point to its first use in the US in the 1930’s.

Dr. Ernest Dichter, a Viennese psychologist who studied Sigmund Freud’s work in psychoanalysis, saw how the steps to help someone struggling with mental issues would be useful to uncover how consumers make decisions to buy/not buy products and services.

Dr. Dichter sold his services to advertising agencies and corporations and an early project with Proctor and Gamble kicked off his very successful career in qualitative market research in the US. The project purpose: To discover what factors consumers use to select a soap brand!

To reach that objective, Dr. Dichter asked about their experiences and what desired outcome occurred when a particular soap “worked.”

Using the same process as Dr. Freud’s work in therapy, Dichter started with easy questions and progressed into deeper questions aimed at getting below top-of-mind.

The flow of a therapeutic interview moves along these lines:

  1. Greet the patient and make them feel welcomed and safe.
  2. Ask easy questions to open the therapy session.
  3. Delve deeper with questions that require some thought before answering.
  4. End the session with thanks to the patient for their time.

Applying that flow to qualitative market research, the stages of a QRE are named:

Stage I: Introduction

Stage II: Rapport & Reconnaissance

Stage III: In-Depth Investigation

Stage IV: Closure

In a QRE session [e.g., a focus group, a one-on-one interview, an ethnographic interview, etc.], the stages flow into each other with no visible difference to the respondents. They just hear an organized set of continuous questions.

In Stage I – Introduction, the moderator welcomes respondents, announces the topic to be discussed, provides research setting disclosures [e.g., audio taping, observers, etc.] ground rules and creates an opportunity for introductions between themselves to the moderator and the other participants. The moderator uses this time to build trust bridges with respondents so they feel safe in sharing POBAs [perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes] on the topic under discussion.

Stage II – Rapport & Reconnaissance is that portion of the interview with the “easy to answer” questions, and the two words, from French origins, mean something very specific in market research. The term “rapport” in this stage is NOT the relationship between the moderator and the respondent. It is the connection the respondent has with the questions the moderator asks!

Reconnaissance, a term often used in the military, refers to the idea of “getting the lay of the land” before sending in troops to fight a battle. In qualitative market research the term often means obtaining a baseline understanding of where the respondent is, in general terms, at this point in time. For example:  If the purpose of the study is to determine the power of grocery store loyalty cards to drive purchases, a set of R&R questions may look like this:

  • Which grocery store do you frequent most often?
  • What factors make this your “go to” store?
  • Describe some of the programs or services offered to customers.
  • In what way are any programs/services unique to your store – i.e., not found in other grocery stores?
  • What do you like best about shopping at your “go to store?”

Respondents generally find it easy to answer these types of questions and the moderator is listening to see if “loyalty cards” come up but does not probe if it does – saving that task for Stage III. Stage II questions allow the moderator to see the ease/difficulty in answers from respondents and allows for calibration by the moderator to know when to move into Stage III questions.

Stage III: In-depth Investigation is sometimes called “Deep Dive” by moderators who see Stages I and II as if the session acted like a submarine just under the surface of the ocean with a periscope up to see if any other ships are close by. At the time the discussion shifts into the key topics of the reason for the research, the submarine has submerged to “run silent – run deep” levels and the moderator probes for “below top-of-mind” answers with questions such as these:

  • What are some key benefits for anyone to use the store loyalty card?
  • Tell me about the last time you got one of the benefits?
  • If the store stopped the Loyalty Card Program, [LCP] what, if anything would change about your visits to the store?
  • If you could make one improvement to the LCP, what would it be?

Once key topics in this stage have been explored, the timeline for ending the session is close and so the moderator moves on to the final stage.

Stage IV: Closure: As the adage says: “All good things must come to an end,” and that can relate to finishing a good book, exiting a long running Broadway play, or finishing a gourmet dinner. In focus groups, a good moderator takes just 1-2 minutes to deliver these points:

  • I appreciate your time to speak with me today on the topic.
  • I learned a lot today!
  • For your time, you’ll get a “thank you” you can spend.
  • Wishing you a good rest of your day – Goodbye and thanks again.


The four stages have been in place for over 80 years in the US and the lion’s share of the time spent with respondents is in Stage III.  Each of the stages has a purpose and all help increase the chances of collecting sufficient data to client decision-making for their next steps. It is a “birth-to-death” process that must always go in order.

Since respondents don’t have a copy of the moderator guide, there is no need to say: “And now I’m moving on to the next stage” –just ask the next question and the focus groups flows like a car with new tires.

Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO