Quantitative metrics tend to get the attention whenever data is the topic of discussion—after all when people talk about measurement, they tend to mean numbers and things that can be counted.
As we consider these bits of information that can be numbered, it’s good to remember that there’s another side to this measurement coin that helps us to better understand the context—namely, qualitative metrics.
Qualitative metrics can add a great deal to your PR measurement work, providing insight and context that might be missing when you look at numbers alone. This additional awareness can be particularly important in PR work, with its focus on communications. When we better understand the thought processes and biases of our audiences, we can better frame our messages and delivery.
What exactly is qualitative data?
Qualitative data are information points that cannot be counted. Things like assessing sentiment, or providing comments or feedback, or conducting a focus group are all examples of qualitative data.
Depending on the type of qualitative data collected, it can be more expensive to gather and process. Observational notes, for instance, require personnel with sufficient expertise to understand what is important to capture in notes, along with similar background requirements for analysis. When you decide to gather some forms of qualitative data, you’ll be paying for time and experience in addition to the actual data collection process.
Other forms of qualitative data include: case studies, interviews, journals and recordkeeping, and surveys that ask open-ended questions.
The value of qualitative data for PR
Far from being a “lesser” metric, qualitative data holds significant value for public relations practitioners.
PR is about establishing and building communications channels between organizations and their audiences, so we’re talking about connecting with people—human beings with all of their opinions, experiences, and biases. People don’t always think, respond, and react in rational ways. So, if you want to communicate successfully, you’ll need to understand what makes your audience tick and how emotions are playing into how they respond to different messages.
What qualitative data provides is a rich contextual framework that can help you understand the “why” that is driving your audience response.
Social media platforms, by design, create massive volumes of unsolicited feedback and thus can be considered a resource for qualitative data, with some important caveats. Launching a new product, design, or messaging and then assessing social sentiment can provide context as to why people are responding in a certain way (good or bad, or a mix of both). Studying automated sentiment can provide useful information when taken in conjunction with other analysis factors.
What are the important caveats to keep in mind about social platforms? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that those active on social channels represent a subset of the public at large. Second, different audiences gravitate to different platforms, so make sure that the platform you are collecting qualitative data from is one that reflects your target audience. Third, remember that privacy settings, particularly on Facebook, can mean that you are seeing only a small subset of comments—and that might have an impact on the impressions you take away from the commentary.
Starred rating systems that offer comment boxes are another source of qualitative data. Context can be very important here—did someone leave a one-star rating because the service was bad, or because they were having a challenging day?
A recent personal example illustrates this point. When planning a vacation, we decided to purchase tickets to a very highly rated food tour, with thousands of five-star ratings on TripAdvisor. Curious about the handful of one-star ratings (there were only four one-star ratings and 9,467 five-star ratings), I clicked through a few to read the open-ended comments (the qualitative data). What had caused these one-star ratings? Food poisoning? Grumpy guides? No, and no. One person gave the tour a one-star rating because their flight was delayed and they missed it. Another didn’t like being outside in bad weather, and one found the guide’s requests to provide a review overbearing. This is a relevant context to have, both for the company that offered the tour and for people interested in buying tickets.
While the quantitative data was overwhelmingly solid—the 9,467 five-star ratings—the qualitative data provided in the positive reviews gave us an idea of what we could expect. From a data perspective, the quantitative data provided us with a level of confidence that we would have a positive experience, and the qualitative data gave us the context about what made the tour enjoyable for others.
When should a PR professional consider using qualitative metrics?
The most relevant uses of qualitative metrics are when determining a “why” behind the data is either important or helpful. Here are some examples of instances where gathering qualitative data might be helpful for a PR program:
- You’ve been running a public affairs outreach program to inform the public about an upcoming construction project, and a key constituency isn’t providing the support that was anticipated. Finding out why this group appears to be sitting on the sidelines by conducting interviews might be critical to moving the project forward.
- You are planning on launching an initiative that touches on some sensitive topics, and you want to mitigate any potential criticism or blowback before you launch the campaign. A focus group of the potentially impacted parties may help to uncover any messaging deficiencies or necessary adjustments.
- You’re working with a nonprofit organization to turn around a recent decline in the number of people investing in sustaining memberships. A survey of current and former members that contains a mix of fixed and open-ended questions might help to uncover why numbers are declining.
- You’ve launched a PR program and realize that you’ve been getting solid support from an unexpected audience, and want to know what it is this previously unidentified group of supporters finds so appealing—so you can replicate this success going forward.
These are just a few examples of PR program situations that could benefit from the gathering and analysis of qualitative data.
Quantitative analysis usually gets the spotlight, especially during Measurement Month. However qualitative data collection and analysis can play a key role in public relations efforts, given its focus on uncovering the “why” behind human actions. If you can determine the “why,” your messaging and PR plan development will speak more directly to your audiences, and allow for greater program success.