I recently sat down with Eileen Sullivan, CMB's newest Qualitative Moderator, to learn more about her experience, perspective on storytelling, and what she's most excited about in the world of qual.
SH: Tell me a little bit about your experience, what drew you to qualitative research?
ES: It wasn’t until my junior year of undergrad, when I studied abroad in Vietnam, that I discovered anthropology. The study of culture–and all the implicit and explicit ways it shapes human experience–was a perspective that immediately resonated with me. After school, I worked for some years as a buyer in the retail space, but ultimately returned to pursue my MA in medical anthropology, researching health outcomes associated with marketing “beauty” to women. A career in consumer insights became a natural extension of those interests. I feel quite lucky to spend my time digging into this dynamic space where psychology and culture meet to shape the way we live, how we think, and what we buy. Before I came to CMB, I was with LRW and later Basis LA, working with clients such as Chase, Estée Lauder, Facebook, Hulu, LEGO, and Whirlpool, among others.
SH: What qual tools and methods are you excited about right now?
ES: While qualitative has always been iterative to a degree–the ability to throw out a guide or revamp stimuli on the fly–we’re now making great strides to scope research that is agile from the outset. It’s exciting to execute studies that put consumer feedback at the center of research design–first identifying the problem and its root cause, and then hypothesizing solutions. Within this framework, there are some great digital tools that enable researchers to look over a consumer’s shoulder, fascinating AI tools that offer the potential for scalable qual, and innovative forms of “traditional” qualitative as well, like agile co-creation and ideation sessions. There’s been a lot of focus in our industry on “breaking down the glass” – putting clients face-to-face with their consumers. It’s critical for not only engaging our research clients, but their internal stakeholders as well. The reality is that great research is useless if no one uses it, but I think an agile research framework makes the process more inclusive and collaborative, and ultimately delivers greater benefit to both client and consumer.
SH: From your perspective, what makes a successful moderator?
ES: Moderators have different styles and traits that make them great, but for me, the two most important characteristics are a willingness and openness to connect, and an unquenchable thirst to know. “Respondents” are more than the sum of their responses–they are people, having good days and bad, but still showing up to give their time and thoughts. It’s very important to me to hold some space, to recognize and appreciate each participant before we even get in front of the glass. And as for curiosity, well, you stop living when you stop learning. Striving for deeper understanding, and asking questions – to me, that’s what it’s all about!SH: How critical is storytelling?
ES: Humans are “storytelling animals.” Narrative shapes how we perceive and make sense of our world: from our macro worldview, to the personal brand stories we share, to the little stories we tell ourselves. As a moderator, it’s important to dig into participants’ stories – to unpack them and sometimes question them because insights don’t always neatly come through in answers to questions. If you think of all the ways communication extends beyond language (i.e., emphasis, volume, body language, pause), you realize the “story” is usually much broader than just what’s said. And storytelling is every bit as critical on the backend. For research to have meaning within an organization, it must find an audience – and that audience must care. Has anyone ever cared about a book or a movie, when the story just wasn’t that good? I think that’s an important responsibility that we researchers have – to bring our findings to life, to transform our participants’ needs and wants, pain points and delights, from data points to narratives. We must deliver insights that captivate our clients’ audience, with actionable recommendations to drive impact for their business.
SH: What resources help you stay connected to the latest industry thinking?
Information and inspiration can come from a lot of different sources. For instance, a friend turned me onto design thinking. I just finished Change by Design, and Sprint is next up on the recommended reading list she shared. I’m always tracking what’s going on in my professional network, and try to stay abreast of Quirk’s periodicals as well as Greenbook’s announcements/blog. WIRe and QRCA also sponsor some great events.