Almost every marketer will agree: personalization and real-time marketing are among the most important strategies for customer acquisition, engagement, and retention today. Your ability to reach audiences is often dependent on the technologies you choose and the data they deliver. If you’re not in front of your audiences quickly enough—with the right messaging at the right stage of the buyer journey—you’ll miss out on a key connection-building opportunity (maybe forever).

Despite recognizing the importance of technology and data in marketing, however, organizations often find themselves overwhelmed. Studies consistently show that marketers often perceive data as an underutilized asset because they’re not quite sure how to interpret findings or what actions to take based on the available data. Rest assured that if you’re experiencing frustration with your data analysis and segmentation efforts, you’re not alone.

But there is a solution to this challenge, and you don’t need to rely solely on a formal analytics solution to utilize it. The technique is called qualitative research, and it relies on a process of interviews to uncover patterns. You can conduct your entire research process using a mix of notebook paper, a pen, a recording device, and Google docs. You can use video chat, phone, or meet with your interviewees in person.

Done correctly, with sufficient structure over the course of several months, qualitative research can help you define your customer segments even before you’re ready to collect and act upon audience data. That way, when you have your technology infrastructure and personalization strategy in place, you can get started with segmentation immediately.

How to Get Started with Qualitative Research

The first step is to define your research goals. You’ll want to get started by focusing on a few key business objectives like the following:

  • Assessing the impact of your messaging
  • Evaluating the impact of your CTAs
  • Optimizing of your form submission or checkout flow

Now, create groupings of the types of people who you want to interview and why. Are you looking to speak with prospects, customers, or a mix of both? Consider these rough groupings to be the basis for your segmentation strategy.

For each of these groups, design an interview guide. Make sure that there’s a reason behind every question you’re asking (apart from ‘that’s interesting’). As a general rule of thumb, the questions you ask should be open-ended enough for your customers to share compelling stories about themselves. Here are a few questions that are great conversation starters:

  • What are some key goals that you’re looking to achieve in your role?
  • What are some pain points that you regularly face?
  • What are some interesting challenges that you’ve recently solved?
  • What resources or information are you looking for that are hard to find?
  • What are some ways that you’re using product x, y, or z?

Once you have your interview guide in place, you’ll want to define your mode for conducting your interviews. Remote conversations will be the most cost effective and will give you access to a wider base of customers and prospects. In-person meetings will maximize the levels of human interaction in your conversation. In an ideal world, you’d use a mix of all of these qualitative research techniques. Regardless of your method, you’ll want to cover your bases with the following resources:

  • A tool for recording your interviews (i.e. screen capture software, a webcam, your smartphone, an audio device)
  • A means to transcribe your interviews into a Google Doc that you can analyze collaboratively with team members
  • A notebook so that you can jot down your thoughts, especially for in-person meetings

How to Apply Qualitative Research to Your Persona & Segmentation Strategy

Now comes the fun part: you’ll use your qualitative research work to build the bare bones of your segmentation, personalization, and real-time marketing strategy. Here are some specific steps that you can take, even before you’ve chosen your analytics provider or built your marketing technology stack:

  • Using the research that you’ve done ( a good number to aim for is 20-30 conversations), decide on your key segments. These can be granular customer personas or groups of personas.
  • Once you’ve defined your segments, revisit your qualitative interview notes. Come up with a list of criteria that will be important to each of the personas and segments that you’ve defined.
  • Start coming up with systematic ways to quantify the information that you’re collecting above. Think in terms of variables, stats, and stories. This step-by-step guide to building better marketing personas can help.

What Happens Next

Why stop at the planning stages for your segmentation strategy? Utilized on an ongoing basis, qualitative research can be a powerful tool for iteration. The same processes that you used for coming up with your segments and personas are equally applicable to the steps you’ll want to take to come up with A/B tests and personalized messaging concepts. Meanwhile, the analytics data you collect will also have more meaning and benefit when used in conjunction with your ongoing customer interview program.