Steve Kalter of Acumen Marketing Research, Inc. defines an “aha moment” as “a point in time, event, or experience when one has a sudden insight or realization” (from definition). Projective techniques are fun little games of exercises played with focus-group participants to uncover deeper feelings and perceptions. Good projective techniques can generate the deepest insights of a qualitative project.

10. Talk balloons (cartoons of people talking) are ideal for concept testing and branding. They leave just enough to the imagination. Respondents fill in the blank, even fill in the speakers’ expressions in a cartoon.

9. Role-playing has participants act out different roles: clerk and customer, friends chatting about new product or service, strangers in front of a new store, etc.

8. Guided fantasies are ideal for branding research. The moderator describes scenes using metaphor, from opening doors to mansions symbolizing brands to interplanetary travel to planets represent brands. “You land on Planet Apple. What are the people doing? What do they look like?” It’s a way to creatively personify brands.

7. Brand analogies prompting associations of established brands across different categories. “If Bernie & Phyl’s [local furniture store] were a car, what kind of car would it be?”

6. Personification or anthropomorphism to link brands or products to characters of people or to famous people. For a new kind of yoga mat, Steve asked participants what celebrity the yoga mat would be. “If Best Buy were a person, what kind of person would they be? What would their hair be like? Their clothing?

5. Survivor Island is a technique for winnowing out a large number of features or attributes. Ideas are written on stickies and placed on an island. After the idea generation, ideas get voted off the island or placed on the coastline if room is divided. The must haves are on the island, the nice to haves are on the beach, the “save it for later” are in the ocean.

4. Billboards are for identifying the essence of a brand or product. “Billboards don’t have too many words, since you are driving by, and have to keep the message short. So come up with a billboard for this product using just 3 words. A phrase, or 3 separate words.”

3. Story completion takes sentence completion a step further, focusing participants on feelings. Unlike the other techniques, this one is done individually, with people completing the story on a paper form. “When I walk into Thrift City Stores, I get the feeling that ____. I think that their stores are better/worse than their competition because ____. If a friend asked me tomorrow for a recommendation, I’d tell them _____.” Steve has also used Dear John letters and love letters, asking people to write about their relationship with a brand or organization.

2. Collaging is the visual representation of participant perceptions. You can do collages that are “pre-/post-“: how did you feel abut the company before? After? Or they can be two collages, one for Brand A, one for Brand B. Traditionally people will search through magazines and cut and clip them, but now there are electronic collaging solutions, such as Karma Collage, which requires respondents to have a tablet. Ask participants to focus on their rationale.

1. Picture sorts are similar to collaging but involve sorting through images and finding those that represent brands, companies, products, situations, etc. Visual Explorer and IconiCards have decks that you can use.

Projective techniques like these are a great way to engage qualitative-research participants and develop deeper insights.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.