Dear Diary: Using Diaries In Marketing Research

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, on

Market researchers can use diaries in qualitative research in a variety of ways, to capture rich insights from research participants. By filling out a diary, respondents provide a detailed, up to the minute record of their activities, behaviours or experiences over time and, by doing so, to qualitative research.

I’d like to thank Abby Leafe, of , for opening my eyes to the power of diaries in qualitative research. I had occasionally thought about using diaries in my research, but I hadn’t quite found the right fit between my clients’ objectives and the methodology. Abby’s great workshop for the Pacific Northwest Chapter of in September gave me lots of reasons to try harder to find an opportunity to as a qualitative data collection tool. So thanks, Abby, for such a compelling presentation on the possibilities of diaries.

What exactly is a diary (or a journal) in the qualitative research context?

Diaries, or journals, (the terms seem to be used interchangeably, at least by qualitative researchers) are created by respondents, capture defined activities, or experiences and are generated over time (as opposed to on a one-time or single event basis). Diaries can help uncover how participants are , identify the product features they find useful or important/missing/difficult to understand, and highlight the pain points they create. They can illuminate how consumers go about specific tasks or processes, or what their purchase decision-making process looks like. And diaries can help us more deeply understand target audiences’ experiences and, potentially, their unmet needs that could lead to marketing opportunities.

Here are some very good reasons for using diaries in qualitative market research:

Diaries help capture things that respondents might have trouble remembering after the fact, things that researchers might not ordinarily be privy to (heaven help us, but we can’t be with our respondents 24/7!), or the sequence of events – things that happened and how they happened, over an extended period of time. Diary entries are typically recorded in the moment, or shortly after an event takes place; this means participants are recording their actions and their feelings and emotions on a timely basis, (rather than reconstructing them after the fact), which can often lead to observations that could otherwise once time has passed.

Diaries compliment and work well with other methodologies. For example, diaries can be combined with and/or . Having participants keep a diary before a focus group or one-on-one interview (and then bring them to the group or interview) can bring excellent in-depth information to the conversation with who can then ask specific questions about the experiences, thoughts and feelings recorded by the participant. And, as Abby pointed out, we can use this as a tool to keep our participants honest, by reminding them their diets may not be as healthy as they claim, or their exercise schedules not as regular as they recall.

Diaries can be administered on paper, using dedicated online platforms, via mobile with , with video or webcams, or even via voice mail. Photo-diaries are a fun and simple way to track daily events as they happen. Making blog-type entries on a private website is easy and timely for participants – and the researcher can read the entries as soon as they are posted to receive a completed diary at the end of the study.

For all of these reasons and more, diaries are exciting tools for qualitative research. Thank you, Abby, for helping me understand the strengths of this methodology!

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Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, Principal of Strategic Initiatives Inc, is a marketing research consultant specializing in qualitative research. She was one of the first in Canada to use online qualitative methodologies.

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