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Technology is at it’s best when it is used to empower traditional research methods, not replace them. This is perhaps most useful when you consider one of the most fundamental problems within online market research today, low engagement from consumers. One of the most proven methods to boost engagement, interest and excitement from research participants is to avail of projective techniques.


For decades, projective techniques have been widely used within qualitative research studies as a means of unearthing some of the underlying thoughts, needs, attitudes and emotions that research participants often have difficulty articulating. Qualitative research aims to understand the ‘why’. As researchers, we’re often trying to delve deep into the attitudes, behaviours and opinions of an individual or organisation and uncover the reasons behind these. However, people don’t tend to have a firm understanding of their behaviours, and may not be consciously aware of the reasons behind them. Projective techniques, also known as enabling techniques, are methods that can be used by skilled researchers to tap into participants’ deep motivations and attitudes.


The phrase ‘emotional versus rational’ has been used frequently within market research. Understanding and identifying these emotional drivers is a difficult and inexact science. However, it can be aided by using a variety of projective techniques.

Goal of Projective Techniques

Qualitative market research has always used projective and enabling techniques for in-depth work.  The rationale is to help people surface and discuss things that lie beyond their immediate conscious awareness, yet influence their behaviour.


Why use Projective Techniques

  1. Add to respondent involvement by keeping them interested and engaged 
  2. Help discern additional information about respondents’ personalities and how they view the world and topic at hand 
  3. Help reach the heart of a brand by exposing similarities and differences for differentiation 
  4. Provide tools to describe a brand in a more opinion-based way 
  5. Allow respondents to paint a more vivid picture for you as the researcher

Types of Techniques

  • Word Association: This is a method in which participants are presented with a word and asked to quickly respond with the first word that comes to mind. This allows insight into immediate reactions, personal connections, as well as understanding language used. This technique is used to gain feedback on new brand names, uncovering product or brand attributes, and building a picture of how a product is positioned. This technique can be effectively visualised using a word cloud, where the size of the word represents the number of times it was mentioned.
  • Sentence/Story Completion: This is a more developed version of word association. Here, participants are presented with a sentence or story that contains a blank, and asked to fill in the missing word or words. Similar to word association, this is often asked to be completed quickly, to capture initial thoughts before the response is rationalised. This encourages creative thinking and can uncover thoughts and attitudes associated with various situations.
  • Photo/Picture Sorts: Many people are visual thinkers and may find it difficult to articulate their opinions. Photo sorts is a technique in which participants are presented with a stack of photos or images. They are then asked to pick those that they most associate with a brand or attribute. These could be photos of people, scenes or emotions. This technique can uncover stereotypes that may exist, as well as underlying brand associations. More recently emoji’s have been used as a method for participants to represent their feelings in a series of situations. This has been effective in gaining insight into emotions that might not have immediately come to mind.
  • Brand Personalities: This involves asking participants to personify a brand or product, and then describe various characteristics of the ‘person’ (e.g. what they look like, what personality traits they possess) and why these were chosen. This is particularly useful in branding studies, to better understand a brand’s perceived personality, values and voice. This exercise can identify personality traits that are unique to the brand. These can then be built on to create a brand personality that is emotionally engaging and relevant to its users.


Projective techniques are an art, not a science. Researchers must allow respondents to fully articulate their feelings by giving them different ways to express themselves and share their opinions. 


Respondents want to be engaged, they want to be helpful. Give them an opportunity to be. Get creative. Do not be afraid to try different types of questions and watch the type of answers vary. You’ll slowly learn which questions your target audience responds well to and which ones don’t work as well.


Let’s look at two examples:


  1. Personification Describe Brand X as a person in terms of what they like, what kind of car they drive, what they do in their free time, etc. 


    • Why it works: Answers go from just “Brand X is innovative” to “Brand X is a cool, nerdy hipster who rides his bike to work to save the environment, and likes to read blogs and build creative tech things in his spare time.”


  1. Storytelling: Imagine you are explaining a tablet to an alien who has just landed on earth and knows absolutely nothing about our world. Describe a tablet to him or her.


    • Why it works: Answers go from “It’s a device that lets me play apps” to “Hi, little alien! A tablet is a piece of technology that connects to the internet and allows people to play games, look up information, or watch movies by touching the screen. It’s easy to use it at other places besides just your home.” 


Projective techniques put relatively low strain on participants. Furthermore, using a variety of techniques as opposed to direct questioning boosts engagement and increases participant enjoyment. When used correctly, they are useful tools that can uncover true motivations behind behaviours and subconscious attitudes. 


Ultimately, what the best online techniques seem to have in common is that they are grounded in traditional methods. Online technologies simply allow us to further improve upon these classic techniques, and these traditional methodologies must be integrated into new research practices if we are to maximise the engagement and quality of online survey responses.

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