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Ladder Interviews in Qualitative Marketing Research

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  • 0:05 Ladder Interviewing
  • 1:31 Ulterior Motives
  • 3:16 Cons of Ladder Interviews
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

When people choose one product over another, or one retailer over another, the stated reason for their preference is often not indicative of the actual reason for their choice. Ladder interviewing helps qualitative researchers discover the real reasons behind consumer choices.

Ladder Interviewing

''If opportunity knocks, and he's not home, opportunity waits. He is the most interesting man in the world.'' This series of television spots advertising Dos Equis beer ran over several years. It was extremely effective for a much longer period of time than it was initially slated to be. The executive who created and managed the campaign, Jeff Kling, wanted to target a very specific demographic - younger males who might otherwise consider Dos Equis a ''boring'' beer. Kling said this about his ''interesting man'' campaign: ''We wanted to give them an interesting wing-man, and give them something to talk about.'' But how would Kling know if young men thought of his beer as boring? And how would he know that his campaign would actually reach his target population?

Part of the answer is ladder interviews. Ladder interviewing is a technique in which a market researcher uses a series of follow-up questions in an attempt to validate the customer's stated motivation for buying (or not buying) a product or service. It might seem odd, but there's clear and convincing evidence that people answering survey questions are often motivated by something quite different than the reason they actually state. In some respects, ladder interviewing is to marketing what a root cause analysis is to operations. The ladder interview, in its simplest form, is listening to an individual's answer and then asking ''why'' questions repeatedly until the true motivations are uncovered.

Ulterior Motives

Saying that a customer's motivation is actually not what they told the researcher doesn't necessarily mean that the individual has intentionally been deceptive. Rather, it refers to the idea that customers themselves aren't necessarily aware of their true motivation. There are also cases in which a customer's reported feelings are not expressed because their true motivations are perceived as being embarrassing or inappropriate.

Toilet paper brand Quilted Northern recently used an ad campaign with the tagline: ''Ladies, it's time to get real about what happens in the bathroom.'' The television segment shows about a dozen women standing on a map of the United States with one stepping forward to invite viewers to ''get real'' about their toilet paper. This is a good example of a case in which a ladder interview would be quite necessary. Imagine if a toilet paper survey posed the question: ''Do you feel that your bottom is clean when you exit the restroom?''

Sensitive subjects like a toilet paper details are best discovered using ladder interviews, in order to build rapport before entering difficult ground.
Toilet paper

Similarly, imagine trying to obtain qualitative data from men using Trojan condoms. Like the toilet paper, it would be pretty uncomfortable to jump right into a question like, ''Do you dislike using condoms because...'' In fact, TV viewers often reported feeling uncomfortable even watching condom commercials, let alone describing their preferences related to intercourse with a man or woman they had never met.

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