Market research is often used to prove the blindingly obvious.  We used qualitative research to literally bowl them over.

Sometimes market research is just to cover the backs of officials, so that they have irrefutable support for the decisions they make over contentious issues.

Planning aspects of sports and recreation facilities is one such contentious field (forgive the pun), especially as the Olympics “legacy” is a prominent part of public policy.  And when land is designated for sport, high hurdles (apologies to Colin Jackson) are erected to prevent easy change of use.

Once upon a time there was a derelict piece of land, long unused as a bowling green, but still designated for sports use.  Instead it had become widely used for fly-tipping.  It would have been a really good place for people to live and everybody in the town, including the council, wanted to see houses there.

Our brief from a planning consultancy was to use qualitative research to assess the need for bowling greens in the area.  We developed a detailed topic guide which enabled the client to find out about existing bowls clubs, what facilities they had and the extent to which they were used, their membership, their state of financial health, and their plans for the future.  We also needed to be able to assess their reactions to the loss of a designated sports ground.

While the development of the topic guide and the theory of the interviewing programme was straightforward – interviews with club Secretaries or Chairman – getting to talk to these people turned out to be the major challenge of the project.  As there were only 15 clubs in the area, we needed as close to 100% response rate as possible – another challenge.

Like many community sports clubs, most of the people we needed to talk to were volunteers.  Public records were poor, because those in charge see contact with the membership and their playing rotas as their most important job.  Keeping the local authority, or even their own website (if they had one) up to date with contact changes comes way down the list.

With deerstalkers on, and some help from Dr Watson, we set about tracking down the elusive club officers. Phone calls and emails, even letters, got us to most people, but in line with the 80/20 rule, the last few contacts proved to be very good at covering their tracks. Finally we even had to phone one Hon.Treasurer’s pub and a friendly ‘mine host’ put us on his track.

We wanted to make sure that we interviewed respondents at a time that suited them.  It got the introduction off to a good start, even if the main result was to make them feel more important and hence more willing to participate.  So we carried out all the interviews – in depth qualitative –by phone, which gave us the greatest flexibility of day of the week and time of the day in reaching people.

We uncovered some unexpected and helpful information – oh the joys of qualitative research!  Someone told us about plans to create a new sports facility. So while our client was concerned that there might not be enough bowling greens if one was lost for good, the main concern was that there were too many bowling clubs.  Some clubs indeed feared for their survival.

The result? Lots of boxes ticked for those in authority, and new homes are being built on former derelict unused land.  Brownfield development one might say – if it wasn’t such an awful pun.  Winners all round!