Fear of the Unknown: How to get Started Using Online Qualitative Research Methods

The time to adopt online qualitative methods is upon us all, and for those who have yet to do so, the time is fast approaching and accelerating in speed every day. Fear not! The practice already has a history and much is known on how these studies are done expertly, so learning proper technique can be quickly obtained.

About 15 years ago, asynchronous online qualitative research began to appear as a new research methodology.  Early adopters of this technology embraced the use of bulletin boards, and it has grown steadily over this period of time.  As the market research industry continued to grow in the area, platforms with advanced technology enhanced the practice of online qualitative studies and contributed to the obsolescence of bulletin boards by more deeply engaging participants through social media site designs and programming.

Nevertheless, many members of the market research industry, whether they are corporate-side managers and directors, or qualitative research professionals and moderators, have not made their foray into the use of online qualitative platforms.  As such, it can be argued that we are still in the early stages on the adoption curve.  Focus groups, the staple study design, has been the method of choice for several decades and is well entrenched in the practice of qualitative research.  It may well be that habits are hard to break or simply that focus groups are what people have become accustomed to and are comfortable with and believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yet examples abound and show that a shift to online from face-to-face (F2F) methods of qualitative research reduces cost and cycle time while increasing quantity and quality of data.  So, perhaps fear of the unknown prevents people from getting started.  Indeed, why would professionals, skilled at their craft, do something different if, what they do, they do well?  If moderators with thousands of focus groups under their belt are managing books of business and lists of clientele, what is in it for them to change their set of offerings?  The simple, single answer to these questions is that online qualitative methods and platform usage will someday displace the use of focus group facilities, and there is much evidence today that show these trends.

Whether studies citing this evidence are purported by GreenBook’s own industry trending, or the increasing number of focus group facilities that continue to close across the country, the fact of the matter is, the demand for online qualitative methods represents one of the largest growth areas in the market research business.  Moderators and corporate side researchers will, sooner than later, be required to understand and be able to execute this method in order to achieve study objectives that do not otherwise warrant F2F focus groups.  While there may always be certain circumstances, special study objectives, or security or political issues surrounding the project that absolutely require F2F methodology, the choice of online vs. F2F will be brought to bear to a greater extent over time, and the need for F2F will become increasingly threadbare.

One need not shift from the traditional focus group project to a complete and exclusively online qualitative study design.  Rather, one can introduce an online component into the qualitative study, such that the overall design contains a mixed methodology.  With so many out there who have yet to dip a toe into the pool of online qualitative, perhaps for fear that the water is too cold, here are several ideas offered to qualitative research professionals to help them get started along these lines.

Use online for homework after or pre-work before F2F focus groups.  Create useful assignment work for participants that are related to the study topic and serve to augment the data collected in F2F phases.  This strategy will inject some added value into a traditional focus group study and provide opportunities for learning about the subject in advance of focus groups or as a follow-up afterwards.  For example, have participants snap photos and take video to upload to the online platform.  Have them add text that describe the images and explain why they have been submitted and what they represent and symbolize.  This feature will augment the verbal data that are collected in focus group settings and actually become artifacts similar to those collected in full-blown ethnographies, thus elevating the overall quality of the study.  Consider providing this added dimension free of charge and it will serve as a delightful bonus for the client sponsoring organization, and introduce the new method to them risk-free.  Having created the occasion for doing so, you will be in a much better position to offer it in future proposals.

Use online for those study objectives better served by one-on-one interactions.  While online platforms typically have the design capability to enable the researcher to set participant interactions to be in either group or IDI format, there are some study objectives that are actually better served by one-on-one conditions.  Unfortunately, if focus groups are being conducted, all interactions are done openly among others, and it is left to the moderator to somehow control the group influence from having the effect of changing participants’ responses to key questions.  Because of this, online platforms may be used strategically to handle those topical areas that, perhaps, are more sensitive or more susceptible to the influence of a group’s presence.

Use online for dial-testing ads and other video-based stimuli.  Dial testing has been in existence for many years.  While the data it yields are irreplaceable for conclusively testing ads before they are aired, for example, execution of such special focus groups are exorbitantly expensive, logistically challenging, and subject to equipment failure and disastrous results for the study.  Instead, special online platforms are available to use for dial testing purposes.  They are far less expensive and much easier to use and set up.  Participants will also prefer to be able to do this from their home or office and will require less of an incentive for doing so.

Use online for any exercise that requires special stimuli and arts & crafts skills.  Again, there are certain online platforms that facilitate various projective techniques much better than when done in person at focus groups.  For example, perception mapping that involves participants’ moving various images, words or phrases into perception map space delineated by the moderator, typically with two axes set at right angles or perpendicular to each other.  Other techniques require choosing images from a set provided by the moderator and putting those images in a certain order that is then used to “tell a story.”  In other cases, just viewing images or text and marking areas that are liked, disliked, relevant, confusing, or some other key variable can become a feat of strength in arts & craft activities.  Even worse, sometimes a moderator can lose or forget the material needed to perform these tests…they may be left at home, in the cab, or at the hotel.  Not only can these exercises be better facilitated in an online platform, but aggregating those data is typically done automatically and, with a button push, can be redrawn based on various subgroups among the sample of participants.  Lastly, these platforms can create resulting formations generated by participants that can be downloaded and pasted into the moderator’s report.

The time to adopt online qualitative methods is upon us all, and for those who have yet to do so, the time is fast approaching and accelerating in speed every day.  Fear not!  The practice already has a history and much is known on how these studies are done expertly, so learning proper technique can be quickly obtained.  But do not feel as though you must immerse yourself in a complete bona fide online study and thus bite off more than you feel you can chew.  Instead, test the waters by beginning with an online augment of a F2F qualitative study.  If you dip a toe into the water, you will find it is quite warm and safe.  Before you know it, you will be swimming around wondering why you did not take the plunge earlier.

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