Benefits of Online Qualitative Research in 2020

Shifting Market Research Online to Aid a Customer-Centric Strategy.

In 1995, we conducted our first online focus group using a chat-style environment. It was custom-built by an emerging digital marketing agency, Non-Linear Creations1. We had recently ventured into custom online quantitative studies, and embraced the opportunity to further leverage the (still nascent) Internet to serve a global technology client.  The client wanted to engage specific types of IT managers across North America in a group discussion, and it was prohibitively expensive and difficult to bring them together in one place.  Notwithstanding some technical hiccups (there was a thunderstorm in Texas and the Internet went down there), the discussion was successful and we managed to gain some valuable insights. 

While online qualitative tools (and underlying Internet technology) have improved considerably since then, the benefits of using digital channels for qualitative insights remain constant.  With the advent of social media, communication patterns have also changed considerably since 1995 and it behooves us as insights professionals to ensure we engage people in ways that match how they communicate.  Let’s fast forward to today and consider some of the advantages of using online qualitative techniques in situations where we might otherwise lean towards in-person qualitative.

Reach Narrow Target Audiences Across Broad-Reaching Geographies

Similar to the situation I described from 1995, some requirements that are targeted at narrow audiences can benefit from group discussion.  As in 1995, however, these audiences can be difficult to reach in sufficient numbers in a given market.  Online qualitative tools can enable you to connect narrow audiences across disparate geographic areas and time zones.  Moreover, often the target individuals will be busy people, and online methods offer greater flexibility to contribute at a time that is most convenient.  We have used online qualitative methods with success to engage doctors, lawyers, judges, accountants, senior executives, traders, investment bankers and others.

More Easily Gather Feedback Over Time

Some situations benefit from feedback over a longer period of time, as opposed to a one or two hour window.  For example, if you want to understand the customer experience throughout an onboarding journey, their recall is better if they have an opportunity to provide feedback at each stage of the journey, in real time.  Not only do online solutions offer diary capabilities, mobile access lets them capture important information in situ. 

Get Better Data on Sensitive Topics; Get Better Data from Introverts

For certain, sensitive topics, online discussions can elicit more honest feedback than in-person discussions.  There are a range of topics for which people are naturally reticent to share their honest opinions in a group setting, either for personal or business reasons.  In addition, participation can be more balanced in an online setting, allowing a range of people to voice their opinions without the influence of one or more dominant participants.

Leverage the Latest Technology

In-person research has long been used as a way to leverage person to person interaction for tasks such as brainstorming or observing emotions in response to different stimuli.  However, technology is advancing and some online tools now incorporate video and brainstorming features to help emulate the in-person experience.

#stayathome, #businesscontinuity

Finally, I don’t need to remind anyone of the disruption posed by COVID-19 and the impact that is having on participants' ability to attend group sessions in-person.  Although these are trying times, it is important to maintain business continuity and online qualitative methods represent an opportunity to do so. 

Beyond the above tactical advantages and the obvious benefits during this COVID-19 environment, for organizations that strive to be more customer-centric, online qualitative tools can be leveraged to better engage customers and democratize their involvement in research processes.  They can be used to reach a broader and more diverse customer base in a systemic manner.  They can also help facilitate better engagement by internal stakeholders and ensure customer perspectives are incorporated into decision-making.  This is perhaps the most compelling reason for incorporating online qualitative methods into your insights process.

1A shout out to Randy Woods and Shannon Ryan who founded Non-Linear Creations and grew it into a successful digital agency with offices in four countries.

Written by Doug Church

Doug Church, MBA, is a co-founder of Phase 5 and co-lead of the Innovation practice. He has more than 25 years of experience conducting innovation, product, and go-to-market research. He brings extensive methodological expertise and strategic insight to clients. Doug is a Certified Marketing Research Professional and a member of ESOMAR. He has served on the boards of several organizations and spoken on numerous occasions at marketing research and industry events.