Managing the Shift from In-Person to Online

By Monika Wingate, CEO and Co-Founder, Digsite Inc., Madison, WI, monika@digsite.com

Most of us have spent the better part of our careers using in-person research to drive deeper consumer insights and empathy. Whether we were at a focus group facility or watching people in-market, there is power in observing facial expressions and body language.

But a lot has changed in the past few years. The use of social media and mobile devices has matured along with the use of consumer insights communities that don’t require in-person moderation or travel. According to the Fall 2017 GreenBook GRIT report, online communities have been adopted by 60% of researchers, while webcam interviews and mobile ethnography have exceeded 40% adoption. Client teams want to tap into the power of online qualitative to capture in-context experiences, quickly understand problems, and iterate solutions. And more importantly, they are looking to technology to help them address the challenges they face with timelines and budgets.

If your clients are missing the advantages of newer qualitative methodologies, becoming familiar with the advantages that these methodologies offer may help you sell them in.

What Can Online Qualitative Accomplish?

Whether your focus is marketing, innovation, or customer experience, many of the research objectives you traditionally achieved through in-person research can now be satisfied in an online environment—often with better results and at a lower cost.

We’re not simply talking about online focus groups, in which these same groups of people chat via video instead of in a room together. Rather, newer approaches to online qualitative bring participants into social media-style spaces where they can have
private or group conversations with moderators in addition to sharing real-time experiences. This approach offers much more flexibility and richer data quality than the online tools that existed even five years ago, because technology allows the researcher to go places not typically accessible through traditional methodologies.

With that in mind, let’s look at three common objectives historically reserved for in-person research: building empathy, iterating on ideas, and capturing customer experiences. While not all online tools offer the same set of capabilities, this should give you a basic idea of what to expect from modern online qualitative research methods.

Building Empathy

One of the biggest gaps left by big data and quantitative research is empathy. If we can’t relate to the emotional aspects of our target—their joys and frustrations—it’s very hard to prioritize and communicate product features, brand messages, or category innovations.

In-person and online qualitative provide different data on empathy. Think of it as the difference between how you relate to your family when you meet them in person versus what it’s like to send them an email or a message on social media. In all three cases, you can get rich emotional context. But the way you share and communicate is clearly very different.

Imagine we want to understand more about the home improvement market and bathroom remodeling. In the graphic example “Building Empathy,” you’ll see how your research approach might differ in a traditional focus group or in-home interview vs. online qualitative. In the focus group example, you might ask the group a series of questions about their remodeling processes, potentially drilling down further with two or three participants before moving on to the next question. To get the group to share feelings that might be hard to articulate directly, you might use a projective technique to get the participants to relax and open up.

In an in-home interview, you might be focused a bit more on show-and-tell, drilling deeper with each person on the details of their specific process and looking for unarticulated problems or needs.

With online qualitative, you get a bit of both. You can ask a series of questions and probe with individual or group follow-ups, and you can also get show-and-tell type insights by having participants share photos or videos that they have captured using their mobile phones. You can have them post timelines or journal activities, or even use virtual projective techniques like collages or image sorts.

Iterating Solutions

Today, marketing teams are under pressure to be agile. Per a 2018 AgileSherpa study, while only 37% of marketing teams have adopted agile practices, 60% say they intend to in the next year. It is important to understand that agile does not mean simply doing the same work faster. The premise behind agile is for business teams to collect richer contextual information while they develop new or improved products, ads, packaging, online experiences, etc. This enables them to iterate as they learn, improving quality, reducing rework, and ultimately speeding up the time to market. Because of this focus, agile qualitative may supplement or replace quantitative tools in later stages of development. It also means that teams could forgo large qualitative projects completed at the beginning of development for smaller projects completed on the fly.

This is one area where online qualitative methods can really shine. One of the advantages of online qualitative is the ability to build, optimize, and iterate on ideas while engaging with consumers. The graphic “Iterating on Concepts” illustrates how this works in-person and online, either within a single group or across multiple groups.

Let’s say we have some early ideas for bathroom products that can help increase usable counter space and storage. When building concepts, you are typically looking to prioritize needs or benefits, get detailed feedback on a series of concepts, and either narrow down the list of concepts or create new concepts based on your learning.

Online qualitative has some distinct benefits over in-person research in this type of research:

  • Larger sample sizes: You gain some benefits typically associated with quantitative research such as larger sample sizes (i.e. n=50-100) and national samples.
  • Less bias: Online qualitative enables you to minimize bias by randomizing concept orders and having participants give private feedback before group discussions.
  • Easier follow-up: It’s easier to extend online studies to follow up with participants days or weeks after their initial response, giving the team more breathing room to generate new solutions and bring them back to participants.
  • Faster analysis: Some online tools have automated reporting capabilities that tally votes and ratings, identify common themes in open-ended responses, and generate client-friendly reports. This is helpful for interim reporting during rapid iteration.

Online qualitative for concept iteration also allows participants to make more direct comparisons to competitive products or services they are familiar with or currently using, instead of being limited to competitive stimuli you might share with them at a focus group facility. In other words, by doing research in their own homes where they use competitive products, participants might provide data that you wouldn’t get during a focus group because they can draw on their own environment and real-time experiences instead of being prompted by a specific, more artificial stimulus that relies on recall.

Capturing Customer Experiences

Capturing and understanding experiences is a critical part of succeeding in the market. Whether you are looking to develop new solutions or improve current products or services, the gold standard for understanding experiences has been ethnographic research, a combination of live observation and interviewing target audiences.

In the age of selfies and mobile video, consumers are more interested than ever in sharing their experiences with brands—without the invasiveness of having anyone stand over their shoulders. As a result, an entirely new level of insights has been achieved simply by asking consumers to record their experiences on their computers or smart devices.

In the sidebar on page 21 (Capturing Experiences), we have types of in-market observation or ethnographic research you might do in-person vs. online.

Video and photo technologies are front and center in online solutions. While there may be occasions where you want to be physically present, most situations can be covered through either a live video interview or a combination of video sharing and follow-up questions.

Online qualitative offers several other advantages compared to in-person research. Social media-style platforms enable more longitudinal observation, and they allow you to ask both group and individual follow-up questions. You can use embedded video analysis software that makes it easy to find themes, capture key quotes, and build video clip reels that speed up the process of sharing results and acting on findings. For UX projects, web-usability platforms can capture heatmaps tracking mouse movements and capture video and audio of participants completing specific online tasks.

The Advantage of Online Qualitative for Marketing Teams

As these examples demonstrate, in many cases online qualitative improves the quality and richness of the data you can collect in-person. Online qualitative also works within much faster timelines than traditional in-person research, delivering valuable benefits:

  • Time savings: There are fewer travel and logistics issues for your team.
  • Faster recruiting: Top online qualitative recruiters have high-quality
    samples that can be recruited in hours or days rather than weeks.
  • More representative: Enjoy geographic diversity and the opportunity for larger sample sizes.
  • Richer responses: Get better data thanks to detailed one-on-one responses plus rich group discussions.
  • Minimize bias: Reduce bias by responding individually before group discussions and randomizing concepts during the process.
  • Faster reporting: Produce instant summary reports and sentiment
    analysis to get results quickly.

As qualitative researchers, it’s our job to help bring these benefits to our internal or external customers, rather than relying on only what we have done in the past.  Embracing these new, robust technologies allows you to become the qualitative hero who brings greater
agility and new insights to your clients and colleagues.

5 Ways to Sell Clients on Online Qualitative

You’ve come up with a great approach to a research problem using online qualitative. But, after considering multiple proposals, the client decides to go with in-person research. The reason they cite? It’s what the team has done in the past and is most comfortable with.

  1. Build in Unique Engagement Opportunities
    Online qualitative can collect both broader and deeper insights than in-person research, and often encourages a level of honesty that respondents would never exhibit when conducting research face-to-face, but your clients might not know or understand that. Be sure to bring to life unique opportunities to combine observation, one-on-one engagement, photo/video sharing, and group interaction. Help them understand the value that privacy and anonymity can offer for sensitive topics, and the value of flexible timing for participants to share photos, videos, and other information that would be hard to get in a two-hour focus group. Show them how your online approach leverages your expertise with in-person research with newer, more flexible online tools. 
  2. Design Iteration into the Process
    Most qualitative research is designed both to explore consumers’ attitudes, context and behavior, and help drive specific business decisions and to help. As you learn which decisions your clients are making, see if a more iterative approach, which is much easier to accomplish in online research than in-person, can get them farther along in the decision process without having to do another research study. Perhaps it would make sense to build in time for team discussion and adjustments to questions or stimulus between the observation, discussion, prioritization, or feedback stages of the research project. Or, you might want to create a single, multi-step research project that focuses on understanding consumer needs, then revising/getting feedback on product/service features, and finally developing packaging or messaging. 
  3. Develop Holistic Solutions
    Online tools give you the flexibility to design hybrid research studies that nail a client’s research objectives in a way that would be too costly and time-consuming with in-person research. Consider using a larger qual/quant sample to capture better representation of subgroups, have participants capture video responses, or mix one-on-one interviews with group discussions to drill deeper. Maybe even consider some one-on-one video calls or ethnographic interviews with a selected group once you find that bulls-eye target. These options are possible and relatively affordable in an online context. 
  4. Build Your Own Agile Toolkit
    If your studies typically take four or more weeks from kickoff to report, you might not be considered for agile research opportunities. Many researchers are looking for qualitative approaches that are both rich and fast. To win these types of research initiatives, you need to embrace automated tools for everything from recruiting to rewards to analysis. You may even want to consider a mix of moderated and unmoderated activities.  Sharpen your agile qualitative toolkit and let your clients know that you can handle projects that take days, not weeks, from kickoff to topline. 
  5. Price it Right
    It used to be that online qualitative costs the same or more than in-person research. If that is still your pricing model, you may not be winning online qualitative bids because your pricing is just not competitive. So how should you price online qualitative? First, consider how you are finding and rewarding your sample. There are high quality online panels and recruiting methods that are designed specifically for online or mixed-method qualitative research. These approaches often cost significantly less than recruiting for in-person research and can save you significantly on incentives. Next, consider how you are estimating your billable time. Agile research tools should save you time by automating tasks such as monitoring participation levels, analysis, and keyword coding, and even transcribing videos and building clip reels.  This saves the client money while allowing you to focus your time and energy where your skills matter most: designing a study to meet your client’s objectives and identifying the key insights for a highly valuable analysis/report.

    By using these five strategies to differentiate your online qualitative proposals, you stand to improve your likelihood of getting your clients onboard with online research. Once they start seeing the benefits of online research for themselves, they are likely to want more of it!


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