I was an early adopter of using online tools for qualitative research. In 2004, conversations with clients usually included something like this: You want people to do what? Talk with strangers online? Ha ha. No, no one’s going to do that!
We can laugh about that quaint attitude now, but it was tough earning a living on the bleeding edge, talking with clients whose idea of qualitative research involved ten people, a one-way mirror, and a bowl of M&Ms.
With compulsive social media habits verging on a widespread psychological disorder, you would think that online engagement would just happen naturally in online qualitative research. Sadly, as with many things in life, participant engagement takes some work.
I’ve learned a few tricks while going grey doing online qualitative research and thought it would be interesting to see what the pros with the online platforms we’re using have to say—the people who are building tools, offering advice, and working on the front lines of online qual themselves. I spoke with thought leaders from 20|20 Research, Aha!, itracks, and Digsite and have assembled their collective wisdom along with some of my own tips and tricks to get people talking in non-face-to-face environments.
The best projects start with the best recruiting. It pays to take the extra time to carefully screen participants not only to ensure they meet all the demographic, product, or service usage or other screening requirements, but also that they are as interested, creative, and articulate as the project demands. Selecting participants who have the comfort level and skill to clearly communicate their ideas in the form of written responses, photos, and/or videos will take extra steps in the screening process, but they will pay dividends. Unlike ticking checkboxes for demographic and other quota requirements, you will need to test for technical know-how as well as articulation and creativity.
“The verbal articulation is even more important if you need really articulate or creative respondents,” says Jayme Dodd of 20|20 Research. “That way you can assess how quickly someone can think on their feet, and also hear how engaged and thoughtful or passionate they may be in their voice to a given topic.”
Dodd explains that a pre-screening homework assignment, such as having respondents send you pictures or complete a creative exercise, is another way to assess and find creative respondents. Although this type of approach is effective, readers should be aware that including a task like this will increase recruitment and participant honoraria. Additionally, the QRC’s time to review this incremental amount of screening data should be considered.
If your project is fast-tracked and has straightforward recruiting requirements, you can use a platform that allows you to roll screening survey respondents into a focus group or interview. Candace Northey from itracks says they will move people directly from the screener into the research study through an automated process. “At the end of the screener we’ll ask if they are available in the next fifteen minutes for an interview. It’s fairly immediate so you get them right at the time they have expressed an interest in participating. They’re already primed to be engaged,” says Northey.
Between the recruit and project launch is the time to confirm project logistics, get participants to test equipment, and reinforce the expectations for participation.
Dodd from 20|20 Research explains that some of their moderators will use this time to call participants for a one-on-one chat. “It’s their chance to make respondents feel comfortable and let them know there’s a real person who will be asking them questions. This is also the opportunity to make them feel part of something special, tell them how the results of the research will be used, tell them what to expect about time, and share requirements.
“This is a good time to alert respondents of special tasks they will be asked to do, so that there are no surprises during fielding (i.e. sharing photos of their pantry). Our moderators also use this as an opportunity to get people excited about the project. It drives engagement to hear the excitement from us!”
Also, don’t forget WIIFM (What’s in it for Me?)—why the respondent should care. Aside from confirming the incentive payout schedule, tell participants that they’ll get to meet other people who share their same interest in the product or service. Or if your product or service isn’t one that people generally rally around to make friends, reassure them that you’ve planned questions and activities that will make the experience enjoyable.
Establishing Rapport, Building Trust
The tone of the dialogue and questions is critical in conveying the approachability and sensitivity needed to building rapport and trust. I have had to coach clients along to help them understand why they shouldn’t remove all the conversational tone in the discussion guide.
Ray Fischer from Aha! advises, “It’s the tone that makes the dialogue sound like two-way communication. It helps the participant know that there’s no Wizard of Oz. There truly is a human being behind that screen, so it’s okay for them to open up and share.”
It may be the difference between:
“What are three reasons you prefer to use XYZ Bank?” and “Think about this for a minute. If a friend were to ask why you use XYZ Bank, what would you tell them?” or “Tell me about a good experience you had when you used XYZ Bank. Then tell me about a bad experience you had with them.”
“Be transparent and say, ‘You know, this may not be something you think about every day, but we want you to tell us what kind of bank teller could be the most comfortable for you to work with’,” explains Amy Elkes with Digsite. “Sometimes we need to be a little cheeky and honest about the fact that we’re asking people to go deep on things that they wouldn’t normally go deep on.”
Leverage the Power of Video
Various platforms have been allowing participants to upload video responses for a while. The ability for the moderator to add video questions is relatively new and becoming increasingly important as it helps set the stage for video expectations.
“Adding our own videos is increasingly important,” says Elkes. “I think it’s reasonable to think video is something that we need to start doing more of so that respondents feel that they know us the way we’re asking to know them.”
Fischer says the video should never be overly rehearsed. It helps take the pressure off if you’re not perfect.
“In fact, one of the best intro videos I ever saw was just of the mistakes the moderators made,” says Fischer. “They did a bunch of cuts where they stumbled on their words and started giggling and laughing with each other about their flubs. Instead of using the finished version of the video with them looking perfect, they edited together all the outtakes and used that. It was priceless and just perfect for their topic and group.”
Video can be useful throughout the discussion. Candace Northey from itracks says video questions that supplement the text questions are useful for explaining more complex activities such as a homework assignment with multiple parts.
“You can write it out but hearing someone explain the assignment can help some people understand it better,” she says.
Poke and Prod…and Poke and Prod
The best way to get participants to engage is to be engaging. But by continually poking and prodding, you can get things moving. From sending daily text message reminders to giving positive reinforcement to thoughtfully responding to participant comments, every interaction adds a brick to the foundation that will be the online relationship.
Although there is a trend in qualitative research toward larger group sizes, I’ve found that the bigger the group, the smaller the interaction. It’s easier to build a sense of community with smaller groups as people can get to know each other. A large number of responses to read through just makes it more difficult to feel you have caught up on the discussion and know people.
When a large group is a project requirement, a useful workaround is to have small group activities within the large group.
“With large groups you can take advantage of subgrouping features so you have smaller groups for at least part of the discussion,” says itracks’ Northey. “It’s easier to engage with a smaller group. I wouldn’t want to read through fifty or thirty or even twenty-five responses from other participants and then process and reply accordingly.”
At the same time, many participants expect to interact and are disappointed when they are just alone with the
“One of the questions we get most often at customer support is from people saying they can’t see anyone else’s responses,” says Northey.
Keeping It Interesting
Varying the types of questions and tasks will keep participants engaged better than a battery of questions. Here are some ideas you can use with even the most stripped-down online qualitative research platform.
Give participants a challenge: A scavenger hunt activity. The scavenger hunt can be around their home, school, office, or shopping center. Or run a cyberhunt; send participants to your client’s website to find features they love—or hate.
Night Owl Sessions
Jayme Dodd from 20|20 Research will sometimes host night owl sessions for people who work during the day to catch up and participate with a live moderator standing by to respond. “Sometimes they will just be random fun questions that encourage conversation. It may go off the beaten path, but it encourages engagement with the research.”
Instead of a straight rating scale, you can use the sad face to happy face rating scale hospitals use for patients to rate how they feel. “It’s a small thing,” says Dodd. “But it gets the participant into a slightly different mindset. It just shifts the experience from totally dry and straightforward to a little bit unique and more fun. It can often result in more thoughtful responses as a result.”
Allow time in your discussion guide to ease participants into the conversation and activities on the first day of a discussion. Ray Fischer from Aha! likes what he calls keyhole tasks—quick and simple tasks or poll questions. “The beauty of keyhole tasks are that they are just simple and easy for the respondent to do,” says Fischer. “A short rating scale can allow the moderator to sort responses and quickly see the differences, allowing for appropriate follow-up with each person.
Repurpose Platform Tools
Be creative with your platform’s standard tools. Amy Elkes from Digsite uses heat maps for gauging participants’ likes and dislikes as well as for tasks such as how frequently someone will eat a certain food, their likelihood to try a product, or to sort brands into quadrants based on attributes. Comment boxes allow participants to explain their responses.
Pick a Buddy
Ask participants to pick a buddy and discuss the pros and cons of an idea or product. Candace Northey from itracks will assign buddies and put them into separate “rooms” for a private discussion.
Want to illustrate how customers really feel about your client’s product or service? Dodd asks participants to go find a meme that illustrates how they feel.
any qualitative research platforms now have automated tools that make follow-up easy, such as one-click responses that allow a moderator to quickly acknowledge a comment. “Thank you!” Consider, though, that overreliance on these handy tools will quickly become apparent to participants as it’s not difficult to spot canned responses. Personalized responses that acknowledge what the participant had to say give positive reinforcement for their effort and let them know there’s still a human being reading what they’re floating out there on the web.
Elkes says that you may need to manually track who has interacted with other participants so that you can follow-up with people who haven’t engaged to ask them to go back, read, and respond to what others had to say.
Active moderation through poking and prodding does get people into the right mindset as they see others interacting, so do some spot checking and provide positive reinforcement. Acknowledge those who have engaged and tell them you really appreciate their building on other peoples’ responses.
Dodd will even make responding to others an activity and requirement.
“I’ll say, ‘Go find a comment from a participant that you like or don’t like and add your thoughts’.”
Show Them the Money
You can also incentivize people to engage. In qualitative research, it’s true that cash is king. You don’t want to throw money at people just so they will finish their assignments, but you do need to offer appropriate incentives and time the payouts to make them feel appreciated and rewarded if they are engaged in a longer-term project. You can even offer bonus incentives for people who complete all the activities.
“I’ve seen studies where the research team gives extra incentives to people who interact and give the best responses. For some groups, it can be like a competition. It worked really well with one group of lawyers!” says Northey.
Stimulating conversation is an art. Each brushstroke you add along the way will fill out the canvas with all the beautiful details that make qualitative research so valuable and interesting. Fill your palette and challenge yourself to get people talking.