Why we moved all our qual research online (and why we won’t be moving it back)

Sometimes, you’ve just got to do what feels right.

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that pre-existing trends are accelerating as a result of the crisis – often in a good way. Think the benefits of remote-working, the convenience of online grocery shopping, the quality of on-demand TV.

Switch to the market research (#mrx) industry and the accelerated trend is traditional qualitative research (face-to-face focus groups, in-person depth interviews) shifting to online qual – which is now of the present (no longer of the future). COVID has put a temporary stop to face-to-face research methods in what may turn out to be a positive step. The experience and the quality of insights generated by online qual are pleasantly surprising many clients who are now testing it out for the first time.

Of course, online qual is not new and traditional forms of qual are not bad (or dead). I’m not trying to be (too) controversial. But the gradual shift towards online qual just hasn’t been quick enough. The shift to online quant was as huge as it was fast because it was driven by price. The cost differential between online vs offline quant is immense.

Unfortunately, online qual hasn’t benefited as it’s not always cheaper than traditional qual. The costs of recruitment, incentives, platform hire, moderator and researcher time keep the price differential low.

But as Zoom, Google Meet, Hopin etc have very recently proven to us that remote working is a) possible, b) productive and c) desirable, so we should take confidence that online qual can improve the quality and efficiency of market research.

Let’s consider for a moment some benefits:

  • It is longitudinal. The fieldwork process can take place over several days or weeks. What we learn on day 1 and 2 can influence what we ask on day 3, 4 and week 5. Not so with a traditional focus group where we have a 90-min window to ask everything we can ask, then later wish we’d asked questions x, y and z. Analysis of online qual can take place during the fieldwork period which makes it far more dynamic and far more flexible.
  • Participants can be themselves. They are participating in their environment, not in the artificial setting of a viewing facility or the unfamiliar front room of a recruiter. You can capture group discussion with less group effect/ group think – ie discussion can take place with less likelihood that participants will say what they want you and others to hear vs what they want to say. It’s quite a privilege to see, hear, read a participant’s diary entry or video, the raw honesty is often humbling.
  • They are progressive.  Online qual offers an incredibly wide variety of tools, techniques and options which are being continually developed and improved. For researchers, this is empowering – we can try out new ways of asking questions and collecting responses. For participants this is much more exciting – in our experience, they are happy to provide you with literal reams of data. For all of us, this is better research.

In addition to these points: the limits of geography are lifted, we can recruit people who would never take part in a traditional focus group, we can segment participants and therefore the tasks and questions we ask them.

Disadvantages – not being able to reach all types of participant, a lack of non-verbal communication, technical issues etc – are, I believe, now less valid and increasingly become less persuasive arguments.

I strongly believe it is incumbent on agencies to encourage and push clients towards these new and improving methods.

So Profundo Research & Insight is not online-offline, we are not online-first, we are online-only. We have wide experience of using many different online qual platforms and techniques and, unlike some agencies, we are not tied to one platform. Going forward, we will only propose online research.

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