The pandemic has ‘forced’ much of today’s qualitative research to go online. While web-based groups and depths have been around for many years, clients and agencies have generally preferred the in-person approach to qualitative research, and ‘purists’ will argue that true qualitative research should be done this way.
Asia Research spoke to three of our sponsors, 2CV, BVA BDRC, and SKIM, to get their views on how the recent transformation to online qualitative is benefitting the research business, or otherwise. Based on their feedback, we summarise the five main pros and cons of online vs offline qualitative:
Some of the more obvious benefits have been in the practicalities and associated cost-saving of online groups:
1. Efficiencies: There are cost and time savings via web-based groups, allowing for more groups within the budget and more individuals to be involved. Traditional groups have been restricted to those who live near recruiters and focus group facilities – these limitations no longer apply, and the ‘metro-biases’ can be reduced.
2. Participation: It is a lot easier for respondents to join the group via their PC, rather than have the hassle and discomfort of physically going to an unfamiliar location. This can mean more reliability in recruitment to turn-out.
But technology brings innovation, and this can enhance qualitative research:
3. Methodology: Specialist applications have allowed qualitative methodologies to be enhanced via online methods, e.g. tools to capture initial response reactions to avoid groupthink and build on other people’s ideas. They have also brought opportunities for hybrid methodologies – mixing both live group discussions and asynchronous discussions that can provide even richer insight. Some web-based platforms allow individuals to complete tasks in their own time, without time pressure or the influence of groupthink, which enables them to express themselves more freely. Moderators will also get a glimpse into any surprising, spontaneous themes beforehand.
Shortly after, they can take these thoughts into group sessions and be given space to elaborate on their ideas; discussions may be all the richer for the thought that came beforehand. Clients have used these hybrid approaches for internal workshops as well as external consumer ones, and while still not a perfect solution (it does require discipline from the participants), it does take advantage of the flexibility of online discussions.
While there is a tendency to have fewer people within web-groups, certain AI platforms, e.g. Remesh, can handle a relatively larger number of people and hence can become a hybrid qual/quant approach. For example, AI applications can quickly summarise responses from a large number of people to allow, the respondents to react to them or the moderator to ask follow-up questions.
Our contributors also highlight more subtle differences between web-groups and traditional in-person methods, that can benefit both the moderator and the respondent:
4. Share of voice: Traditional focus groups can become dominated by vocal respondents. This can be less of an issue via web-groups – it is easier for the moderator to control and to call on individual respondents to speak up in a web-group. Perhaps by virtue of the remoteness, the less vocal respondents actually, gain a bit more confidence to speak via the web, rather than within a physical group, where the lack of familiarity might be intimidating to them. Also, the natural setting of the home can put respondents at greater ease than a focus group studio setting.
5. Multi-tasking: Respondents can only see the moderator talking and not their note-taking. This can lead to better management of share of voice of respondents via checklists among other tasks – this might seem a bit ‘too organised’ for some quallies, but it ensures more balanced discussions.
- Group dynamics: Overall, there is a lack of group dynamics and a tendency for discussion to devolve into serial interviews. Via web-groups, it can be hard to build engagement and energy in the group, and respondents can be easily distracted.
- Length of groups: Discussions typically need to be longer as it takes more time for the forming and norming stages of the group – key to building a good group dynamic. With this increased time comes a larger strain on respondents’ brains and engagement, needing to break up the discussion with varied tasks or a literal break.
- Stimulus: Lack of physical presence limits the types of stimuli that can be shown, needing to switch away from physical, tangible stimuli to digital demonstrations of how a product might work. This can at times create more work for both researcher and client. Zoom, often the preferred platform for web-groups, can have limitations for stimulus-heavy groups.
- Confidentiality: For some groups, you can have the complicated logistics of sending products to respondents beforehand, NDA issues, and not knowing who else might be listening in out of sight.
- Body language: We miss the body language, although video recordings show in more detail the facial expressions of all respondents.
2CV comments that clients have been forced to be more open to web-groups as a methodology, and in some cases this will remain valid. However, as things have started to open up across the globe, 2CV says it has already seen the preference (or even demand) to return to face-to-face. Clients value the additional behavioural cues that can be distorted or hidden via a webcam.
SKIM states, that, overall, web-groups are going to be a larger percentage of the market than before the pandemic – clients will question the value of face-to-face as a default option and whether the extra risks and costs outweigh the benefits. However, the future is still likely to be a hybrid mix of face-to-face and web-groups based on their relative strengths and weaknesses, the need for group dynamics, and the research objectives of the study.
BVA BDRC says, that, on balance, the benefits of web-groups usually outweigh the drawbacks, and they will continue to recommend them as a methodology even as things return to normal. BVA BDRC says that with much of their work being in service sector research, online research will also emulate the remote service channels consumers will use more of in the future.