Five Reasons Online Qualitative Works

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

The other day I was describing my experience with projective techniques to a group of qualitative researchers, however their experience was almost exclusively with online qualitative methods. So, I had to explain how techniques, whose origins were in the face-to-face interactions between a psychologist and a patient, could be reconfigured and tweaked to work in an MROC (market research online community).

I have been sitting in rooms, conducting focus groups with consumers for nearly thirty years. I have been conducting online qualitative in various forms -- real-time chat, webcam and telephone groups, MROC and bulletin boards -- for nearly ten. I can't say I embraced the method willingly at first. It was forced on me by a client and like many "old school" moderators I missed the personal contact with people. I wanted to be able to stare them in the eye. Over time, however, I began to realize the strengths of on-line qualitative, not just its default benefits.

But, as I talked with researchers whose only qualitative experience was with the online variety, I realized just how valuable those little things are that I can do on-line but can't do in front of the mirror. They may not be the principle benefits of online qualitative, but they are what make it distinctive and maybe even better than traditional in-person qualitative.

  • I have never been very good at dealing with an individual in a focus group room. Sometimes I want to get a person on track, other times I want to praise their unique vision. And, many times I just want to follow a sidebar discussion that looks to be productive. But, I don't want to make the others in the room uncomfortable, nervous, or bored. Online I can pull that one person aside, and no one else knows. In effect, I can conduct a group and an individual interview simultaneously.

  • If you have conducted a focus group to gather feedback on concepts, you know what a hassle the mechanics can be, passing out repeated stacks of concept statements or shuffling through board after board. The people at the end of the table can't see clearly or they have to wait for the stack to get to them. Sometimes there aren't enough concepts, and other times too many. But, when I show concepts online -- in the words of Emeril --BAM, they're there! Everyone sees them at the same time, and the statements or pictures are equally clear to everyone. Moreover, the online markup tools enforce a discipline upon the participants that makes for more consistent results than the underlining and crossing out that participants do with concepts in a focus group.

  • On-line qualitative brings regional differences into contact. One of the original appeals of online qualitative was that you conduct a group with a national sample instead of a market-based sample. This is certainly useful when the category in which you are interested is very small. This was an obvious selling point; now you can "do groups" that would have been impossible in-person. But, that benefit misses a unique power of online qualitative that I have discovered over time.There are areas with very distinct regional differences. For example, the impact of state legislation and regulation or the influence of a large state university can make the experience of teaching very different in different states. Now, you can't capture all of those differences by doing focus groups in different states, but, online you can have teachers from different states interact and reflect on the effect of those regional differences on the educational experience.

  • On-line methods allow you to conduct group interviews. Duh. Of course, that is what online qualitative is all about. But, my colleagues who have conducted research only on-line don't recognize the benefit. The original selling point of being able to conduct research with users of low incidence categories was often represented as an all or nothing proposition. In practice, it rarely was. It was often possible to conduct individual interviews in low incidence categories. But, I like groups -- I love the productivity of the interaction they produce. Online qualitative lets me do groups, not just research.

All of this brings me back to the topic of my original conversation -- projective techniques. I thought of projectives as the quintessential marker of qualitative research. My inability to make them work successfully on-line indicated the weakness of online qualitative. For example, I would often spread a group of pictures before the participants and ask everyone to select the picture that reflected a brand's personality or their mood at a particular restaurant or any other emotional reaction. At the time, I could not see how to do this efficiently on-line, although the technology has caught up and photo sorts like this are quite do-able.

I then recognized I had to simplify the task if I was going to do it on-line. I decided to restrict the choices I presented to participants. What I finally developed was a set of paired pictures like the pair above. I could put it on-line and ask which picture best reflects how you feel when you eat at a certain restaurant. By structuring the task and focusing participants on a "simple" choice I got great, detailed, and highly revealing responses. I was so pleased with the results that I started using the paired pictures in face-to-face focus groups, as well.

That is the ultimate proof that online qualitative is here to stay, it is a source of innovation and change.