Instant Message for Research: The Platform Behind Online One-On-Ones
by Adam Rossow, VP, iModerate Research Technologies
Taking a closer look at IM, it is easy to see how its innate benefits translate into an environment where researchers can hold discussions of great value with respondents, making it an ideal qualitative platform.
As the mounting popularity of conducting online research continues at a staggering pace, the market research industry has seen the evolution of platforms and environments created to communicate with respondents in a new realm and in a new way. The public’s acceptance and receptivity to various online communication forums have motivated researchers to utilize methods and vehicles such as online focus groups, bulletin boards and online diaries and journals. Today, instant message (IM) has taken hold as one of the fastest-growing methods of online communication. Consequently, it has also undergone a transformation from a mere vehicle of informal personal communication to a platform of value for qualitative research.
According to a recent survey conducted by Comscore, 151 million people in Europe and North America used IM to communicate in February 2006. During that same timeframe, it was even more popular in Latin America, as 64 percent of the online population utilized IM. Furthermore, The Ridacti Group, which conducted a recent study entitled “Instant Messaging Market 2005-2009,” predicts the IM market will rise to approximately 1.2 billion accounts by 2009. The numbers tell the story of a distinct affinity that we have for being able to communicate online, instantly, in the comfort of a one-on-one atmosphere.
In the research world, we are always looking for new ways to uncover more information, capture insight and complete a picture. From ethnography to online journals, researchers are always trying to utilize new environments where respondents are comfortable and candid, and where thoughts and emotions are expressed freely. Taking a closer look at IM, it is easy to see how its innate benefits translate into an environment where researchers can hold discussions of great value with respondents, making it an ideal qualitative platform.
What exactly makes IM so perfect for online qualitative? It is:
- Instant, quick and efficient. Unlike email or online postings, IM is a real-time discussion with no delays, more closely mimicking everyday conversation.
- Discreet and unobtrusive. These two factors largely account for the growing popularity of IM in the workplace, at home and on the go.
- One-on-one. A one-on-one conversation alleviates group bias and fosters a candid and intimate dialogue filled with true feelings and emotion.
- Engaging. People welcome the opportunity to chat and offer their opinions. Using the IM platform, respondents offer thoughtful feedback with little regard for session duration.
- Ideal for market research-specific tools and features. IM is able to capture dialogue in transcript format for analytical purposes, offer back-room access for clients and provide multilingual functionality.
- Advanced but user friendly. The ability to effortlessly share photos, web content, documents and video and audio files through IM, then immediately discuss whatever is being shared, is unprecedented.
While online messaging has existed for many years in the form of bulletin boards and online focus groups, utilizing a messaging platform for a different purpose was born out of a growing market need to garner more insight from quantitative surveys. Simply put, the industry needed a way to add the respondent's voice to the data, leading to the creation of online oneon-one via instant messaging.
Today, these real-time, professionally moderated, IM-based sessions can be incorporated into virtually any online survey, providing researchers a means to go deeper with the respondent to help elucidate and strengthen the data. In short, the advent of the IM platform and the corresponding method offer researchers a hybrid approach, helping them add a story to their statistics with a unique and valuable brand of feedback.
The distinct and rich feedback garnered using this methodology is due largely in part to the atmosphere in which these sessions occur. Participants enter the environment and are immediately familiar with the forum, as they use it at work, at home and now even on the go. That type of familiarity breeds comfort, and that comfort leads to openness and candor. To that end, the fulfilling respondent experience that is a by-product of this environment truly manifests itself in the type of insights that arise from these sessions, as the respondent's interest, comfort and energy level lead to feedback that more closely mimics wordon-the-street-type insight. In fact, transcripts from these sessions often depict a more casual discussion, such as one might have with a friend or family member.
In short, the IM environment provides the type of straightforward dialogue that researchers clamor for, and much of it is the result of a respondent who is comfortable, stimulated and engaged.
In addition, the anonymity and one-on-one nature of the sessions help generate ideas that might often go unsaid using other, more-established group methods. Unlike an in-person focus group, the IM environment is an ideal space for respondents to discuss, without inhibition, topics of even the most sensitive and personal nature, and they do so in great detail. Illustrating this point, a Pew Research Center study found that 37 percent of the 17 million teens online say things on instant message that they would not say in a face-to-face conversation.
Garnering this unique type of feedback in a distinct environment requires a different set of rules and guidelines than those applied to traditional, in-person sessions or even online groups. The one-on-one, real-time nature of the sessions and the pace at which they occur require the adoption of a unique set of moderating methods and techniques to work effectively.
Factors to Consider
The first factor that moderators of these sessions deal with is time. Online one-on-ones average between 13 and 17 minutes in length, allowing for approximately 4 or 5 in-depth exchanges with each respondent about the topic at hand. While to some this might seem brief, in practice, it helps provides structure and discipline to each session. Since these moderators are always aware that they have a finite amount of time to accomplish the project, they maintain a clear focus on the project's objectives to make sure that every question is probed into sufficiently. The time constraints prevent nonproductive conversation, and the results are sessions that are direct, focused and on topic, yielding far more than one expects from a conversation of that length.
Unlike an in-person focus group, there is no get-to-know-you warm-up period in these sessions. While these moderators are aided by having key information about the respondent captured in the survey, the fact remains that, to effectively lead these discussions, the moderators must immediately establish a rapport with the respondent and then move quickly into productive questioning. Thankfully, the relaxed online setting and the IM format, coupled with the skill and training of the moderators, contribute to the moderator's ability to quickly develop a connection with the respondent.
Furthermore, the session atmosphere helps ensure that there are no introverted respondents, and it diminishes the nervousness aspect that can exist when conducting face-to-face research. In this forum, there are no judgments made based on age, appearance or other influential factors. No peer pressure exists, as the tendency to want to please and/or follow others is stripped away. Additionally, because online chatting is such a familiar and informal means of communication, respondents are immediately relaxed and open, allowing the moderators to expose the heart of the matter much more quickly and with less superfluous conversation than in traditional face-to-face settings.
Finally, in these sessions, moderators cannot use non-verbal cues to communicate with respondents. In traditional face-to-face research, skilled moderators make eye contact and utilize cues such as a nod or a gentle "mm-hmm." These can serve to accomplish a wide range of objectives, from encouraging a respondent to keep talking, to redirecting the respondent if he or she starts to get off track. These seemingly harmless cues, however, can also subtly influence respondents, causing them to adjust their answers to please the moderator or follow his or her direction.
Online moderators forgo this type of interaction, which in reality does not necessarily negatively impact their ability to interact with a respondent. In fact, since an online moderator does not see a response until the respondent has hit "send," the moderator is not able to influence the response while it is "in process." This provides the purest possible feedback because it is virtually impossible for the moderator to bias a respondent's answer while it is being formulated.
In closing, instant message is no longer just a communication tool for the younger generation. In everyday life, it is being used by everyone — from boomers to seniors — to discuss everything from work matters to weekend plans. Given its tremendous assets as a communication vehicle, and our industry's penchant for the adoption of such platforms, it should be no surprise that IM has become the backbone of online qualitative one-on-ones.This unique environment is still relatively new compared to its qualitative counterparts, but already it is clear that it provides a safe haven for respondents, encouraging them to speak freely and openly about any given subject. On the other side of the research fence, the moderators who lead in this atmosphere are given a rare opportunity to dig deeper in a one-on-one, online setting. In the end, the adoption of instant message as a research platform has propelled a new methodology, filled an industry need and given researchers a new, effective option.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 QRCA Views.
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