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Online Marketing Research - Chasing Technology

Online qualitative research methodologies today mimic the way the population is already comfortable communicating. Choosing which methodology is best will depend on what you’re testing, where the participants are located, timing and budget.


It seems logical to assume that as communication technology improves, so should our ability to collect quality market research data. Right now, for instance, I could conceivably call a colleague in Mumbai and hold a smooth video chat. The technology is right there. The concept of holding virtual face-to-face qualitative research interviews from anywhere, without anyone having to travel, is not only possible, it’s brilliant.

So why is the popular acceptance needle not moving? Why do most people prefer to send a message via text instead of picking up the phone? And what happened to the cool videophones Star Trek and the Jetsons promised?

My business is online marketing research, and with technology advancing at a dizzying rate, I’m in a twist as to how to keep-up with the trends. I want to know how, if at all, these technologies can somehow help me collect better data for my clients. As a result, I pay little attention to what’s new and lots of attention to what people are actually using.

I hear the experts tout the popularity of gadgets like the iPad, or the latest science of mining social media data, but the clear value to marketing research is difficult to discern. Even low cost Internet phone services like Vonage and Skype, despite the large number of registered users, aren’t moving the needle very much either. Joel Stein in Time magazine wrote in 2010 that "only 34 percent of Skype calls even use video." A couple million active Skypers on videophone sounds impressive, but it’s actually just a spec of the global population.

Webcams are nearly standard on every new computer sold these days, but most people are opting to use other available methods to communicate. More businesses now utilize Web conferencing tools, but consumers have yet to put Webcams on the short list of desired ways to communicate. Webcams do offer qualitative researchers the advantage of seeing participant faces, but studies are limited to Webcam owners, or those capable of setting up a Webcam they receive. Webcam groups online are also limited to two-four participants, since only one person can speak at a time.

Wikipedia claims that "in 2008, 4.1 trillion SMS text messages were sent." The Radicati group reported in 2009 that "2.8 million e-mails are sent every second." Whatever the numbers, it’s a lot. E-mail, chat, instant messaging, and posts – the common denominator across them all is text.

Online qualitative research methodologies today mimic the way the population is already comfortable communicating. Many text-based communication methods exist, classified as either synchronous (group chats, instant messaging) or asynchronous (bulletin boards/online diaries). The obvious distinction between the two is that group or individual chat allows participants to provide immediate responses in real time, while boards and diaries allow participants time to prepare a lengthier response on their own schedule. Choosing which methodology is best will depend on what you’re testing, where the participants are located, timing and budget.

In general, text-based online qualitative research is less expensive than in-person studies and can offer significant savings in time, travel, logistics and transcription. Like other qualitative research, online studies will include costs for:

  • Recruiting qualified participants
  • Sourcing a focus facility 
  • Preparing the topics for discussion
  • Moderating the group 
  • Paying the participants
  • Reviewing & analyzing the transcript or video


One common misconception is that participants need to be recruited online for online studies. Identifying qualified participants is a critical first step in obtaining trusted feedback and preparing accurate analyses. The ability to confirm a participant’s qualifications should be managed by respected research recruiters, online or offline. Incentives for online qualitative research are typically equivalent to in-person focus groups.

In the late 90s one criticism of online research was that certain populations couldn’t be accommodated, like the very young, or the very old. Today both population segments are active online and willing and able to communicate via text. Whether its 8-10 year old boys evaluating a new online game, or 65-75 year old men talking about incontinence – people like to chat. And today, all kinds of people are talking online. According to Internet World Stats, more than 1.8 billion people across the globe are tapped into this massive Web of communication.

Comparing online, in-person groups, and bulletin boards

Online qualitative research can provide effective feedback when testing text, audio or video materials. The moderator can show various visual displays on a whiteboard, creating an environment suitable for testing: designs, images, campaigns, names, statements, concepts, attitudes, satisfaction, usability and more. Whatever the topic, online qualitative research can provide valuable feedback, especially when discussing sensitive or potentially embarrassing topics.

Another common misconception is that online synchronous chat among 16 participants is difficult to manage. The nature of real-time group chat allows for more people to participate in a single group simultaneously, resulting in a dynamic and candid conversation among more participants in less time. Online chat often has two moderators, one to ask the question and the other to monitor and count responses to ensure everyone in the group is participating. Additionally, discussion guides can be preloaded into the real-time chat facility, allowing the moderator to easily manage the scrolling conversation.

When communicating with text in a group setting, both the gregarious and the shy appear to have the same capacity and volume of speech. Personality and tone easily come through as participants are already comfortable using words, keyboard symbols, caps and other emoticons to communicate. The pseudo-anonymity of text-based groups can also foster revealing discussions that would never surface if people were eyeball to eyeball in the same room.

Text communication online not only gives us more time to think about what we want to say, it also shields us from undesirable physical or audible confrontation – two features that will continue to benefit online qualitative research efforts.

This article was originally published in the January 2011 issue of MRA’s Alert! Magazine.


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