Online Qual – A Researcher’s View

Dub presents an interview that covers online qualitative research. Dr Alison Lyons from Counterpoint Research talks about how people express themselves online versus in person, covers tactics and tools to manage the data produced in online research communities, and what the best online platform / software providers offer.


Dr. Alison Lyon of Counterpoint Research

We'd like to welcome you to the first in what we hope to be many posts from qualitative researchers across the globe that have used our software - IdeaStream, HeadsUp and UpClose - to deliver outstanding research. We very much hope that the series stimulates debate and discussion, and we encourage you to post your comments and questions back to the author.

So without further ado, please welcome Dr Alison Lyons from Counterpoint Research. Alison recently worked with Dub to deliver an study that looked into premium lager consumption behaviours. Being Scottish, Alison assured us she knew her subject and could hold her own in any forum, so we put her to the test. Here's what she had to say.


Say hello and introduce yourself to our readers, highlighting your online and offline experience.

Hi there, I'm Alison Lyon and I've been a researcher for over 20 years. My first job was lecturing in Research Methods and Education, after which I moved into commercial market research. I kept up an interest in new methods though, and established a qualitative telephone unit at Network Research, before setting up Counterpoint Research in 1991. We were one of the very first UK agencies to start offering online methodologies, so it's really exciting to see them incorporated pretty much across the board nowadays.


From your experience, what do you glean from online qual methods (communities, bulletin boards etc) that you don’t get from more traditional f2f methods?

Time, reflection and creativity. Face to face is brilliant for living in the moment, pushing respondents into uncomfortable spaces, in-depth conversations and visceral reactions. Online is much better when you need more time to track not only how people feel 'in the moment', but also once they've thought about it, talked about it with their friends/ family, changed their minds a couple of times and (usually) landed on a compromise opinion.

It's also great when you want to encourage a lot of independent interaction between respondents. Often the most fascinating discussions start when participants ask each other questions : questions you might not ask as a moderator.

The most often-cited advantage of online methods is that they don't require participants to be physically present all at the same time, in the same location, so it makes peer to peer interaction possible between a much broader range of the population.


When you choose to use online methods, what are the most common drivers?

Most experienced researchers will look at the research problem and consider what methods will work best, in what kind of combination - nowadays that should mean considering on and offline methods.

I'd say the most common reasons I have for recommending an online approach are :

  • when the service/ product/ problem to be researched is also based online
  • as mentioned above - when you need to give respondents time and space to reflect, look at the issues from another angle, talk about it etc.
  • when you need a balance between the individual's story and group reactions (e.g. including diaries/ blogs/ journals as well as online discussions)
  • and yes, logistics (geographically spread sample, professionals/ stakeholders who can't commit to being physically available all at the same time etc)
  • when the topic is extremely personal, and/ or complex - so respondents will struggle to express themselves well without feeling under pressure in a face to face environment


What do you see as the difference, if any, in the way people express themselves online versus in person?

There are lots of differences, which obviously need to be taken into consideration when designing and analysing online content - but they also vary depending on who you've invited online.

For instance, elderly investors unused to having anything like a discussion online are much more like their offline selves. They take time and spell out all their words, include all the punctuation and get annoyed when they make spelling mistakes.

Young people used to social networking tend to express themselves much more emphatically online - their emotions tend to be bigger, and expressed very quickly. But they'll also change their mind more quickly and be open to others' points of view.

An enormous benefit of online with young people is that there isn't that difficult, awkwardness you sometimes get when you ask a group of strangers to come together, open up and be frank with one another.


What tactics and tools do you use successfully to manage the rivers of data produced in online research communities?

The best online platform/ software providers allow you to organise the content as you're reading through it to respond to it - I really like features such as IdeaStream's 'rating' and annotation facilities. They work really well and are brilliant visual 'breaks' in a sea of text.

It also allows you to analyse video / photographic / graphics content alongside respondents' stories.

BUT ... the absolutely golden rule is whatever happens in your life / work / relationship / library subscription (remember those?!), stay on top of the content. If you fall behind you will not catch up.


Do you think clients are more or less excited by online research communities than researchers, and why?

I've seen an incredibly wide range of responses to the whole online research offer from both clients and researchers. But it's rare that either researchers or clients have experienced online qualitative research without being excited by it ... and those who weren't were few and judging online options as "cheap" options. Which they're not.


What do you most enjoy about running online research communities?

Like with face to face research, it's the people. I absolutely love the way research participants will share their feelings, ideas, experiences, fears, aspirations in such a generous way. The difference with online is that we give them so many ways to explore and feedback - it's not just time limited and mainly speech-based.

I also love working longer term with participants and clients - that is incredibly fulfilling.

Finally, I enjoy the buzz participants get out of working in such cool and innovative ways, and being able to see what a difference they make as their ideas are acted upon.


How do you sell the benefits of online research communities to your clients, and what do you see as the ongoing challenges of encouraging clients that it’s the right fit with their objectives?

I talk about the frankness, the creativity and the depth they'll get from their participants, and about how involved they'll be able to get.

I also talk about the beautiful transparency of online approaches, and how they'll have a much closer relationship with their customers because of online communities.

I also talk about their responsibilities - if they're asking their customers to give so much to them, they have to think carefully about what they're giving back.


What participants do you think are the best fit with online methods and why?

Do you know, I've used online approaches with the least tech-savvy people and had absolutely fantastic results. But obviously the less the participants have been online, the more work needs to go into preparing an environment where they feel comfortable.

So I'd say don't rule anyone out, and don't automatically think that young people will always be right for online on every topic.


Do you have any examples of online tasks and exercises that have worked extremely well and exceeded your expectations?

I conducted a series of online forums on the topic of egg and sperm donation for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority recently. The target audience was the general public and those with an active faith. The forums took place over 5-6 days and were absolutely fascinating. By encouraging participants to talk with friends and family about the issues being raised in the forum we were able to understand attitudes on a much deeper level.

Participants also started interacting with one another in a fascinating way, sharing some very personal, private and difficult moments with one another, and providing support and encouragement.

At the end of the project I had received a mountain of personal emails from participants, saying how amazed they were that they were able to participate so easily and how perfect an environment online had been for exploring such complex, difficult and personal issues.

Whatever the task, the best online platforms make it fun, easy and quick for respondents to feed back what they've done in a creative, interesting and thoughtful way. It has to make them look good to keep them engaged and involved.


What are you most excited about in the world of online qual research right now?

I'm really excited about how online platforms are much more flexible, and how easy it is now to combine approaches: so a few key participants in a longer term community can be asked to participate in mini-focus groups, tasks can be analysed alongside forum responses, or blogs etc. In the past researchers had to decide on either a forum, or an online texting group, or a video-conference, or a community ... nowadays we can spec what we think is appropriate for different issues and participants, and the software/ platform can cope with it.

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Online Qualitative Research, Market Research, Online Communities, Self-ethnography, Customer Insights, Decision Making

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