Victoria Gamble of WorkINProgress discussed online qualitative research for the NewMR Virtual Festival. She is very passionate about it and fears that many researchers tried it when it was new and might have had a bad experience with it. Unfortunately, online qual has “a sharp learning curve”.

Online qual has some unique strengths:

  • It’s asychronous nature allows people to contribute at times most convenient to them
  • Allows time for “more considered and reflective responses” from participants
  • Offers a bit of anonymity
  • Provides room for less self-confident participants to share their viewpoints
  • Makes it easier for participants to disagree
Online qualitative research can complement offline qual. Victoria’s experience has been moderating online discussion forums that last 3 to 10 days, giving participants a few daily tasks. Some tasks are private and others are public, providing “a balanced picture of the issues”. While the tasks follow a discussion plan, Victoria leaves room to adapt the plan based on the direction of conversations.
Victoria has “7 big tips” that she wished she’d known before you started using online qualitative research in 2004:
  1. Start out slow – Use the first day of the group as a sign-up day, providing a chance to “iron out technical kinks” and to verify that participants are logging in.
  2. Don’t panic – “You need nerves of steel. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst!” The most challenging part of the project is that first day, demanding patience because you as the moderator are ready to go but participants are waiting for a convenient time to log in. Participants will trickle in.
  3. Remember who you are talking to – “A bad habit I’ve fallen into is using marketing shorthand rather than the language of consumers. It sounds self-evident,” Victoria said, “but sometimes we don’t even catch ourselves doing it.”
  4. Be honest and realistic in your expectations – Try hard to estimate how long participants will actually take to do tasks, as many have different levels of computer proficiency. Make sure not to plan time-consuming tasks, which will discourage participants from continuing to participate.
  5. Get your tone right – “Your tone needs to be chatty but clear,” Victoria said. “Ask about one thing, but ask for that one thing in multiple ways to prevent people from going off on a tangent.”
  6. Structure your incentives – Your incentive strategy should reward logging in, participating the first two days and then participating subsequent days, as not everyone takes part for the entire duration as real life interferes. Consider backloading the incentive to encourage longer participation. Think about how you will pay incentives.
  7. Consider your target and your topic – Is your topic sufficiently engaging enough to encourage people to participate? It is hard to motivate non-users or lapsed users of a product, for instance. While the latest online qual platforms have exciting new tools (mobile uploads, emerging technologies), many participants are not comfortable with these tools. “You don’t need to always target the tech savvy — I’ve had great luck with retirees and stay-at-home moms. Don’t rule them out.”
Victoria loves online qualitative research. She values it especially for “topics that require consideration or reflection”. She uses it as a complement to offline techniques and finds it cost-effective for wide geographic research; “for instance, I studied Australian ex-pats all over the world”. Finally, participants are often so highly engaged they regret the end of a study!

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.