Online market research methods continue to evolve. Here’s what I’m thinking about the most common qualitative methods right now. They’re being presented as stand-alone ideas, but certainly can be used as part of mixed-method designs.
Focus Groups (with or without webcams)
How it works: Focus groups happen in real-time and are moderator-directed. Clients view online while sessions take place and can send messages to the moderator throughout. Webcams make viewing sessions more interesting for all involved. Written exercises or anchoring thoughts can be done using (private) chat features. “Whiteboards” are available for showing materials. Some projective techniques may be harder to employ.
When to use: When you have a geographically-dispersed or hard-to-find target and you need the interaction of a traditional focus group discussion.
How it works: Boards are set up, most typically, for a 3-5 day period, although they can certainly go longer Participants know they need to logon 2-3 times a day (or less depending on study design), at their convenience, to answer questions posted by the moderator; answers are typed. (Participant time commitment might be 20 minutes to an hour per day.) The moderator can control whether people need to respond to a question before seeing others’ responses. Participants are encouraged to review others’ answers, make comments, etc. Fostering interaction is critical to the success of this approach. “Whiteboards” for showing materials are also available in this setting.
When to use: Especially good for hard-to-reach targets (IT professionals, doctors, etc.), when materials presented may evolve over the course of the board, when there’s broad geographical requirements (such as international studies), and/or when added privacy will allow for more candid responses.
How it works: Over the course of the study, participants view pre-recorded moderator questions at their convenience. Talking to the webcam, they can take their time answering with their thoughts, feelings and opinions. Follow-up questions can be sent to participants by the moderator, although there is less probing by the moderator in this method than in focus groups or bulletin boards. There is no participant interaction; this is another form of an in-depth interview. It can also be viewed as a more updated, richer approach to man-on-the-street interviews.
When to use: When you think participants will find this format the best way to open up on a subject. Can be useful in conjunction with focus groups to help make participants more aware of their thoughts/feelings on a subject prior to exploration of a related issue (e.g., new product launch in an existing category or brand repositioning).
How it works: A cousin to video diary, although journaling happens in a written format and there is even less moderator involvement. Guidelines are set-up by the moderator at the start and then they take a back-seat. (As with bulletin boards, reminder emails to encourage participation and to keep them on task can be sent, but typically this is kept to a minimum.) Participants can journal from anywhere they have Internet access, and are encouraged to do so on a regular basis for the full study period (which can go for a couple of weeks to months). This method is somewhat closer to ethnographic research than other methods.
When to use: For more open-ended assignments, where there’s a general topic or two. Good for “know the consumer” research and/or for topics where people’s reactions might vary by time of day (such as how they decide what/where to eat or childcare issues).
How it works: A private, project-specific blog community is set-up. Each participant has their own blog, where they can write, upload images, videos, etc. They are given topics/issues to blog on (again in general terms). Participants are encouraged to comment on each others’ blog postings. The moderator can ask follow-up questions. Blogging is a cousin of journaling, although there is more participant interaction; it’s also a cousin of bulletin boards, although in this case the interactions are less moderator-directed. Because participants need to get into the swing and spirit of the project, the length of the project should be longer (at least a few weeks in my opinion).
When to use: When a hybrid method is needed that can combine some of the benefits of journaling and bulletin boards – which can create a synergy all its own.
How it works: Questions are sent via text message to participants’ cell phones. Answers tend to be short given text-messaging restrictions (approximately 160 characters – slightly more than a Tweet). Participants do not interact with one another. The moderator may ask follow-up questions.
When to use: When we know we’d get a better quality answer by having someone text as something is occurring vs. waiting for them to get back to a computer and relying on memory. Currently cost effective for multi-question studies.
How it works: A large number of people (N=400+) are invited to participate in a community; typically participants know the sponsor. (They might even be recruited from a Facebook fan page.) Participants are strongly encouraged to interact with one another absent any formal research project in social-network type areas of the community; reports on these activities can be sent to clients on a regular basis. Sub-groups of community members are recruited to various studies during the course of the community’s life. This qualitative method represents a blend of directed and less-directed research activities, with the potential for great creativity in research design. Once the community is established, quicker timelines on individual projects are possible (recruiting is very fast).
When to use: It’s recommended that if a company can construct at least a six-month research plan, with frequently scheduled projects, an online community should be considered. (Example: when developing a new product line from ideation to product roll-out.)
Your thoughts? Any experiences you’d like to share?