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Are Myths Stopping You From Engaging in Online Qualitative Research?

By Katja E. Cahoon

In another post I provide three decision criteria for evaluating and finding the right online platform vendor for your needs. Online qualitative research is rapidly gaining in popularity, however, myths about it still abound. I will address a few of these and also mention a few additional benefits you actually might not be thinking about.

Lower cost and faster turnarounds are obvious benefits, as are a better national representation and other such points, but I will not bore you with those.

Myth#1 – Online qualitative is not as deep as traditional qualitative. This is only true if you treat online qualitative like a glorified survey. The two key benefits of online qualitative are a) multiple participant touchpoints over a period of time, and b) engaging participants in multiple ways and through multiple modalities. Both these aspects, if done right, provide a rich, deep, and also broad picture. Moreover, some research suggests that, under the right circumstances, people are more honest online. This can be especially true for sensitive topics. Participants have revealed deeply personal and even shameful information about their finances, personal health, etc., and in comparing various groups we have seen how actual behavior or product usage differs even with behaviors one “should” engage in.

For this to happen you need a well-designed, engaging, interactive guide that adheres to principles of good qualitative research and makes good use of the great tools available on online platforms. Secondly, if you interact with consumers over 5 or so days in their natural environments, during different times of the day and while they are in different moods you gain a profound picture of who they are. I will discuss how-to of engaging and deep online qualitative in another post.

Myth#2 – I can simply move traditional qualitative online. Not so. In an in-person study, even with a very explicit guide you can always re-direct, clarify, and change course a little. With online qualitative you must put a lot of thought into the guide since it’s programmed before study begin. That means you have to pay attention to flow, content, and task design to make sure you don’t bias participants and enable them to go deeper and deeper. Your instructions need to be clear and precise. Lastly, not every topic can or should be addressed online. For example, if you want to deeply understand consumer cognition and emotion about a brand and create detailed maps a 60 minute IDI in a facility might be better. If you want to explore e.g., behavior, usage, or consumers’ lives, online offers a lot of benefits.

Myth#3 – I need to hear consumers speak to get a feel for them. Here is a provocative thought: in-person research can lead to more bias, esp. confirmation bias. It is easy to latch on to the really awesome participant or the really favorable review of your brand. Without being consciously aware of it, you will be impacted by confirmation bias, halo effects, and other cognitive distortions. (I will write a lot more on bias, how it impacts researchers, and how to address it.). Online this is a bit different. For example, you can see every single response to a particular question in one place and can quickly discern trends and patterns. You can compare in-situ videos easily for multiple viewpoints. Importantly, you don’t have to go by memory or wait for transcripts but can go back and check if that is really what that consumer said.

Do you agree with these? What are your favorite online qualitative myths? What are success stories? Please comment or shoot me a note.

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3 responses to “Are Myths Stopping You From Engaging in Online Qualitative Research?

  1. Great post. Our work is squarely focus on dial testing of media (we develop the Perception Analyzer dials for focus groups and an online slider-based version for surveys). One myth we’ve had to bust is that the online version isn’t suitable for online qual. In fact, over the last two years we’ve had great success integrating moment-to-moment rating of video in online qual through the moderator chatting out links for respondents to click, rate the video(s), then have the moderator review the results in a real-time reporting portal and use them to help drive the discussion. This has been true for everything from 30-second ads to 22-45-minute TV pilots.

  2. One of my favorite myths is that online is cheaper. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not – usually depending most on the preferences of the respondent universe for the project. Most of the time, online is cheaper only if you take into account travel savings – which can be significant if traditional research would have involved a large back room contingent.

  3. Thank you David and Jeff for great follow-up! My partner in Mexico is also using online qual to review media (TV shows) and it works very well. I agree on cost – there are a variety of costs savings, among them, as you mention travel costs, no need to pay for transcripts, as well as time savings (which can lead to costs savings). At least in my studies (highly qualitative) our recruiting costs and incentives are on par, if not higher, than regular qual IDIs.

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