Qualitative Methods: Online Market Research vs. In-Person

Understand Your Client's Goals to Decide Whether to Conduct Online Marketing Research.

Grafitti: Question EverythingChoosing a methodology for marketing research involves art as well as science. Your client’s comfort, budget and goals matter – because the least effective research is the research that never happens. Researchers: before you jump immediately to your toolbox of academic goodies, don’t forget to ask many, many questions first.

Questions to Ask Before Even Considering a Methodology

Some clients mistakenly think that hiring a researcher is much like hiring an accountant. Educate them by uncovering the nuances of the situation, their current knowledge and goals. Build understanding between client and researcher by starting with these types of questions:

  1. What decisions will be made with the results? Is the client planning to launch a new product or website and wants to improve the offering? Has the offering been finalized but they are looking to communicate it in the most effective way? Do they need to understand who their buyers are, or might be?
  2. Is this a high-involvement product, or one that only your clients think about constantly?
  3. Does your client need hard numbers to base forecasting, market roll-outs or pricing models upon?
  4. What research has been done in the past?

Qualitative Research vs. Quantitative Market Research

Many projects involve both types of research, but in general, you will use qualitative research to understand in-depth motivations, emotions, and responses, and to explore subjects where you don’t yet know exactly what to ask.

Whereas quantitative methods give numbers to help forecast, understand how many people feel certain ways, or to understand demand, pricing or trends.

Online Qualitative vs In-Person Methods

Assuming you and your client have decided to include qualitative in the mix, here are some factors to consider:

How much time, travel and engagement can be expected of both clients and participants?

In-person methods can allow clients to watch from the same room or behind the famed two-way mirror. You can also let them observe via web streaming with FocusVision’s VideoStreaming. Online platforms like those from FocusVision, 20/20 Research, Dub, and iTracks include client access so they can see some or all of the proceedings.

In-person research participants may need to travel to a central location like a focus group facility, or you might take your research to them. Online market research methods usually allow a participant to be at home on a computer or mobile phone, or may require them to go to a store or restaurant to record their observations and behaviors. Some people feel more comfortable talking to a person, some to their own webcam. So consider how each setting will affect your clients and their buyers.

How dependent is your topic on non-verbal cues and personal interaction?

In-person research allows researchers to perceive cues in body language and even atmosphere. In-home or other field settings add context cues to this richness. Yet online research that includes a webcam or asks for video and photos can bring some of the same types of cues into your study. People are becoming more comfortable communicating in writing, meaning asynchronous methods such as bulletin boards and community platforms give written context through metaphor, word choices and personal stories.

Can your stimuli be streamed online, packaged and shipped, or neither?

Some stimuli work better in person – try serving a restaurant burger to an online participant in another state. Obviously online stimuli like website and videos are quite easy to test remotely via a web interface. And packaged goods can be shipped ahead of time to be used and discussed.

Do geographic clusters of participants represent your demo, or do you need a mix of urban/suburban, even rural, spread around the country?

Online market research methods allow for geographically disbursed buyers in even a smaller qualitative study, something challenging to do in person. Some studies benefit from clusters of people in a specific geography, especially when trying to understand differences between major metro markets.

Is One Better?

No. Each method has pluses and minuses. New online platforms have sprung up to complete with focus group facilities, so with their concentrated marketing dollars they can make a compelling case online. And certainly emotionally sensitive studies, those involving people who can’t get away from their home or business, or small, geographically disbursed studies call out for online.

Consider how your participants feel, how they tend to communicate, how you can put safeguards in place to make sure they are who they say they are. Every researcher has met professional participants in real focus group rooms, but in an asynchronous study a faker doesn’t even have to look or act the part.

Creative settings, including online or mobile, restaurants, grocery stores and the like all have valid research uses. While self-administered research may lead participants to share things researchers didn’t dream of discovering, sometimes the grounding and encouraging presence of a professional moderator can help to uncover the things the client really cares about.

Photos by Duncan Hill.

Jennifer Cooper, President of BuyerSynthesis, helps established and emerging brands grow revenues through better understanding their buyers. She can be reached at info@buyersynthesis.com.

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