The Evolution of Qualitative Research: From On-line to On-everywhere

Filed Under: Immersive Online Discussions, Online Communities, Online Qualitative Research


Kayla Myhre

Director, Shopper Insights Research

When market research started back in the 1920s, quantitative research was the name of the game. It seemed to be the only way to gather accurate insights—that is, until qualitative research started to gain popularity in the 1950s and 60s. 

Although initial skepticism was high about the validity of qualitative research, it proved its value. Since its early years, qualitative research methods have evolved drastically and are continually evolving. C+R has remained one of the top qualitative market research companies and has been at the forefront of developing and adopting new and innovative methods. In fact, our founder, Dr. Saul Ben-Zeev, was credited with developing the focus group as a marketing research tool—an effective method that is still in use today.

The Internet and Online Qualitative Research

The creation of the internet has significantly impacted life as we know it today. This innovation has, similarly, impacted the market research industry, including qualitative research.  For instance, when the internet and qualitative research converged, it led to the creation of online discussion boards, initially called Market Research Online Communities (MROC). These communities greatly resemble traditional focus groups in that a moderator provides online prompts that respondents reply to. The main difference is that it takes place in a digital – rather than physical – space.

And, there are several benefits of the online discussion boards:

  • More Participants – Because the discussions take place in a virtual space, it is possible for more people to participate simultaneously. Being virtual allows these groups to be more geographically diverse than ever, creating a better understanding of consumers across the country and around the world.
  • Flexible – Schedules are significantly more flexible for both the respondents and the researchers, and even clients. Respondents generally have a longer timeframe to complete activities, and researchers can moderate as responses are received. So not only is travel time eliminated, respondents and moderators can participate in the discussions when they have time to do so, providing the flexibility necessary to accommodate their schedules.
  • Low Pressure – MROCs, now shortened to online communities, diminish social pressures and are less likely to elicit biased or dishonest responses due to the groups’ dynamics. Plus, without strict time constraints, participants have more time to organize their thoughts, leading to more thoughtful and insightful responses.

Still, concerns existed surrounding these new online discussions. When online qualitative market research emerged, participation was limited to those who had access to a computer, which raised questions about accurate samples. Also, without face-to-face interactions, some worried about missing valuable non-verbal cues.

Today, online qualitative research capabilities have rapidly evolved to account for many of these limitations.

Leveraging Smartphones For Your Qualitative Research Project

Since the 2007 release of Apple’s first-generation iPhone, smartphones have become increasingly widespread in all areas of everyday life. As smartphone capabilities have expanded, qualitative research methods and tools have as well.

As of 2018, the number of smartphone owners is roughly equal to the number of people with a computer in their home. Thus, qualitative research has gone mobile (and beyond)!

Here are just some of the most impactful ways that online qualitative research capabilities with new technologies have expanded beyond the desktop.

Mobile Discussions & Journals

Discussion boards and journals are far from an innovative practice. However, with increased mobile capabilities, respondents can more easily participate in discussions and submit journal entries instantly from anywhere in the world with a connected mobile phone. 

Digital Shopping Missions

In order to capture in-the-moment responses and behaviors, shop-alongs used to be a predominately in-person qualitative method. Now, researchers can assign consumers a series of tasks and questions to be completed during their shopping process. This can generally be completed in one of several ways:

  • Recording responses and taking photos or videos in-store, which can be uploaded immediately.
  • Live interaction with a researcher over webcam to capture in-store or online shopping experience.
  • Using a screensharing video platform to record digital shopping for eCommerce. This allows researchers to see how participants navigate websites and complete online tasks while simultaneously providing commentary. 

Unobtrusive Observation

Technological advancements have most impacted these qualitative methods. A few of the frequently-used forms of unobtrusive observation include:

  • Netnography: Ethnographic study of one’s online communications, often through social media platforms.
  • GPS Tracking: GPS tracking eliminates the need for self-reporting travels and movement, allowing for more precise and consistent information.
  • Unobtrusive Video Observations: Consumers install a camera in a designated area, or use a wearable camera, which allows researchers to observe certain behaviors.

Moreover, with increasing smartphone capabilities and mobile friendly survey tools, qualitative research continues to expand how and what data is collected. New, innovative technologies are making this process quicker and easier than ever before. 

This isn’t to say that online methods can entirely replace in-person qualitative research.  Rather, these modern methods enhance the breadth of capabilities available to researchers. As we did 60 years ago, C+R will continue to evolve qualitative research by vetting new technology and innovating methods to aid us in providing our clients with the most actionable research. 

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