Online vs. Face-to-Face Qualitative Research

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Tools & Techniques, Immersive Online Discussions, Online Qualitative Research


Bob Relihan

There is much debate over the superiority of online versus face-to-face qualitative research. Online qualitative is not just the latest thing. Discussion boards and communities enable the researcher to engage the consumer in so many ways — pictures, journals, video, collages — with all this material available to the participants and the research team in one place. And, consumers can be anywhere — their home, in a store — doing anything, when they describe their experiences and reactions. But, for many, there is nothing to compare with the ability to look a consumer directly in the eye and challenge her responses or have her amplify them in the moment. In a group, everyone can quickly build on responses and create new insights. Both approaches have clear strengths.

But, why choose between the two? We have found that explorations combining both methods are highly productive. The results, in fact, are more than the sum of the parts.

Imagine a brand team that needs to revitalize a product and wants to get back to basics with a thorough exploration of the category. This is the type of task for which qualitative research has been seen as ideal. One might conduct a number of focus groups or ethnographic interviews with the relevant consumers. There would a good deal of observation and projective exercises to explore usage, attitudes, the brand landscape, unmet needs, and the like. Or, you might host an on-line community with the same consumers and cover much of the same territory with similar exercises, optimized for the on-line environment.

But, here is what happens when you combine the two approaches.

First, you conduct that online community with relevant consumers. In the process, they may do any number of exercises:

  • Take a video of themselves shopping the category.
  • Take pictures of their pantry.
  • Create a video journal of the times they have used products in the category during a two-week period.
  • Create a collage that represents the values they associate with the category.
  • Sort all of the brands in the category into families and associate a celebrity with each family.

Second, we select the “best” participants from the on-line community — the most creative, the most verbal, the ones who related best to the other participants — and invite them to participate in a face-to-face focus group. Here, we can probe in an atmosphere of genuine give-and-take what the category, brands, and products mean to these consumers.

Aren’t we just repeating ourselves? No. This two-step approach offers a number of benefits.

  • You will notice that a number of the activities done in the on-line community — journals, collages, and the like– are typical “homework” assignments we give focus group participants before a session. The on-line community becomes a study hall. The structure of the community assures us that all participants have completed their activities. How many times have you had individuals appear for a focus group with a “collage” they have obviously slapped together five minutes before leaving the house. And, we are able to nudge participants if they don’t understand aspects of the activity or if they are going in a particularly interesting direction.
  • Being able to see these exercises before the group interview enables the researcher to formulate hypotheses to explore in the interview that are based on genuine insight drawn from the on-line community. Often times, the hypotheses that drive the typical focus group discussion are based on more general suppositions about a category or consumer behavior.
  • It is possible to select from all of the exercises created in the on-line community just those examples that serve as the most effective stimulus in the focus group. You can select just two collages that perfectly exemplify conflicting visions of the category and present them to the group. How would they describe the differences? Do they even recognize them? You can present a video of one of the actual participants in the room as she shops the category in the grocery aisle. Was this everyone’s experience? You can draw everyone’s attention to specific details of the experience that are authentic.
  • Finally, the dynamic within the group is much more productive. We already “know” the participants; we have established rapport with them during our on-line exchanges. And, they have gotten to know the others in the group. It is a bit like “old home week” when everyone enters the room for the first time.

Combining on-line and face-to-face qualitative in one project maximizes the strengths of both approaches and more than doubles the insight.

explore featured
Case studies

Hey, get our newsletter

join 5,000+ market research professionals
who “emerge smarter” with our insights