Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Online vs. F2F Qualitative Research Methods: The Game-Changing Impact of Social Media

In-person methods for qualitative research are no longer the sole means by which investigators can collect their data. Interviews with study participants do not have to be done face to face; instead, web-based computer-mediated environments can serve as the site where interactions between moderators and participants can ensue, questions can be posed and answers can be obtained.

The opportunity to migrate qualitative research away from traditional methods and toward the use of online platforms is provided by the confluence of internet and digital technology, broad band connectivity, and people’s apparently sufficient comfort level with blogging. These factors have resulted in paving the way for a viable, alternative methodology that provides qualitative research professionals with access to human experiences on a scale and with a reach that is currently immeasurable.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to and elaborate on these emergent societal and technological factors that have given rise to the use of online methodology for qualitative research. The effects of these factors are examined in terms of quality, cost, and speed criteria in a discussion of the comparison of qualitative studies that use online and in-person methods of data collection.

Social media usage has developed and become widespread very quickly. Social networks, blogsites, and other online “beehives” appear to be all around us as millions of people adopt social media sites as their primary source of all kinds of information. What’s more is that social media adoption continues to increase tremendously. “Blogging” as a behavior, currently under the scrutiny of many different types of social scientists, has become widespread and continues to grow.

In the beginning of 2009, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, equated Facebook to a nation saying it would be the 8th largest country in the world. As of 2010, it would stand as the third largest country in the world, right behind China and India and ahead of the United States with 700,000,000 users. It was not long ago that social media made big news when it overtook email in terms of online activity. Now, it is the #1 activity online and it continues to grow at a rapid pace both in the United States and around the world.

Social media marketing has reacted to this trend showing its own growth on a similar trajectory. Research indicates that spending on social media and conversational marketing will outpace that of traditional marketing by 2012, according to a study conducted by TWI Surveys, Inc. on behalf of the Society for New Communications Research. Forrester, too, echoes this claim in its own research findings in a recent study.

The explosive growth of social media usage and blogging behavior suggests that society has become “comfortable” engaging in these activities. Indeed, a 2010 study by Nielsen showed that Americans spend 25% of their time on social media and blog sites. Our own experiences at Accelerant Research conducting immersive qualitative research ( shows us that people are adept at communicating their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and actions, as well as their deepest fears and greatest aspirations in a “computer-mediated environment.” But, what exactly is involved in blogging? What do people do on Facebook that is related, somehow, to research?

In essence, blogging includes obtaining online information (text-, video-, audio-based) as well as inputting one’s own information, in any of those formats, in that medium. Put more simply, sometimes it involves viewing videos and images, listening to recordings, and reading text, and other times it includes inputting any of those formats of data oneself, to some Internet-based location, to be shared with others.

Now compare these blogging activities to those involved in qualitative research in which a moderator poses questions to study participants and receives answers to those questions from them. A discussion ensues between the moderator and participant fueled by a series of questions and responses between parties. Sometimes the moderator shows participants some “things” and has them provide their attitudes and opinions. Other times the moderator might require the participants to provide “things” to be seen, heard, and/or discussed. Thus, there is parity between the typical activities involved in blogging and in qualitative research, and nowadays, the personal computer and Internet can facilitate the activities involved in qualitative research.

Imagine a shift from the traditional, face-to-face (F2F) methodology, which has dominated qualitative research for decades, to the Internet. This shift should be a safe one given people’s general comfort level communicating within this medium. But, would some part of the human condition be lost in the process?

Taking a balanced perspective, we see that on the one hand, the social space of computer-mediated communications was once considered lean, cold, and superficial. Relative to in-person communications, online communicators were presumed to suffer from a reduction in social cues and unable to transmit nonverbal information such as voice inflection, accents, facial expressions, posture, body language, and touching. On the other hand, society has adapted and developed ways to express these nonverbal cues in written form. To do so, society uses new symbols and electronic paralanguage such as emoticons, special character strings, intentional misspellings, absence or presence of corrections, capitalizations, as well as with images and sounds.

Market researchers have used focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs) for their qualitative research needs for the past several decades. These techniques serve a variety of purposes, e.g., to understand in greater detail the findings that emerged from an initial wave of quantitative research, or to inform the content of a survey that will be used in a subsequent phase of quantitative research. Sometimes these qualitative studies are “standalone” initiatives that come neither before nor after a quantitative research phase. On these occasions, their design and scope are sufficient to achieve the study objectives. Regardless of where qualitative research studies fit in the sequence of an integrated research program, these qualitative techniques are distinguished from quantitative studies by what they yield: data that reflect the rich (symbolic) world that underlies consumer needs, desires, and brand decision criteria; not estimates or inferences of population parameters from sample statistics.

However, these tried-and-true qualitative methods, while effective for what they are designed to produce, do have their inherent flaws. They are artificial and contrived because they require the respondent to be removed from the actual consumer behavior during interviewing, i.e., data are collected in a de-contextualized setting. As such, this common byproduct of standard qualitative research designs attenuates the researcher’s ability to gather data in a natural setting.

Also, moderators, interviewers and ethnographers are considered obtrusive since they are required to be present with and “get in the face” of respondents. Whether interviews are conducted in-person or via telephone, moderators pose their questions and (hope to) get honest answers while limiting exposure of respondents to the data-biasing influences of their presence, e.g., social desirability. They also rely heavily on the memory capacity of respondents since most studies require respondents to travel back in time in their minds, recall relevant experiences, and provide their input and perspectives based on those memories.

Ethnography, in particular, is a highly useful method in focusing on consumer behavior in that behavior is observed, participants are interviewed and the subject matter is studied in a naturalistic setting (e.g., home, place of business, etc.). However, the very presence of the ethnographer fosters social desirability and other response sets, perhaps to the greatest extent relative to other qualitative study designs, due to the depth of immersion the ethnographer plunges into the respondent’s living space. Also, ethnographies are highly time-consuming, logistically complex, limited in geography to key cities, and usually quite expensive.

Several of the flaws and inherent drawbacks of in-person methods of qualitative research can be reduced or eliminated while other aspects enhanced through the use of online, blog-based research. It is conceivable that a website can be designed to have a similar look and feel to social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn so that the general population can easily navigate within it and respondents can fulfill their study-related responsibilities and receive their incentive for doing so. The moderator can post content from the question guide they developed for the study to the site, and participants recruited to the study can enter, see the moderator’s posted questions, and respond to them accordingly.

The full confluence of effects that makes online qualitative research such a viable method is seen when one adds the widespread penetration of broadband connectivity and pervasiveness of digital technology to the existing comfort level and alacrity that society has developed for computer-mediated interpersonal communication. A vision starts to emerge that shows distinct advantages of Internet-based methods over those that use in-person interviewing.

Imagine online qualitative studies that encroach upon the most in-depth form of qualitative, namely the ethnography. For example, in focus groups, only verbal and non-verbal data are collected. In ethnographies, verbal and non-verbal data are collected, but this input is augmented and synergized with artifacts and objects representing symbols of the culture of the behavior under study. In this way, the ethnography is arguably the most in-depth form of qualitative research.

Instead, an online “blognography” can be conducted in which study participants are required to snap photos and create videos to document and represent the subject under study. They would be instructed to upload these multimedia data to the online research platform along with their text-based responses to questions and other instructions posted by the online moderator/blognographer. These multimedia data would serve as ethnographic artifacts and contain all the complementary characteristics of data that augment the insights obtainable by text alone.

Surely, we’re in a state of technology-ready conditions by which we can provide to consumers images, photos, videos, and other types of stimuli for them to use as the basis for their attitudes and opinions. Likewise, consumers are equipped to provide the same types of stimuli to us researchers as they can upload their content onto research sites, as they do in Facebook or YouTube, to be viewed and analyzed by the qualitative researcher. Even more importantly, we are in a state of “consumer-ready” conditions, too. People are simply comfortable and inclined to pull out their cell phones, snap photos, shoot videos, and send them as electronic attachments to friends, social media sites, and blogsites, and then go to those sites and opine on some subject using their home PCs or through text-messaging with their smart phones.

In addition, the Internet affords a stronger sense of anonymity among study participants and that typical response biases such as social desirability and other “faking strategies” are virtually eliminated online. Qualitative data collected online tend to be “brutally honest” in nature as respondents feel wrapped in a cocoon of privacy and facelessness and have no apprehension about telling a moderator anything. As such, these data may be more valid than what is collected in focus group facilities that heavily utilize F2F interactions. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the study, respondents’ homes may actually be the place where the behavior under study takes place naturally and be the optimal site for data collection, yielding a high level of ecological validity.

In contrast, standard facilities used for focus groups or in-depth individual interviews (IDIs) are contrived and artificial settings in which to collect qualitative research data, and do not necessarily foster conditions for people to speak up and be heard. These conditions amount to a special room with video and audio recording equipment, a one-way mirror behind which observers are seated. For all intents and purposes, respondents are completely removed from the site at which the behavior under study occurs in nature.

With regard to the amount of data that are produced, an online study will, by design, allow all participants to speak at the same time since question guide content is posted on the site and awaits the participant’s login during some time period communicated during recruitment. In contrast, focus groups and IDIs, by design, only allow one person to speak at a time. The typical respondent has only about 10 minutes to provide his/her input during a 2-hour focus group while that participant’s online counterpart has about 10 times that amount of input time.

What is more about the advantages of online regarding data is that transcriptions are automatically procured and are integrated with quantitative data collected during recruitment which enables sorting of text and other data into subgroups for comparative purposes.

Of course, traveling, scheduling, arranging, coordinating and all the logistics involved in all parties’ involvement with in-person methods are eliminated. As such, no time is lost on travel as it means time out of the office, being away from home and family, nor is there any carbon footprint produced. But of major importance is the fact that study costs can be sharply reduced by using an online method for qualitative research. In the table below, relative to six focus groups, each with nine participants and lasting two hours, an online qualitative method requires one-third the cost, 40% less time, and will yield more than twice the amount of data. Please note that total study time includes data analysis and delivery of a comprehensive report on the results of the study that includes a summary, set of recommendations, and detailed findings.

The distinct advantages of the online method of qualitative research over in-person include:
  • Computer-mediated interactions foster candidness, thoughtfulness, and essay-type responses
  • Time is used efficiently and more data are collected
  • Biasing effects due to the physical presence of others are eliminated
  • Data can be collected in a naturalistic setting and at the time of the event under study
  • Multi-media and text-based data are collected and integrated
  • Data are better organized and easily sortable for subgroup analyses
  • Automatic transcription
  • Logistics are minimized
  • Less expensive
  • No travel, no time out of the office, and no carbon footprint

Embracing new technologies to improve market research practices has a long history in our industry. From a review of the history of market research over the past few decades, it is immediately apparent that advances in technology have created a number of improved study conditions in efficiency, cost and control.

When market research began, the sole method for data collection was in-person. Eventually, the advent of computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) gave rise to enhancements in key study dimensions. This new technology provided greater control of data collection and systematic treatment of respondents, more precise measurement, improved sample usage and quota structure management, flawless execution of skip patterns embedded in surveys, closer representation of a sample to a target population, and faster data delivery. Of course, CATI was considerably less expensive than in-person, too, all things being equal. Then, online research became a revolution for the market industry, bringing with it even better improvements along these lines and, again, drastically drove down study costs.

So, the idea of leveraging technology to improve conditions for market research to be performed is about as old as the industry itself. As such, one might argue that it behooves the professional market researcher to be vigilant in seeking opportunities to leverage technology to improve quality, reduce time spent and associated costs. However, while history shows that technology improvements have provided distinct benefits for quantitative research, perhaps the time is upon us for qualitative research to reap similar benefits. Surely, online focus groups have been around for quite some time, typically done as a substitute for standard, facility-based ones when the target population is geographically dispersed. But the confluence of conditions that have turned millions of people into “professional bloggers” and the current status of Internet connectivity and digital technology has made the notion of conducting online ethnographies, IDIs, and group discussions very plausible, if not compelling.

As it is, ever-increasing numbers of consumers are becoming comfortable and adept at blogging their opinions each day. With the advancement in digital technology and broadband connectivity, consumers are able to view research stimuli that are sent to them, and also upload images and video they send in to studies that serve as important data and are tied to their text-based input. In these exchanges, the qualitative researcher can obtain rich, symbolic data, create field notes, and collect the artifacts that would otherwise be provided in a traditional ethnography. More to the point, that researcher does so without the obtrusiveness of being on-site, eliminates the cost and logistical restrictions of traveling and scheduling, and yet is still able to immerse him or herself in the culture of the behavior under study.

Market researchers have long known that in achieving certain objectives of any given study, certain trade-off decisions are needed to be made in setting an appropriate course of action to proceed. These trade-offs are typically a matter of balancing quality, speed, and cost, e.g., a study needs to be high quality and completed quickly, therefore it will be expensive. Rarely does it occur when market researchers can offer a scenario without any trade-offs, but rather obtain something better, faster, and less expensive. Yet, these are exactly the benefits that can be enjoyed by using blogspace as the data collection medium for qualitative research as opposed to in-person, in-home, or other forms of on-site, in-person, F2F research methods. In essence, today’s technology-enhanced online qualitative studies enable researchers to have their cake and the opportunity to eat it, too.