Online qual – always read the label

Qual researchers are a highly inventive bunch. At the Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research in Prague last month, presenters showcased methodologies from film to collaging, sleepovers, photography and comic strips. There was virtual reality, and some companies were advocating putting CEOs on buses to better understand their audiences.

It seems like quallies will make use of any suitable approach to reach the answer. Which is why it seemed significant that, when it came to the presentations about online qual, there was a general sense of resistance, or even hostility. Some delegates commented that ‘quality qual’ is being diluted by online into a thinner, more superficial exercise. I was curious. Does online qual really represent a slip in quality? Is it more superficial? Or are qual researchers just being inflexible in the face of something new and different?

My thinking about online research starts from my own experience with ‘pop-up’ quant. I view it as a blunt tool with an edge on cost and speed – the research consultant understands and weighs up the risks of applying it. Why isn’t there the same pragmatism around online qual?

I think some of the negativity comes because the sellers are using the wrong language – they’re fundamentally insulting the qual research buyer. I recommend an overhaul of product labelling in the category. ‘Online qual’ is used for a whole bundle of web activities whose outputs are in the form of natural language. This clumsy focus on the form of the data, without regard for its meaning or quality, is what makes hackles rise. If you think quallies just gather opinions, you’ve got me mixed up with my tape recorder. If you think they just analyse information, you’re missing the difference between primary and secondary research sources.

At the Prague conference, ‘online qual’ was used to cover web-scraping and ‘Twitter-trawling’ – the research equivalent of eavesdropping at a nightclub. You might get the right answer, but when is it the best approach?

The term was also used to describe searching forums for brand mentions, or piggybacking existing forums. These activities can give a sense of what’s going on, but again, they’re secondary sources. Neither gives reliable understanding of who the respondent is, or when and why they might seek to control the external impression they present of themselves. Regardless of emoticons and exclamation marks, you cannot tell how strongly they feel.

Bundling in these ‘literature review’ tools with primary research methods generates profound irritation: they can be useful, but there’s a lot to watch out for. Why risk your reputation if you can do groups instead? Having said that, there are other types of online qual that researchers feel more comfortable with.

Firstly there are MROCs (market research online communities). These are purposely-created spaces where respondents are drawn together to work on tasks online. This is where researchers start to feel happier. You know the degree of risk the project can bear. The respondents are pre-screened. You build reflection time (which can significantly change responses) into the design. There’s a lot to do in managing an MROC, but essentially you’re able to confidently generate and test hypotheses with these people because you understand their general properties.

Secondly there are virtual focus groups – although for me, this label is problematic. Like MROCs these are recruited and screened beforehand, but unlike MROCs there’s no opportunity for reflection unless you reconvene. If you do it in text form, respondents can post visuals and write. If you do it by webcam, you get their body language too – a part of the data stream that can make all the difference in some projects. Quallies are not against distance methods per se.

Once you’ve made these distinctions, reframed your language to avoid offence, and accepted that all the tools have merit in certain situations, you realise that online qual and quant are blurring, and just how far the qualitative offer needs to flex. We need to be able to advise on the relative research merits of all these tools – primary or secondary, qual or quant. Or be left as a specialist data gatherer.

Resistance to ‘online qual’ reflects, I think, a proper concern that the people talking about it don’t always understand research. Quallies will embrace anything that gets them closer to where their clients need to be, and we’ve been waiting a long time for the technology. For me, it’s on the cusp of delivering and mixed methodology is where most of us feel comfortable – for the moment.

But the research landscape is shifting beneath our feet. E-commerce tools are appearing that allow customers to specify in great detail what they’re after, potentially making research into the ‘why’ part of the shopping decision redundant. And as I look at an ad offering ‘virtual focus facilities’, I see clearly the USP of online research – I could one day do it from the comfort of a tropical beach. This raises a different angle on the economic argument – what happens when the client pits a Beijing-centred international study against a Boston-centred one? Qual or quant, we may need to be more flexible than we can imagine.

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