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Advantages of online research: Why you should move your project online

Ed Powell 11/4/21 10:30 AM
Advantages of online research: Why you should move your project online

Online research has been around almost as long as the Internet has existed, and after over 20 years of experimentation and iterative development, the types of online research methods available are well defined and highly effective.

Many research projects - particularly qualitative research projects - are still performed offline. Many of these projects will remain offline because that is the best place for them - such as focus groups that involve taste testing or other activities that need to be "in-person" - but other offline projects that may be able to be brought online once the advantages of doing so are understood. It is this last group of projects that we will focus on in this article.


Online vs Offline: A basic overview

There are fundamental advantages to online and offline research that apply regardless of the specifics of the project being undertaken. Many projects can be ruled in or out of being conducted online simply by applying some simple rules.

Offline vs online research

When dealing with large groups of respondents, online is best

It is much easier to find participants who are willing to undertake something online (due to the relative ease of access etc.) and it is cheaper to do so. An extreme example of this is a Web survey for 10,000 respondents. This would be impossible to do offline.

When physical interaction is important, offline is best

As mentioned above, something like focus groups that involve taste-testing would need to be done "in person" as doing it online would be less effective (if not completely impossible).

Groups that need to protect individual anonymity need to be done online

If you want to perform research with a number of people who participate in a group, but you want to keep individual identities hidden, an online chat group or a longer-term online discussion can provide anonymity through nicknames so only the original recruiters know the true identities of the people in the group.

Clients unwilling to consider online can remain offline indefinitely

There are clients who will insist on "keeping things the way they always were". They will not even consider an online focus group to replace a "real life" focus group because they are used to them. This makes the choice simple - doing things the same way they have always been done is a basic requirement to keep some clients happy.

If you're doing a survey, online is already the default choice

"Internet research" - what we now call online market research - was initially more focused on quantitative research than qualitative research. This was primarily seen through the early rise of surveys online. It was quite easy to see the benefits of going online for surveys - having access to large numbers of people for your research process was exciting to researchers who used to have to rely on laborious manual data collection methods.

Another example of where Web surveys are so beneficial is a situation where you want an open link on the Web (or on a social network etc.) to a general survey (for example, a customer satisfaction survey). Rather than having to track people down and convince them to answer a survey in person, you provide a simple way to respond to those people who actually want to do so. The number of people who see the survey link is so large that a very low incidence rate doesn't matter - you will still get the research data you need. With such strong advantages, it's not surprising that Web surveys were firmly entrenched as a mature research method years ago.


Online research methods: Key Advantages

To understand what advantages there may be in moving to online research methods, you need to consider the wide range of options available and look at each of them in turn.

As we have discussed, the idea of using something like an online survey is nothing new. On the other hand, for many people "online focus groups" sound like an interesting concept, but they have no idea what it actually means. There's no handbook of online research methods to turn to for the uninitiated, so let's run through what options there are to move research online for both qualitative and
quantitative researchers...

Web Surveys

Not much to add here that hasn't already been said - they are heavily used in quantitative research and are widely understood by most researchers to be a great way to conduct research online.

Key Advantages

    1. Getting to a large group of people is easier and cheaper
    2. There are many very mature platforms available, offering a wide range of question types
    3. A lot of intelligence can be built into the survey process - quotas for people of certain types, branching and jumping based on rules, and randomisation of answers to minimise bias are just some of the things that can not be replicated on paper.

Web Surveys

Online Focus Groups

The best description of "online focus groups" would be "online methods that can be used to provide as closely as possible the same insights as an in-person focus group". The unnecessary use of face-to-face focus groups is one of the most common instances of research being conducted offline even though online qualitative research could provide equally good qualitative data. This can be due to many factors, including a lack of understanding of the benefits provided by online alternatives.

There are two main options available to take focus groups online - video and chat.

Online Video Groups

This is the most common form of an online focus group. It involves getting together a group of people for a group video chat. One of the most common tools to achieve this is Zoom, as it provides good functionality at a cheap price.

Key Advantages

    1. Participants do not need to travel to a physical location, so there is no travel time or cost.

    2. There is no need to pay for a group room for people to attend.

    3. The pool of participants and moderators who can be used is much broader because the location is no longer a factor.

    4. Participants can still be seen by the moderator, allowing reactions to still be observed when they are presented with concepts, products etc.

    5. Transcription and translation can occur in real-time.


Video Focus Groups

Online Chat Groups

Chat groups are similar to a Whatsapp group - where everyone is interacting by typing into a chat. In fact, Whatsapp is one option for a very basic chat group. Research platforms that provide online chat groups offer significantly more than a basic Whatsapp group by extending the chat to include a virtual whiteboard that can be used to show concepts to participants.

Key Advantages

    1. The first three advantages of video groups also apply to chat groups.

    2. Participants can not be seen (since it's only chat) but the loss of the ability to visually observe someone is replaced by different benefits. Online chats can be much more private (participants may only be known by their nickname) and are perfect for more sensitive subjects.

    3. Transcription is unnecessary - the chat is the transcript! Translation occurs in real-time on some platforms so that moderators can follow the chat in their own language as people converse.


Macbook Air-1-1

Online Interviews (IDIs)

Individual interviews share many of the traits of focus groups and therefore can benefit from many of the same capabilities of online alternatives. If anything, taking interviews online is more beneficial in many instances than focus groups because:

    1. Following a conversation between just an interviewer and one participant is perfect for video. Little to no talking over one another or missing any reactions.

    2. Interviews can be spread out because there is no physical location that the interviewer is attending.

    3. The nature of online interviews is that they don't involve group activities (there's no group!) so there is less of a likelihood that the interviewer and participant need to be physically together.

Online interviews, therefore, have a substantial number of advantages over the offline alternative and represents perhaps the greatest opportunity to benefit from taking your research online.

Key Advantages

    1. All the key advantages of Video Focus Groups mentioned above apply to online interviews.

    2. Managing multiple appointments is much easier for a moderator when the interviews are done online because they can be spread out without worrying about the cost of an interview location.

    3. Transcription and advanced video analytics can pull together common themes and opinions easily, making the analysis of many hours of interviews feasible (particularly important since interviews are fewer people per interview, but many more hours of total video to watch/process).

    4. Advanced platforms split interviews into "chapters" or "topics", making it easy to see parts of each video that relate to one specific part of the interview. This is important because there are many people talking about the same things in different videos, and bringing it all together is much harder if the interview is offline.


Online Interview

Short Term Communities

Short term communities have many names - including discussions, bulletin boards and simply "communities". For the purposes of this discussion, they are any online community that runs for a number of days or weeks and then come to an end. They are "ad-hoc" in nature - once the project is done, the community is over.

Researchers who use online communities aren't usually using them as a replacement for an offline alternative. They are to qualitative data collection what a Web survey is to quantitative data collection - a research method that has no equal in the offline world (paper surveys are simply not even an option). They don't replace offline research methods - they create new ways to ask research questions, using the benefits afforded by the internet, social media, big data and various social techniques that can only be conducted online.

The multi-day nature of short-term communities is one of their greatest strengths. I spread out the work to be done by participants, leading to many benefits.

Key Advantages

    1. By spreading the research into multiple days, you lower the risk of respondent fatigue.

    2. Because they are online, respondents can "dip in and out" of a community at their convenience over the multiple days/weeks it is open.

    3. Moderators can identify problems with participant responses, and get them corrected by the respondent on their next visit.

    4. "Conversations" can occur over multiple days/weeks between the moderator and respondents, or between the respondents themselves, allowing ideas to be discussed in more detail, and deeper insights to be extracted.

    5. Regular tasks can be tracked like a "diary", allowing participant behaviour to be understood over a period of time.

    6. Tasks that require effort and planning can be requested but can occur at a time convenient to a participant. An example would be the need to diarise a shopping trip to a particular shop. The participant could perform the task at a time that suited them during the time the community is open.

    7. The breadth of tasks is very broad. Researchers can choose from many different digital versions of tasks such as placing pins on an advertisement to show things that are liked or disliked, creating digital mood boards, recording video, making audio recordings, completing mini-surveys and many other things. The time available to participants affords a much broader range of options than even some other online research methods.


Discussions_Short term communities


Ideation is the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas. This process is still most commonly performed offline, and often researchers have no idea that there is an online alternative to the process.

Running ideation online is usually done as part of a standard short-term community, but it has some very specific capabilities and benefits that make it worth a specific mention on its own.

When running ideation online, there are at least three stages, with an optional fourth stage as follows:

    1. Collect ideas from participants

    2. Review. modify, merge and remove ideas to come up with a final list of viable ideas

    3. Allow participants to choose their preferred ideas from this final list (often done like a vote - you have 10 votes, and you can give the ideas you like between 1 and 5 votes until you have used all 10 of your votes)

    4. Optionally present the final results to the participants

The need to run through a multi-step process and massage the ideas presented into a meaningful set of final ideas to be voted on tends to lead researchers into the belief that this all needs to be done in person in a focus group. There are online platforms, however, that can deal with the process well, so going online is a good option in many cases.

Key Advantages

    1. An ideation process can be run over multiple days, rather than in a single sitting.

    2. Clients can optionally be part of the online research process - working with the market research professional to review and curate the ideas put forward by participants.

    3. Any mix of client-created and participant created ideas can be mixed together with no ability for participants to distinguish between them.

    4. Ideas are automatically tabulated based on popularity, with every vote joined by a comment explaining why the participant voted that way.

    5. The optional ability in some online platforms to allow "downvotes" in the voting, makes it possible to highlight ideas that are polarising.




Conclusion: Taking market research online

So far we have looked at how specific online research methods can provide advantages based on the specifics of each method. I now want to take a step back and talk about data collection generally, because regardless of what market research you intend to conduct, there are some global benefits that always need to be factored in.

Online research methods are cheaper

Pretty much without exception, going online will save money. This has nothing to do with whether the internet is the right place for the research, what method you choose, whether there is a good virtual alternative to conducting offline or anything else - it is purely about the cost.

Unfortunately, everyone in market research knows how much clients love things to be cheaper. At the very least it would mean in cases where online qualitative research is likely to be good enough, it should be chosen to save money.

Online research is easier

While this is a very subjective view, I think it is fair to say that online research is easier than offline research most of the time. As long as you use one of the more mature platforms available, in addition to the budgetary efficiency benefits already mentioned, there are many other advantages.

These advantages include faster delivery, greater ease of set up (including the removal of all the logistics required to get moderators and participants into the one place), the improved eagerness of interviewees to take part (it's so much easier for them to be involved) and easier reporting (including the ability to review data immediately as it comes in).

Online qualitative research will continue to expand regardless

The fact that your competitors will be using online tools as much as possible (often due to the cost savings), together with developments in the technology, the rise of mobile phones for quick access, the growth of social networks normalising sharing of opinions and various other factors, will inevitably lead to the growing use of online research.

Therefore, being ahead of the curve, or at least part of the movement as it happens, will "future-proof" what you can offer clients moving forward.

Online research takes analysis to the "next level"

While there can always be arguments about whether online or offline is better for a particular research project, there can be no argument that the digital assets created by online research lend themselves to quicker and often richer analysis.

As technology improves, the types of analysis available will continue to grow. One of the more recent types of analysis that has taken the market research industry by storm is the use of video analytics. Platforms now have tools that can take a video, produce a word-accurate transcript, perform sentiment analysis on it and search for key themes. These types of tools can turn 10 hours of video you barely have time to watch into a structured set of data that can be quickly trawled for key insights.


Next steps to consider for moving online

The next steps you should consider if you are thinking of moving online are:

    1. Reviewing upcoming projects to identify opportunities to go online

    2. Researching platforms that can be used to run online projects

    3. Putting in place a plan to "test the waters" with an initial project.

Do your research, and start making the move. You won't regret it.

Good luck!



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