Research News Live

Why we need Online Qual more than ever

After months of managing webcam discussions remotely, many qualitative researchers are now rejoicing at being able to do face-to-face groups again. But are focus groups really fit for purpose today?

I believe researchers should be making the most of asynchronous qualitative research technologies in order to at least enhance (or even replace) ‘real-time’ focus groups.

Asynchronous online qual goes further than real time discussions
Asynchronous online and mobile methods (i.e. when questions are answered in natural contexts, over a few days rather than in real time, often in private) address many of the criticisms levelled at qualitative research today. When used properly they deliver stronger validity, more vivid colour and greater depth. 

To do online qual well requires specialist skills
However, using asynchronous online methods effectively, requires expertise. They generate so much content that it can be hard to cost and resource them efficiently. Also, participants need to be set tasks in ways that motivate them to complete them, make emotional disclosures and stay engaged. Ultimately, to get the most out of online qual methods, you can’t just do things in the same way that you would in face-to-face focus group studies. 

Online Qual Mastery training
In my upcoming training with The Research Society, I will share what I have learned in over 15 years at the forefront of online and mobile qualitative research.  I will cover how to ‘win’, ‘plan’ and ‘run’ better online qualitative research. The focus is on asynchronous methods rather than real time webcam.  I will share how these methods can supplement or even replace real-time methods.   The training is in a Flexible ‘On Demand’ video format so researchers can learn at their convenience and join some live Q&A sessions too.  Click here to find out more about the training.

Focus Groups still offer value
Focus Groups are clearly still relevant. They are efficient (and more profitable for research agencies) because they allow you to speak with multiple people in a short space of time, with a relatively small amount of consultancy time required (since they generate less content). They also bring clients closer to their customer when they are viewed (as clients are more likely to attend them than asynchronous online projects, which are easier to ignore!). However, real time focus groups have some issues too.

Focus groups have flaws
It is difficult to ignore the criticisms levelled at focus groups from within and beyond the market research industry. First, what one participant says, can influence what others say. Also, the formality of the artificial viewing facility setting, reduces the chances that people feel comfortable enough to make full emotional disclosures and it increases the risk that people posture in front of their peers. The field of ‘Behavioural Economics’ (aka ‘psychology’!) has revealed that we are poor witnesses of our own behaviour. Human memory is fallible, and we struggle to accurately recall what we did, why we did it and how we felt. Ultimately, focus groups are prone to human error.

Use asynchronous online qual as a supplement (or replacement)
So how can asynchronous online qual address the shortcomings in traditional, real time focus group discussions? They can either replace real time group discussion or if you structure your study into phases, they can supplement them and become what might typically be called a pre-task (albeit a more in-depth one than might be usually employed).

A qualitative study which includes an initial phase of asynchronous online and mobile qual as a pre-task will give the researcher a big head-start before the real-time discussions.  It can strengthen the validity of what people subsequently say. For example, the researcher can ask participants to keep an online mobile diary to track how they feel and what they do in a given context. The participants can be set tasks like going into a retailer or online and trying to buy something. The act of completing and critically recording the task on their own, means they are far more likely to both remember and feel able to represent their own individual experiences and feelings when it comes to a subsequent group discussion.

The online and mobile pre-tasks are effectively priming people to remember how they really felt and what they really did. They encourage them to represent their individual experiences and to resist the natural urge to conform to what others say. They also give the moderator a set of personalised probes. So, their follow up questions in the focus group will be far more poignant, relevant and effective.

This asynchronous online qual phase will also create colourful, multi-media content which will brings the final report to life far more vividly than any verbatim. The researcher can also use participants’ performance in the initial phase as a recruitment filter to work out who is most relevant and articulate for the subsequent focus group phase. The asynchronous online qual phase will also deepen and accelerate rapport which helps with the real time group discussions. 

If you want to learn how to use asynchronous online and mobile qualitative research as an effective pre-task for focus groups (or to replace them), so that you can get more ‘in the moment’ feedback, stronger validity and richer colour, then check out the FlexiMasterclass – Mastering Online & Mobile Qualitative Research.

Tom Woodnutt
founder of Feeling Mutual

Tom Woodnutt is a multi-award winning online qualitative research expert and founder of Feeling Mutual.  He has been using online methods for over 15 years, works with many global brands and provides training for leading agencies.


About The Research Society 1094 Articles
The Research Society is the peak body for research, insights and analytics professionals in Australia. It has a diverse membership of individuals at all levels of experience and seniority within agencies, consultancies, client-side organisations, the non-profit and government sectors, support services as well as institutions and the academic community. As well as over 2,000 individual members, the Research Society has 125+ company and client partners, with the number continuing to grow. The Research Society research professionals and company partners commit to and are regulated by the Research Society Code of Professional Behaviour.