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Research Firm Proves There's More to Online Qualitative Than the Bulletin Board Focus Group

If you’ve done one online qualitative research project, most likely it was a bulletin board focus group – that was the case for Insights in Marketing, which completed its first bulletin board focus group in 2008. Today, with many online projects under its belt and more in the hopper, as well as a newly created consulting department dedicated to online work, the Wilmette, Ill.-based research firm is proving that there’s much more to online qual research than the bulletin board focus group.

We recently chatted with Jessica Ritzo, marketing consultant and head of online qualitative for Insights in Marketing. In the interview below, she shares some of the interesting ways her company has used online research software and offers a few tips to online qualitative newbies:

So you got to the company in August 2010? Can you tell us more about the company’s first online qualitative research project after you joined?

Insights in Marketing had conducted some online qualitative before 2010, but it was within the last year or so that the company fully realized the potential benefits of growing online capabilities and services. The first online project we did after I came aboard was an online bulletin board focus group focused on advertising development, conducted with professionals in the insurance industry. We were working to assess the degree to which an ad campaign resonated with the target audience. We recommended conducting this research online for a couple of reasons. First, we knew that we didn’t have a particularly large sample from which to recruit, but since we weren’t limited to specific markets, using online would enable us to cast a much wider net and recruit nationally. Second, we knew that these professionals had very busy schedules that often involved a great deal of travel.

Leveraging the asynchronous format of an online bulletin board discussion allowed us to fit into their schedules in a way that was very convenient for them and respectful of their time. While we were already experienced in conducting online qual in general and online bulletin boards in particular, this was a new approach for our client – but they understood our reasons for recommending it and were comfortable giving it a try. And, ultimately, they were quite happy with the results.

A subsequent project had to do with online journaling, right? But you didn’t use online journaling software. Tell us more about that?

We’ve used both online journaling and online bulletin board software for research involving blogging/online journaling. While both tools can work well for shorter and longer-term projects, I’ve found that online bulletin board software is a better fit for projects that may require more moderator/respondent interaction over the course of the fieldwork, since it allows for more active probing.

As one example, we conducted a recent project involving in-home product usage testing with consumers over a four-week period. We placed the product with participants, provided assignments of how we would like them to use the product, and asked them to log on and tell us about their experiences with the product. In addition to consumers sharing their experiences through text, they were able to share photos and videos showing how they used the product (including some very creative uses we hadn’t expected) and how it performed in their homes day-to-day. Because we anticipated a need for a fair amount of probing during this research, we utilized 20/20’s QualBoard platform rather than an online journaling platform such as 20/20’s QualJournal.

What are some other examples of “beyond bulletin board focus group” projects you’ve done? We’ve also done quite a lot of real-time online qualitative, including online focus groups and one-on-one in-depth-interviews. Additionally, we’ve conducted a good amount of website usability and development research online, most recently using 20/20’s QualMeeting. This works very well since we’re able to talk face-to-face with the participant while enabling screen sharing, so it’s very much like sitting right next to them (except they’re relaxed and comfortable in their homes or offices, rather than being at a focus group facility).

Additionally, just as we do with our in-person qualitative work, it’s not unusual for us to create hybrid methodologies to best meet the research objectives. So, this may mean weaving together multiple online approaches or combining online with more traditional approaches within the same study. Really, it comes down to identifying the most effective methodology for each individual project.

Sounds like you’re an old pro. Do you find that there’s a learning curve with online qualitative research and using online research software?

Yes, I think so, just like with any research approach. Additionally, what I find really interesting with online qual in particular is that it’s still very much evolving, with new approaches being developed all the time. So, it’s definitely something you need to keep up with to ensure that you are recommending and using the most appropriate methodologies.

Any mistakes or pitfalls you think new online qualitative researchers should be aware of before starting their first project?

One of the biggest challenges with online research, particularly when it’s purely text-based, is maintaining participant engagement, since you’re not physically right there in the room with them. Several steps on the part of the researcher can help drive engagement levels, including setting clear and appropriate expectations up front in terms of participants’ level of involvement and time commitment, and then rewarding participants for following through.

Additionally, when conducting online qual such as bulletin board focus groups, the moderator must also be engaged in order to get the same in return. In other words, you don’t just set up a bulletin board focus group, load your questions and then walk away and expect it to yield great results. Even with blogging, which is very much participant-driven, it definitely helps to have a moderator connect with respondents to let them know there is a real person “listening.”

I find sometimes that researchers who are new to online qual tend to step back a bit too much, rather being actively involved. While it’s not the same as moderating an in-person focus group, the moderator’s role is crucial nonetheless.