Is online qualitative research as effective as in-person research?

By:  Shelley Miller, April Bell Research Group
We’ve had some of our long-term clients wanting to explore
different ways to ‘replicate’ in-person focus groups online. Surprisingly, this
is being driven not only by time and money constraints but also by scheduling
conflicts.  Although in-person qual facilitates
the kind of rapport and connection that is challenging to replicate online, we
also believe conducting online qual can give insight ‘ if you use the right
methodology and platform for the objective.
We currently have a great bulletin board platform (Recollective) we use for gaining
in-depth exploration into consumer’s habits and practices ‘ it’s a great tool
and we use it often as a supplement to in-person.
But finding the right tool to ‘replicate’ an in-person
experience ‘ where stimuli can be shown and feedback can be given in context
requires a synchronous platform (not a bulletin board ‘ asynchronous platform)
So we recently renewed our discovery process to review new
platforms and we were pleasantly surprised by how advanced the technology has
become. Although not perfect, it’s clear that many of them have become more  ‘researcher friendly.’ So, while it can seem
overwhelming based on the number of options available, we found the following
process can help narrow the choices in order to choose the best platform for
your needs.
the Experience:
With so many bells and whistles, it’s easy to get swept
away with a lot of the features available. 
We found as we were doing demos, that clarity was found if we focused on
what the experience would look and feel like as we were conducting the
Decide: Asynchronous
or Synchronous?
  There are pros and
cons of each but both can be beneficial based on what you are trying to learn.
For example, Asynchronous is great for ‘exploration’ or ‘going deep’ with individual
consumers while allowing flexibility for both the researcher and respondents;
however, the analysis is typically more disjointed and time-consuming.
Synchronous platforms, on the other hand, require a specific ‘meet up’ time.  They work well when you want group feedback
(ex: stimuli) because they allow data to flow in context ‘ and the analysis is
Text only or Webcam?
  This is an
important step when determining which platform to use because some platforms
are better at conducting Webcam interviews/groups (Intervu by
FocusVision) while others provide a great Text Chat Group feature (Inside Heads and Visions Live).  Again, there are pros and cons to each method
that should be carefully evaluated based on your client team’s wishes. For
example, Text Chat Groups do not allow you to see and hear respondents while Webcam
groups require much more technology requirements.
Creating an ‘evaluation process’ not only helped us identify
the right platform for the need, it also helped us overcome technology
‘overwhelm’ and create excitement for a shiny, new research tool!