Online vs Onsite Qual: How to Make the Choice?

The explosion of technology and connectivity has also allowed researchers to undertake new ways of gathering data from online surveys to massive datasets for machine learning and analytics. With smartphones, it’s also made qualitative research convenient and more interesting by allowing us to conduct qual research anywhere. At the same time, traditional qual isn’t going anywhere either. So how do we choose?

Let’s first look at their pros and cons.

Pros Cons
 Onsite
  • In-person interactions are generally richer, especially between participants.
  • The opportunity to see people’s reactions to concepts and thought process as well as the emotions that play on their faces. Non-verbal communication gives rich insights as to a person’s mental state and feelings.
  • Focus. The participants are there…in the room…and their attention is on the task at hand fully.
  • Expense. There are more capital costs associated with being in-person than online. The facility. Travel. They all contribute to the bottom line.
  • Locations. Depending on your consumers, you may be limited to specific areas of the country due to incidence.
 Online
  • You can take a broad swath sample of the entire country. You have no limits on location and where you can draw from
  • The opportunity to pursue in situ assessments of behavior and product usage. Especially with mobile devices you can see how people shop and get from them why they are doing it in the moment.
  • You can have a far longer engagement with your participants online because simply put: it’s less immediately intrusive…but…
  • …It requires people to commit to longer term groups. While this is also a strength, it can be a problem (especially if the guide and moderation are not high quality). Drop out can take a large toll.
  • Stakeholder engagement can suffer. There may be only one or two stakeholders in the virtual backroom on a regular basis and consequently insightful questions that they would ask in a live group simply don’t get asked.
  • Interpersonal engagement is lower. There’s less personal connection when interacting online so the cross talk you get online is not as rich as onsite.

So how do you choose between onsite and online?

  1. What is your budget? A smaller budget may necessitate online qual. Some information is better than none at all, and traditional qual research requires more than one city to get a good read.
  2.  What does your consumer market look like? Are they spread thinly over the US? Do you have a low gen pop incidence? Again…think about online qual. You can reach your audience and potential customers much more readily and at a more effective ROI. Otherwise, high gen pop incidence and high usage rates in markets with (good) research facilities may lead you to a more traditional route.
  3. Understanding behavior. I’d lean towards online qual for this. A good moderator can dig deep into the drivers of behavior in the real world but there is no substitute for being able to ask “Why?” at key points in purchase process.
  4. Focus and Control.  If you want to be certain your participants are focused on the task at hand, you need to be in-person with them.
  5. Stakeholder perceptions. When trying to crack stakeholders’ beliefs about consumers and their product, live feedback cannot be discounted. Hearing from their audience that’s just in the next room over can help a jaded exec re-evaluate their strategy and turn the ship away from poor choices.

The choice  comes down to what feels right for my clients. If they simply aren’t comfortable with online qual, I don’t do it. I might still recommend it but they need to trust the insights I deliver.

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