International Issue 2018/2019, Seite 44 | 18-09-44-1

Mind the Tech

Is the Future of Qualitative Research Digital?

A market research world without online communities and all the new technologies is unthinkable. Still Edward Appleton pleads to not forget first-hand experiences – for quality’s sake.
Foto: © robu_s – fotolia.com
The reality of qualitative research is changing apace – the days where it was mainly about focus groups and in-depth interviews
are long gone.
• A typical qualitative project in 2018 is likely to be multi-modal, involving any number of approaches – social media analysis, workshops, co-creation sessions, mobile ethnographies, semiotic decoding and cultural interpretation for example.
• Organisational structures have also moved on: Agencies with qualitative legacies are increasingly beefing up their analytics departments to offer seamless qual-quant solutions; having an in-house IT function is very common. Analytics is something that qualitative researchers are increasingly seeing as a potential opportunity.
• Conceptual thinking has moved to embrace contemporary theories of human behaviour and motivation such as Behavioural Economics. Triangulation is increasingly the norm. Qualitative research is now also comfortable with online methods. Take a look at the Top 10 emerging methods documented by the 2017 Q3/Q4 GRIT report – 4 of them are qualitative, powered by digital (fig. 1).

Happy Thinking People | Fachartikel zur Marktforschung | Fig. 1

Easy Digitalisation

The advantages of online in qualitative research are proven – corresponding critically to pressures from clients for quicker turnarounds, more actionability, more iterations, lower costs. Just take one aspect – the ability to iterate smoothly. Historically that was challenging in quality – recruitment was ad hoc, projects bumped along in a stopstart mode, with iterations more onerous. With digital it’s much easier – online communities for example that run over the period of weeks can encompass multiple phases, tasks, with the same people involved; concept building is massively easier, and much easier to link smoothly to the insights part. The central role of Online Communities (MROCs) in transforming what qual can do and its standing amongst the client side community is perhaps underplayed. They have been around for a while, as the overview of the development of qualitative research below shows (fig. 2). But as the 2017 GRIT report reveals, MROCs are very widely adopted. To call them an emerging method isn’t accurate any more – MROCs are part of the new normal.

Happy Thinking People | Fachartikel zur Marktforschung | Fig. 2

MROCs – a Review

Time to take a closer look at what they can do, how they have evolved and why they are so popular. Happy Thinking People first started working with Online Communities in 2007 – we were amongst the first in Germany to work with them. Since then we have executed over 400 communities across 40 countries and over 100,000 days spent with different consumers! A look back at the recent past is useful. There are three main developmental phases:

Phase 1: 2007 – 2009
“Big Bang” best describes the excitement of the breakthrough of being able to access real-life glimpses into people’s lives across continents, from the comfort of one’s own desk. Participants sharing pictures, videos, all sorts of minutiae, plus the ability for both researchers and clients to observe the fieldwork as it unfolds. Ethnographic options opened up dramatically. One project we conducted in Turkey exploring female body shaving worked very well via our online community; trying to do that face-to-face would have caused massive challenges.
Phase 2: 2009 – 2013
“Globally Playful.” Functionalities evolved, becoming more interactive and playful, using collages, drag and drop, mappings, quick polls….MROCs became exploratory and evaluative. Closed-ended questions could now be thrown into the mix too. Participants loved it, they spent more time online and uploaded more content. Great for clients as well - watching online, participating via the moderator, sometimes adding tasks as the community progressed, building iteratively and efficiently on findings from the day before.
Phase 3: 2014 – the present
“Mobile Rocks MROCs”. As smartphone screen sizes increased, and photo/video functions improved significantly, MROCs embraced mobile. Out-of-home moments became more accessible, for example, more vividly captured. Question and answer formats can easily be replaced by videos with a task, making them more playful; clients can easily get directly involved.

 Bringing Clients Closer to the Consumer

Which brings us to the present: MROCs are modern mainstream, proving their versatility and usefulness for all involved, and are no doubt playing a key role in more and more project designs being digital-only.
One example: We recently conducted a three country innovation project across two continents amongst foodies that worked well on our community platform. Foodies were asked to share what inspired them most in their city, uploading comments on others’ posts, pictures, meals, then come up with their own meal ideas, which were structured into positioning platforms. Evaluative gallery walks worked well online, cross-country insights were generated. English worked well for all audiences across geography. In summary: MROCs represent a very contemporary form of research, often imitating social media habits, with lots of sharing, enhancing, show-casing. They critically bring clients closer to their consumers with relatively low effort.

Online Has Its Limits

Which leads us to the overwhelming question: Do we even “need” face-to-face at all in qualitative research? Predictions of the “death of the Focus Group” are familiar and exaggerated. But are we arriving at a point where we should question the inexorable rise of digital – is it really making qualitative research more effective? Are we in danger of seeing digital qual as a default option?
• Firstly, online isn’t always faster. We recently conducted a splitsample study on the drinks category – identical objectives, audience, knowledge needs, but with one cell using Focus Groups, the other an Online Community. The outputs were similar – same depth of understanding, granularity. The one difference: The results from the Focus Groups were available a whole week quicker than the online cell. The reason for this – a moderator can only properly start the analysis in a community once it’s completed, and that can be on the very last day, depending on participant “compliance”. With groups, it’s much faster – top-lines in particular can be generated within the space of a day, if not the same evening.
Secondly, ethnographies and immersions are best done in person, in situ. There is no substitute for walking alongside someone, or for clients experiencing the reality of their customers’ lives. Often the most interesting things are said when an interview is officially over, the recorder switched off – then people open up. Brands need to avoid losing the emotional connection and intimacy with their audiences.
• Thirdly, there are global cultural differences that need respecting. Attempting an online community in India for example is challenging where being interrupted is normal. People in the sub-continent don’t have a tradition of sitting down quietly on their own with a computer. In China the challenge is different – ensuring the researcher really has access to an individual’s opinion. What often happens is a “group effect” whereby participants read others’ entries and imitate what they consider the “best” response. This isn’t plagiarism – but it does limit breadth of response.
• Fourthly, there are less developed areas of the world where MROCs are limited due to connectivity issues, power breakdowns for example. And within countries, it’s always important to pilot to check how suitable a topic is for a given audience, and whether they really use digital with total comfort. This is less an issue of demographics – it’s becoming common for MROCs to embrace audiences from 16 to 70 years of age – more of the suitability of the topic in question.

First-Hand Experience

To conclude, and returning to the initial question: Will the future of qualitative research be solely, wholly digital? Caution is advised. However sexy, tech advances shouldn’t blind us to the power of small data, however gathered. Context, emotion, culture are arguably at their most powerful when experienced first-hand. Digital ethnographies are affordable proxies, but shouldn’t be confused with real ethnographies. We should also be mindful of tech over-claims (remember the last IT project that came in on time and on budget? No, me neither) and the role of financial backers and IPOs, who have other interests in mind than validity, replicability, or a great research outcome.

Decreasing Productivity

The rise of IT over the last 15 years hasn’t actually coincided with a concomitant increase in global productivity. Rather the opposite.It’s certainly premature to estimate the impact of AI and “scalable qual”, engaging with thousands of people globally rather than say 30, instantly coding and sorting media-enriched responses, often video. But is this about the power of numbers – or rather the re-assurance of larger sample sizes? We remain in a world that is data-rich but arguably still insights poor. If digital can help empower qualitative researchers on their quest to be genuine consumer-centric consultants, well and good. But we need to be mindful. MR quality is fragile, an easy victim in the hands of people (often techies) with little or no social science training. There is no such thing as an instant insight, to be accessed on tap.

Pro Confidence

Qualitative researchers are increasingly confident about being tech-users, embracing the opportunities digital brings, fusing legacy best practices with new digital tools as they emerge, testing and proving methodically. MROCs have certainly proven their worth in that respect. So here’s raising our glasses and smartphones to MROCs – and whatever next the wonderful world of tech has to offer. ■
Edward Appleton
is Director Global Marketing & Sales with Happy Thinking People. Edward has worked for over 20 years in market research on both Agency and client side. Prior to his current role, Edward was Senior Insights Manager with Coca-Cola in Berlin; before that he was European Insights Manager at Avery Dennison. His career with Mass Observation UK, which he left to join the Insights team at Nestle UK. He blogs regularly at www.researchandreflect.blogspot.de and for Esomar.

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