When Online Qual Research Became the Default

In 2020 a global pandemic hit, impacting individuals and businesses on a significant level. Among the businesses to be impacted was the market research industry. For some, business came to a standstill, for others, they were forced and able to adapt. Now, just over two years on, a noticeable shift has occurred in attitudes and behaviours both on a business and individual level.

For market research, specifically qualitative research, one of the noticeable shifts has been the default for research interviews to be held online rather than face-to-face. Even though COVID restrictions have relaxed and normality appears to be returning (at least for some markets), face-to-face research continues to appear the less obvious choice.

So why has this shift away from in-person interviews proven to be irreversible to date?

Firstly, it must be noted that there are a few markets where some COVID restrictions for face-to-face research are still in place (hard for those of us in the UK to fully recall!). Slovakia and (to some extent) Norway are among those where we have recently been told face-to-face is still not an option. And for global research agencies where a consistent methodology (whenever possible) is best practice, this means when those markets in question are in the equation, the possibility for face-to-face research is still not an option.

Ok, but what about when the markets with no restrictions are the only ones of interest?

Pre-pandemic, although online research was a viable methodology, it was still seen, by end clients and research specialists alike, as the less favourable, almost “compensatory”, option in comparison to face-to-face. However, the necessary use of online research during the pandemic caused many to see more of the benefits that online research has to offer, over and above face-to-face research, and shifted the perception away from the assumption ‘face-to-face is always best’.

That being said, as a qualitative researcher working through the pandemic there are many elements of face-to-face research that I miss, and now when a brief falls onto our lap, that ‘screams’ face-to-face, I can’t deny that my eyes light up.

From my perspective, there are still elements of face-to-face research that are not achievable through online research alone.

  • Face to face enables you to see more, including those non-verbal cues/behaviours and adds another dimension to the discussion.
  • The absence of the screen removes an invisible boundary and enables you to build rapport more quickly with the respondent (something which is particularly important for facilitating a good research discussion).
  • There are no risks of technical issues and by having the respondent in the room with you, they are ‘forced’ to stay present and therefore more likely to remain fully engaged for the duration of the discussion.

And of course, working in a setting where we are focused on devices (as well as tech) the importance of being able to hold and feel concepts and products is heightened. We can probably all recall an instance when someone said they liked/hated the idea of something, but when they held it their opinion changed.

We would do a disservice to our clients, our respondents and the prospective health market to solely rely on online methodologies.

That being said, online holds it place as a contending methodology and its benefits have been heightened post-pandemic.

  • Online is more accessible for a wide-ranging audience.
  • For healthcare research in particular, it opens up the doors for the harder to reach audiences who are either restricted by time and/or mobility.
  • Online adds an element of convenience and can in turn increase the feasibility of the recruit.
  • For discussions relating to typical behaviours, respondents are often in their most familiar setting and have visual cues all around them to add detail in their responses that they may not have remembered if they were in an unfamiliar location (such as a viewing facility).
  • When discussing sensitive topics, respondents may feel more comfortable/relaxed/less anxious when in their natural environments and in turn, naturally become more open, providing us with richer insight as a result.

Nevertheless, whichever methodology is selected due to suitability, feasibility, or preference, it’s about ensuring the correct parameters are put in place to maximize chances of achieving the most meaningful and valuable insight.

For example, in the context of face-to-face research:

  • Considerations should be made around the accessibility of the location (e.g., close to a central bus/train station).
  • Convenient time slots should be offered based on the target audiences’ typical daily schedules.
  • Incentives should factor in not only the respondents’ time, but travel and effort costs as well.

When you consider online research:

  • Ensure respondents are clear on the technical set-up prior to the interview.
  • Allow a time cushion at the start of the interview to allow for any unforseen technical issues to be resolved without impacting on the actual interview time.
  • If time allows, set up a test meeting with the respondent prior to the interview.
  • Encourage the camera to be turned on whenever possible to better simulate a face-to-face setting.
  • Select an online platform which is the most intuitive and familiar to the respondent to facilitate ease of access, particularly for those less tech-savvy or tech averse.
  • Ensure respondents are clear on the requirement for minimal distractions to ensure they remain engaged with the discussion throughout.

For now, it appears the new dynamic between face-to-face and online research is here to stay (at least for a while). Whether face-to-face research will one day be phased out entirely is another topic for debate. However, having just conducted a round of face-to-face research I’m feeling invigorated, and I am personally not prepared to say goodbye to this methodology just yet.


Article written by Leanna Appleby