Five reasons to try online research

When online methodologies burst onto the qualitative research scene over five years ago there were predictions of the death of the focus group. The reality has been less dramatic. Nothing beats having a proper chat with our research participants, but online methods are allowing us to access their thoughts and behavior in more convenient and, often, revelatory ways.

Here are five reasons why we value online techniques:

  1. Time to reflect: Online Bulletin Boards and communities – where participants can reply to questions in their own time from their own PCs, tablets or mobiles – allow for a greater degree of reflection than many standard research techniques. Participants can mull the questions over and even talk about them with friends, family or colleagues before replying. The richness of the insights can be impressive, and participants seem to appreciate the time and space to explore their ideas with others. 
  2. ‘Safe’ spaces: Anonymous, private online spaces can be an empowering environment. For many of us – from junior doctors, to political activists, to anxious new parents - online sources are our first port of call for information, help or support and sharing online feels increasingly natural.  The anonymity of much online work, and the high degree of peer-to-peer interaction, means that sensitive topics can be explored in a safe, supportive space. We’ve worked online on issues such as parents who’ve experienced perinatal mental health issues, and those whose babies faced time in Special Care or Neonatal Care units, and found the online sessions worked well in tandem with more traditional face-to-face methods.
  3. Reaching‘time poor’ respondents: In practical terms, online research give us the chance to access participants who might not be prepared to take part in ‘standard’ research sessions. As people’s diaries feel ever more pressured, the flexibility to participate at your own convenience can be a huge benefit – for everyone from busy NHS clinicians to working parents. In a recent project exploring messaging for a charity, we were able access the views of very specific typologies within their supporter-base. The flexibility of the online space allowed us to target these niche groups in a cost effective way.
  4. Not all work, work, work: online techniques aren’t just about typing text into reply boxes. Sharing videos or pictures, creating online picture montages, annotating documents with virtual ‘sticky notes’, co-creating and ranking other people’s ideas – the social side of online research means participants enjoy taking part. And when people are having fun they are often more honest, more creative, and prepared to give more of their time and energy.
  5. Building relationships: Online Communities – where participants engage for a number of months with a series of questions and topics – allow for a shift in the relationship between researcher and participant. The participants become heightened to topics, and start to proactively gather and share information, and reflect on their behavior and opinions, creating a very different type and level of insight. We ran an online community for a retailer over 8 months and, as the community progressed, we were amazed by how participants’ involvement & interest grew – and how much of themselves and their time they were ready to give.

We can’t see a time soon when we’ll turn our back on traditional research methods - nearly all our projects still involve a high amount of offline interaction. But increasingly we find both participants and clients appreciate the benefits of including online research within their overall research strategy.