The industry debate about online research and its position in the spectrum of potential insight services is of interest to anyone working in this field in any capacity. Whether coming from a quantitative or qualitative background, the potential opened up by operating in the online social space is potentially game-changing, and it would be naïve to overlook the opportunities on offer.
Within the qualitative sphere however there is often a suggestion that anything online is tainted by issues of poor quality and lack of accountability, both in field and analysis. Whether it is possible to gain the same insights in relation to non-verbal communication via a synchronous online chat discussion or threaded bulletin-board debate is one the researchers continue to chew over. But as the platforms and tools available to researchers become richer and better-developed it is easy to see this issue diminishing, to the point where perhaps you may be conducting a depth interview with a perfectly-rendered 3d hologram of a respondent within the next decade, gaining the same depth of insight as you might from within the same room…
But the other crucial distinction between online vs face to face qualitative research is often the source of the participants themselves.
Researchers and clients may well be attracted to conducting a project online for cost reasons, and indeed there are many areas where savings can be made – on travel, logistics and facilities, even on respondent incentives when you are not forcing them to travel to a central location and they can participate from the comfort of home. But the one thing I would argue that you should NOT attempt to economise on is the recruitment of the participants themselves.
Consider if you will your own life online. Chances are, you present to the online space a range of somewhat varying personas, depending on the circumstances and audience – your LinkedIn profile is rather different to your Facebook profile, you use a range of anonymous usernames to shop on eBay, chat on forums of interest, or to blog about your passions. None of these personas are specifically deceptive, although you may well feel some are closer to the ‘real you’ than others. The thing is, they represent an incomplete picture of what makes you who you are – you have constructed them, consciously or unconsciously, to present a particular face to that bit of the online world.
Of course in real life we also create and construct and put on a ‘face’ as occasion demands, but face to face it is much more likely that most of us are pretty consistent – it’s easier to be ourselves, and be a whole person, even if we do play multiple roles in life. Those roles – for example, parent, professional, artist, sports competitor – they might in any combination be criteria for selection into a qualitative research event… But the research itself would inevitably address and involve the whole person. Your criteria are contextualised and brought to life, and greater insight is gained than can possibly be achieved when all you know is they came off a panel as people who are interested in playing 5-a-side. And when a trained qualitative recruiter is interviewing them properly before you even meet them, you can be sure they didn’t tick the wrong box on the panel, or sign up for every interest available to increase participation chances, or want to fit in just one more study this week so they can make a panel payout threshold.
If your research objectives are truly qualitative, it makes sense to invest in the selection and screening of your raw materials – the research participants – as carefully online as you would offline. The possibilities offered by conducting increasingly qualitative insight studies online should not be compromised or cheapened by lowering standards in respondent recruitment and selection, as this will do the whole industry a disservice, and encourage the pigeon-holing of online research as a less effective and authentic option. The alternative is applying the same standards of respondent selection you would apply to any face-to-face project such as a focus group or depth intervie