Dispelling the myth: Online qual is NOT quicker and cheaper than face to face

08 Jan 2016 | Research & Business Knowledge

Too many underestimate the time it takes to do online qualitative research properly.  Here, Tom Woodnutt of Feeling Mutual kicks of a debate that looks at the myths, expectations and reality of conducting online qualitative research.

Online qual. is not quicker and cheaper than face-to-face

So many industries have been disrupted by digital technology.  Normally the online version is cheaper and faster, whether that be buying music, getting a taxi or even commissioning an online quant study.  However, when it comes to online qualitative research this is simply not the case.

In asynchronous online qualitative research studies you often end up managing more content than in face-to-face (since conversations happen in parallel and so each person can give you more feedback).

The problem is that too many research buyers and senior practitioners do not respect the fact that online qual projects take longer to run; they often underestimate the cost of it.  As a result of this, I believe the reputation of qualitative researchers will suffer in the long term.

As a trainer and practitioner in online qualitative research, I wanted to explore the extent of the problem.  So I conducted a survey with ICG members who are experienced in online qual research.  I found that sure enough, most independent researchers (30 out of the 43 interviewed), have found that many clients underestimate the time and effort involved in running online qual projects.  So when agencies under-charge them for it, it means that they make less profit and use up more resource than is actually paid for.  This fuels a negative cycle as agencies become less likely to offer online qual in the future and are set a low cost precedent that is difficult to break.

The online qualitative research process needs to be made more transparent (or the industry will suffer)

The solution to this problem is partly education.  Researchers need to get better at explaining to clients how long it takes to run online qualitative research projects.  For example, by using this simple calculation: in a two hour, live, face-to-face group discussion with 8 people, only one person can talk at once (meaning you actually only get 1/8 of the 2 hours worth of time that you have paid participants for).  In asynchronous online qual, everyone can give feedback at once, in parallel (meaning you get a full 2 hours or 8 times more, from each person).

They also need to sell the benefits of online through better in order to justify charging the premium required to resource it properly.  For example, by emphasising the colour, multi-media and emotional disclosure that online affords.

At the same time, clients need to be more open to the realities of running projects and consider smaller sample sizes in order to reap the benefits of online qualitative research at an affordable level.

If online qual is not costed and designed better, then new, untrained entrants will come into the industry without the due consideration of best-practice and under-cut classically trained researchers.  In so doing, the name of ‘qualitative research’ will suffer.  It is only if everyone starts to treat online qual with the respect it deserves that this can be avoided.