The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

In search of the 'non participants'

Getting people to take part in research is a challenging task for researchers. Alison Drury looks at the options.

Compare the names YouGov and Mass Observation. Encapsulated is the difference between market research as a brand today and its manifestation in the post-war era.

Nowadays, companies acknowledge, even champion, the changing role of the respondent. The very words ‘respondent’ and ‘consumer’ have become controversial.

Such passive, even patronising labels don’t sit happily with today’s vision of participation and empowerment. Take MORI’s website. The blurb for its Participation Unit states that it will be ‘engaging people in a dialogue rather than taking a snapshot of their opinions’.

The drivers behind this trend are various. The public sector and Central Government (with commercial research companies) have pioneered the use of qualitative market research techniques to inform public policy. Those who present qualitative findings know the impact that instinctive truths have on client debriefs.

Witness a hospital architect who consulted with hospital patients. One girl’s quote — that she wanted the hospital design to “feel like it was bringing fresh air into it” — stayed with him. In this case, that participatory comment influenced the project outcome. Its value lay in its simplicity.

Citizens’ juries panels and deliberative methods of consultation that seek to encourage participation in the process of policy change are, by contrast, more complex even though the challenges to market research are familiar.

As researchers, we may take at face value the idea that increased participation is a “good thing”. Tellingly, when this is translated to the private sector there may be unrealistic expectations of who to find and how easily we can find them.

Where peer group participation is proving useful is in exploratory research currently being used in hard-to-penetrate areas of society. Here, not only does the researcher benefit from the interaction of the peer group in shaping the interview but also in making it possible to find people to talk to in the first instance.

Widening participation — in the most straightforward sense of that phrase — is a challenging task for researchers, politicians and companies alike, with rates under pressure from our sheer pace of life. We know what we need to aim for. Customer Relationship Management, for example, stresses that active engagement with a service provider relies upon personalised, frequent contact.

Ensuring the customer identifies with the brand in question and feels motivated to remain engaged is also key. It is here that web-based technology comes into its own, able to simulate the positive, loyal response of an individual to a recruiter by creating online market research brands that invoke that dynamic relationship at a distance.

The Web’s flexibility has an additional benefit in that it allows us to target those individuals we want to work with on an ongoing basis. But what can we offer them apart from financial incentives? If attrition rates from such networks are to be minimised, a club of interested individuals, able to connect with each other and the research brand, has to be created.

YouGov panel manager Laura Davies believes that “the idea that my voice is being heard” is a major motivation for panellists. To reinforce a sense of ownership, YouGov takes pains to publish survey results on its website (when confidentiality allows).

It believes its resulting high media profile in broadsheets, tabloids and on TV tends to reassure panellists that they have joined a credible group. Here, brand awareness is used effectively to create a sense of integrity and identity among a community of isolated individuals.

Many issues remain for online recruitment methodology. Quantitative companies believe that they may get more honest answers from those filling in surveys at an anonymous distance. Qualitative panels need people who are happy to put their heads above the parapet and perform well in face-to-face discussions — not something that can be assessed using technology alone.

As for panel networks, they all face an ongoing debate about their representativeness. Do they attract the particularly opinionated; just those with time to spare who need the money; or maybe only those who like the internet?

For qual, the answer is the same as ever. It takes a particular kind of individual to feel comfortable discussing topics with relative strangers. It wouldn’t work for the shy, and unless non-verbal techniques are used, it doesn’t favour the inarticulate.

The key thing is that there are lots of people who haven’t yet participated. These methodologies help widen our net to encourage them to do so. After that, is up to us to treat them well and encourage them to feel a part of our industry. As ever with market research, it is a question of human skills and technology in partnership.

 

Alison Drury
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005