The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Challenging definitions of qual

This article hopes to initiate debate on an issue which is already impacting on clients and researchers alike: the growing use of online qualitative research

Extract from Wall Street Journal, by Emily Steele

“IBM discovered through online videos that potential customers tended to care less about its technologies themselves than what those technologies could do for them. Instead of talking about voice over Internet protocol or cloud delivery models, for example, they talked about having conversations and meetings. That insight, says Kristen Lauria, a vice president of marketing and channels at IBM, led to a new print ad with the text “Lotus knows you're trying to reach the person, not their phone.”

Have you just read that and thought: "how ridiculous, we'd have found that out in the first 10 minutes of a group?" Well, welcome to a Brave New World where qualitative insights are obtainable by anybody, anywhere, and qualitative researchers will become redundant. Online qualitative research has evolved dramatically to the point where it challenges the definitions of both "qualitative" and "research".

I am not talking about online focus groups. You might be surprised that uptake of these is relatively slow compared to other online methodologies, except in the US where distances are a barrier to face to face.

Real time qualitative information can now be obtained from the semi-automated scanning and tracking of thousands of websites, blogs and social media, and the tools are freely available. Netnography can provide a more in depth way to study naturally occurring groups.

Anyone can set up a Webjam or a Ning group to create their own interactive community to discuss any subject; and larger scale Market Research Online Communities (MROC) may have hundreds or thousands of participants, but they still offer the chance for clients to put qualitative questions to select groups and get in-depth replies back.

Where are the trained and experienced qualitative researchers in this scenario? Who is commenting on the drawbacks of the new methodologies? Where is the analytical rigour?

In a heady free for all, clients, planners and marketing people think they can get qualitative insights faster, from large and dispersed samples, from the comfort of their desks and almost for free.

Online research is fast becoming a default option in quant and that mindset will lead to increased use of online in qualitative space. Clients are more involved in the process — they can see the word cloud, watch the videos, put their questions directly to their community — so they are more engaged in the process and find the results more credible.

DIY qual is not the only concern. There are a number of extremely professional platforms being strongly sold in to insight departments. Have you ever squeezed into someone's bathroom or cupboard to understand their personal care or shoe selection? P&G have done it with wireless webcams, narrated by the consumer, and claim that the results are more candid and detailed without the presence of a researcher.

Online video research platforms allow for interactivity, analysis and even the creation of video presentations online as part of the package. There are platforms for everything — pre and post tasking, capturing brand touchpoints, making collages, marking up packaging ideas — anything you can do face to face, you can do online.

Can you?

It's time we had a point of view. It's time to bring our knowledge and experience to the table, educate clients about how to integrate online and offline methods, and time to accept this challenge to our professionalism.

 

Joanna Chrzanowska
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2010