It's hard to feel sorry for George Clooney. He's got it all: looks, a sense of humour and a light ironic touch. But in his latest movie, Up In the Air, his character — the man who tours the US to give employees the axe — is left floundering as he strives to come to terms with changing work practices. His employers decide to test out firing people online — thus saving both time and money — rather than face to face.

George needs to adapt or die, and that is what many quallies fear, too. Will their role become redundant as digital becomes the norm? A quick trawl of clients reveals that they are more realistic — and less pessimistic — about the future of qualitative research than many practioners.

Indeed, there are those who feel it will enrich this whole area. “I think online qual is a really positive development,” says Adam Pemberton, Senior Research Executive, Future UK. “Obviously it has pros and cons versus more traditional methods, but anything that broadens the options when designing projects is welcome. “It comes back to picking the best methodology for each project based on its needs and budget — being able to get qualitative feedback online is likely to open up a qual route on future projects that would previously have gone without a qual phase completely.”

Use for old catchphrases

So, that old marketing catchphrase, "horses for courses", still has a use. Clients, meanwhile, are exploring just what those uses may be. Yahav Levy, customer insight and CRM tools manager at, the online gaming group, has been using online qual for the past three to four years.

Over time, he has discovered that online qual comes into its own in two main areas. One is when looking at new product development, and the other is exploring the reasons why some customers go so far — but no further.

It's interesting, too, that he considers online more useful when consumers can see visual stimuli, but possibly to be avoided when testing out strategy.

There is one segment of his market, however, who will never be directed to an online bulletin board. “These are the high end clients. I think that they deserve personal contact, that part of the client statement to them is that I value them and will therefore invite them to the focus group. It's very important for me to get their knowledge face to face.”

Feeling our way

Discussions with clients and researchers reveal that both are feeling their respective ways as to online qual's suitability for different projects. One client, who works for a very well known media company, is letting its research agency take the strain given the expense and time involved in setting up a site.

She is aware of other potential problems but says that the main one, indeed a similar one to when clients go to just one focus group out of many, “is that the end client reads a few responses, hasn't time to read them all, and then assumes that what he has read is the whole truth — particularly as it endorses his views. I suppose you could say that one question at a time online approach may facilitate this cherry picking approach more than having a whole live group.”

And then, of course, there is the question of cost. Yahav admits that “online should be cheaper, but you know what? Maybe I'm a very good negotiator and the marketing guy who helps me does a very good job, but in most cases it's cheaper for me to go offline than online.”

Adam, however, says that that “hasn't been my experience so far. I'm sure it depends on the individual project as to which way it goes.”

Overall, discussions indicate that many of the same problems that bedevil offline — keeping respondents engaged but well moderated, checking that people are who they say they are — continue online. Good researchers won't find themselves out of a job. At least, not in the immediate future.