Reading through the nationals this weekend, a definite theme emerges: how society is becoming disconnected to reality. Although this could read how it's becoming connected to a new reality.

What has prompted this coverage? Well, “events, dear boy, events”, plus a certain amount of serendipity. Just days after the televised "big three" debate India Knight, in the Sunday Times, talks about how she went to a friend's house to watch it — but took her laptop with. She wanted to be connected to the many thousands she knew would be tweeting through the debate, with intelligent, topical banter, rather than restricted to ITV's predictably stodgy fare.

And the other article that prompted this theme? One on addiction to computer games, where an increasingly youthful audience prefers life online with selected friends to one where they have to deal with the pressures of everyday life.

Online comfort factor

So if two such distinct audiences are more comfortable with online than face to face, it's hardly surprising that clients are testing qual research in this area. In the last issue we introduced this topic and sought their views on it. This time it's the turn of researchers.

The first task we set them was to attempt a definition of digital qual, but that seemed to present a challenge too far. Instead, researchers offered situations where online qual is used: online follow-ups to face-to-face group discussions, online bulletin boards or Bulletin Board Focus Groups (BBFGs), using email for pre or post tasking, netnography, virtual home visits and the like.

There was no such reticence about some of the issues raised. First, worries about client perceptions loom large. “I recently attended an interview with a large retailer,” says Geraldine Pratten of Filling The "GAP" Research, “which would involve running a large online panel — and it seems clear to me that the days of the group/depth are numbered in their eyes. They clearly see it as a tool to get instant feedback (i.e. overnight).”

Yet worries about time pressures, quality, a focus on reportage rather than analysis, existed long before the move online. What is intensifying them is a strange mix of factors: fear of the unknown (technology), non-researchers advising on research matters, and others with a vested interest in selling their products or userbases.

As Ben Lovejoy of Plug and Play says, “a bunch of unanalysed comments grabbed without probing from a group on online personas of unknown identity and unidentifiable characteristics and sprinkled verbatim into a quant report is *not* qual! “Properly designed, recruited and moderated online qual can be as valuable as conventional qual. Properly designed and moderated (but not recruited) online qual can be helpful. But much of what is being bandied around is the online equivalent of "I was eavesdropping on a bunch of strangers in the pub last night, and they said..."”

Carrying out online qualitative research makes eminent sense to many. Indeed, Nicole Reinhold from Point Blank in Germany has been working in this area for some 13 years, although for many of those focusing on quant. “I use it because it is a research method that goes with today's Zeitgeist,” she says.” It makes sense to researchers like Nicole to use the medium and adapt it for use in qualitative research, but how have respondents reacted? Caroline Midmore, an independent market research consultant has been carrying out online qual where the subject matter has been at least loosely related to ecomms.

Fast and flexible

She has found it valuable in allowing groups of people across the country — and internationally — to interact, as opposed to having to run groups in specific areas, and also to include disabled people. “It is fast, flexible, and allows clients to pose questions or offer answers to respondent questions while remaining at their desks. As for respondents, they mostly seem to enjoy it — but obviously those without good keyboard skills can find it tedious. There can be great interaction between them but I think it would be a struggle with a mundane topic.”

In fact, throughout researching this topic, it always seems a case of two steps forward, one step back. It generates intense enthusiasm from those who are getting/have got to grips with it, interwoven with warnings about inherent dangers. Kindle Research's Paul Hutchings is a definite convert. “Personally, I think online qual is fraught with problems, but we need to rise to this challenge,” he says. “I've used bulletin boards, online focus groups, twitter, blogs and proposed the use of facebook and online communities. It can be flimsy, out of control, overwhelming, superficial, amazingly insightful — but it can also a lot of fun.”

His fear is that, when companies like digital marketing agencies need research advice they often do their own research without any AQR or MRS members. He urges the research industry to catch up and find ways to use online tools or risk getting left behind, even though it may mean compromising on some of its standards to take advantage of the huge benefits they offer in terms of access, openness, dialogue and engagement.” “We should be tailor made for it,” he says. “There are a lot of conversations taking place and an enormous amount of data out there already — a lot doesn't need to be collected. Those conversations taking place need to be guided and made sense of. Those are our core skills, right?”

Tools of the trade

So the future is bright. It may not be orange — particularly not with volcanic ash still settling — but it's one where qualitative researchers are keen to get to grips with the opportunities that online offers, and develop strategies and tools to capitalise on them. And the forthcoming course on the topic, a day long one on 16th July produced in conjunction with the AQR, should fit the bill admirably.