Four Silver Linings from a Year of Disrupted Qualitative Research

Posted by AMC Global on May 4, 2021 1:00:00 AM

By Reene Kalola, AMC Global 

How pivoting to online qualitative approaches during the upheaval of the past year has benefited brands, consumers, and researchers alike—and can continue to do so. 

Online qualitative approaches have been a part of the market research industry for years, but COVID-19 threw one of the biggest curveballs at the research industry when it forced planned focus groups to shift online in an instant.

Our AMC Global team is known for its agility, but this was a tough one, even for us. The key to success in shifting research plans was avoiding forcing a square peg into a round hole. Just because we had planned focus groups in-person, did not mean we had to do focus groups online.

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Instead, for example, our team pivoted multiple focus group projects to asynchronous, online bulletin boards. A year later, we are lucky enough to be able to reflect on these shifts as serious successes for our clients. In fact, not only did we have success with pivoting multiple qualitative projects online, but the process actually illuminated some silver linings for online qual that we will be taking into the post-pandemic world to continue to do the best research.

Before taking research back to the backroom, consider these four areas of virtual value:

Reach More People, from More Places

Despite conducting a decade’s worth of research for global companies, 80% of focus groups I have attended have been in New Jersey. (As a native New Jerseyan, I can attest that New Jerseyans do provide top-notch opinions. Anyone who thinks otherwise can getouttaheyah). But still. 

The pivot to online qualitative allows for more flexibility as to WHERE we can reach participants. This eliminates the need to select specific markets in favor of recruiting from across the country—and can thus be more representative of the consumer base. The same is true for brand involvement. Hosting online means more people from the brand side can be involved, allowing for more ideas and input that drive insights and impact.

Further, online qual boards are inherently more flexible in WHEN researchers connect with consumers. This means we can talk with shift workers or single parents who could not commit to daytime interviews, or may have shied away from the 6-9pm weeknight slots. 

(Another bonus of online? Fewer logistics. No printouts = Fewer trips to the office supply store = More trees!) 

PRO TIP: In order to take full advantage of the timing flexibility that can help gather more representative responses, consider running online qual for several days in order to give consumers flexible participation options.


Enhance Engagement by Giving Consumers Control over Their Commitment 

Speaking of those 6-9pm weeknight slots…Qualitative research asks a lot from participants! And rightfully so. Qual offers such creativity and color, so qual researchers need consumers to be ON! 

But if we want their best, wouldn’t it be nice to give research participants some control over when they are ready to give us their best? After all, asking people to think of what personality type a box of laundry detergent would be at a party may be a bit draining after a full day at work. 

In fact, a pivot to online allows researchers (and brands) to get more out of consumers for several reasons.

  • As discussed, participants have the ability to decide when to participate, meaning they will be fully focused and engaged when they decide to log on.

  • They have more time to think about the exercises. Having the option to log on when they want to and when they have time gives participants the ability to mull exercises over and log on when inspiration strikes, rather than being put on the spot and having to answer immediately.

  • There is less group-think! Employing tactics like requiring participants to provide their own thoughts before they are able to read others means getting more independent, unique ideas from each person – regardless of whether there are a few other loud voices “in the room.”
Keep in mind that moving to an online methodology does not automatically create additional engagement—it simply fosters it. While it can optimize the consumer’s mindset, we as researchers need to be thoughtful while translating tasks to an online format and use the right tools with the right functionality for the project. 

PRO TIP: Consider using online qualitative software tools or digital collaboration tools that allow previously in-person tasks to transition seamlessly to an e-environment, without losing any of the engagement.


...And Engagement Doesn’t End with Consumers. Bring Brands Beyond the Backroom!

True Story: I once watched a client watch a soccer match while I was in the backroom at a focus group. It had been a long day, and people were losing steam.

Brands are busy, and have human needs and limitations, just like their consumers. Online environments allow clients to pop in and out so that they can give energy and time as they have it. 

You may be asking yourself, “But wait – doesn’t this make it even EASIER for people to become disengaged?” 

The answer is, not really. In addition to the natural benefits of giving people more autonomy, we’ve also found ways to build in accountability. How did we do this? Check out our Pro Tip below!

PRO TIP: One successful tactic was hosting “study halls” during the field period, and assigning clients to “buddy respondents,” creating a vested interest in following participants through their journey of the boards.


Amp up (and speed up) analysis!

Pencils may erase and ink may smudge, but the Internet is forever. Moving qualitative methodologies to an online format means clients and researchers alike have access to the content in perpetuity. More specifically….EASY access.

Online platforms provide more organization and ease of use than scribbled-down notes. It’s just a fact. Looking for that one consumer verbatim? Just click on specific activities to painlessly find related content. 

Wonder if there are themes by age? By retailer shopped? By brand used? Filters and tags allow us to see patterns much more quickly. (We’re researchers! We love patterns!)

Plus, asynchronous bulletin boards allow for larger numbers of participants, enabling added layers like quali-quant polling. Some hard(ish) data paired with in-depth qual context and color gives us the best of both worlds! 

PRO TIP: Consider including a greater sample size than you normally would for in-person qualitative research in order to achieve robust quali-quant results.


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While we want nothing more than to see the end of this pandemic tunnel, we wanted to highlight these silver linings uncovered along the way. The need to pivot in-person qual to an online setting showed upsides that we, along with our clients, will continue to consider when designing projects in the “new normal” (you didn’t think you’d get through a 2021 post without seeing that phrase, did you?). 

Better representation, fewer logistical hassles, increased engagement, and analytical advantages make a strong case for online bulletin boards. Plus, boards aren’t the only impactful online option. This year, we’ve delivered insights using virtual in-depth interviews, online shop-a-longs, UX optimization, virtual consumer segmentation activations, and more. (All in addition to our always-on, always-online Launch and Learn Communities). But those are different stories for a different day.

Bottom line: Consider leaning in and leading with online options, rather than thinking of it as a backup. And don’t worry, we’ve already anticipated your pushback on this plan. We wouldn’t be against mailing everyone a bowl of M&Ms to recreate the backroom experience…as long as you promise to eat them in total darkness.  

Reach out to us to learn more!