As non-traditional qualitative techniques, such as online bulletin board research and mobile phone SMS research, have come into vogue with marketers, there’s been a lot of buzz in the market research community about their quality in comparison to traditional methods like ethnographies and focus group research.
The debate currently focuses on traditional in-person focus groups or interviews versus non-traditional Internet-based research techniques. A perusal of posts and articles, in addition to my ten years of direct experience in qualitative research, indicates that both have merits and drawbacks that can drive decisions when choosing the right methodology.
Positives of traditional in-person research
Let's start with the traditional techniques most have seen, either in person or satirized on TV in Mad Men, Seinfeld, and other shows. On the positive side:
1. focus groups and other "in-person" techniques allow the moderator maximum control of stimuli and tools utilized with respondents, which is especially important in research studies centering on very conceptual testing, such as the initial design of a new MBA curricula where stimuli may be very rough and require a lot of explanation and manipulation.
2. responses are based on the "spoken" word, and thus can often be quicker and spark more immediate conversation than online "text-based” conversations, resulting in the ability to answer more questions in a shorter amount of time. This is very important when the research goals are broader or more exploratory, such as when seeking to understand customer satisfaction or MBA alumni engagement.
3. traditional techniques also offer the ability to observe respondents directly, allowing for body-language observations beyond the actual verbal responses.
4. older respondents (especially those aged 50 or higher) tend to be more comfortable with in-person methodologies
Positives of Internet-based Techniques
Online techniques are more efficient in a number of ways when compared to traditional qualitative research techniques. They allow for…
1. gathering a wider geographical representation within one group, as people can virtually join from across the country or the world (e.g, exploratory research for a global MBA program).
2. eliminating or lessening travel, whether on part of the respondents, the researchers, or the clients—thus reducing logistical hurdles—because all parties can take part via the web.
3. ensuring a greater level of anonymity for respondents, which can ensure that participants are being truthful with their responses (versus being unduly influenced by a "loud" respondent in an in-person setting). Note that this is of key importance when researching subjects that may be highly polarizing (e.g, in-depth discussion of MBA midterm student satisfaction surveys).
4. flexibility of setting: respondents can engage with the research in a setting of their choice—versus a bland focus group facility—which can improve the comfort of participants and result in more open and truthful responses.
5. respondents can respond to research on their own time with the use of online techniques such as bulletin boards. Flexibility in timing contributes to the honesty of responses and takes the pressure off of responding to questions within a 60- or 90-minute in-person focus group.
6. younger respondents are typically more comfortable in the online space, and thus respond well to internet-based techniques.
These tools are especially useful when research goals are not truly broad in nature, but are instead seeking depth to specific questions, such as further understanding behind a benchmark assessment or other research survey.
True for both
Some things are true for both in-person and online qualitative techniques.
1. Both sets of methodologies require the same amount of time post-research to analyze the data—whether it is transcribing an MBA alumni online chat discussion or reviewing in-person higher ed student focus group videos, the analysis time is virtually the same.
2. Both offer respondents the ability to observe and respond to stimuli in similar ways.
3. Beyond travel, almost all of the costs (including moderation, recruitment, and respondent incentives) are virtually the same between both types of techniques.
Choosing in-person versus online qualitative techniques
So, the choice for in-person versus online methodology really comes down to the overall objectives of a study, and should not be made based on tactical reasons such as cost constraints. If a study is truly exploratory or broad, such as a lifecycle analysis or a business school image exploration, in-person techniques like student loyalty ethnographies or an admissions focus group are likely the best focus.
In contrast, if a study is building on past findings such as a MBA graduate exit survey, then online qualitative techniques are likely the best core for the research.
Or, a hybrid approach may in fact be the best if the goals or constraints of the project have components that are both exploratory and governed by prior findings.
Dinesh Mathew, the guest writer for this article, is a marketing consumer research expert and qualitative research consultant. Dinesh welcomes your questions and comments.