10 reasons asynchronous online qual is squeezing out real-time online focus groups

Published 03 Nov 2020 15 minute read

Online qual
Online qual

Amongst the anxiety, grief and uncertainty of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic there were some glimmers of light and hope. One of the things that many people found inspiring was how quickly and creatively some offline businesses were able to develop an online COVID-safe offering.

For some this was a straight swap; a simple matter of setting up a Zoom account and continuing to provide the same service, but remotely: yoga classes, music lessons and pub quizzes, to name a few.

Others, however, had to be more innovative, spinning up new business models almost overnight that would keep them in business, protect jobs for employees, and provide a solution for customers.

Some great examples include the car parks that became cinemas and theatres, the brewers and distillers that made hand sanitiser and the restaurants that became takeaways or even broadcasters streaming their own cookery lessons.

Researchers have had to adapt too, and none more than qualitative researchers who, not so long ago, would have been conducting many in-person focus groups each month, but are now subject to a great many restrictions.

At first sight the solution is obvious: a straight swap from in-person to online groups. However, rather than diving straight into live (synchronous) online focus groups, more creative researchers are seizing the opportunity and switching to asynchronous online qualitative research, such as research communities, bulletin boards and forums.

To clarify the difference, asynchronous online qual takes place over several days or longer – sometimes months – with participants being tasked with questions and activities that they can respond to in their own time.

Moderators continue to play a vital role, probing and building and deepening relationships with participants throughout the process in order to capture the right data and insight.

Live online focus groups however, require participants to be online at the same time – typically one to two hours – with the moderator being in the virtual room with them in real time.

Ten advantages of online research communities

Live online focus groups have their place, but there are many advantages to using asynchronous online qual and research communities to conduct qualitative research during a global pandemic, or at any other time.

We’ve put together ten of the most compelling advantages of asynchronous online qual over online focus groups, and included a few market research online communities best practices to consider along the way:

1. More considered responses:

When participants have the flexibility to respond in their own time they have more time to think about what they want to say and to give more detailed and considered responses.

You can still ask for ‘front of mind’ reactions, or use tools such as polls to get quick answers, but the asynchronous format gives participants the space and time to give deeper responses.

As a moderator, you have the time to pick up on individual comments, either publicly or privately, and probe for more details in a way that time-constrained synchronous online groups don’t permit.

2. Richer data and the right insight

Because participants in online qual and research communities can gather and share data in their own time – and often in the most important moment or purchase and consumption – they get to share rich visual or audio content.

This includes media elements such as video diaries, photos that capture elements of participants’ lives, ambient audio to bring the research context to life, or curated images to use in projective or creative tasks.

3. In-context responses

You can extend the research into different environments and improve the quality of the response by setting your participants activities to complete in the context of the research question you are studying. For example:

  • Go to a favourite restaurant, take pictures or video, and answer questions about the experience whilst it is happening
  • Take screenshots of websites you are browsing whilst you research your next smartphone
  • Kitchen safari: What is in your cupboards and fridge?

4. Wider range of activities

Online research communities give you the space to use an almost limitless range of activities, games and tasks to really engage your participants and generate high-quality responses.

You can create layered activities4. Wider that build up over the days, give different activities to different types of participants, or vary activities depending on how participants respond.

5. More diverse participants

Online qual and research communities can also involve many more participants than the eight or so that can attend a synchronous group.

It’s not uncommon to have up to 100 participants, which gives you many more possibilities for segmenting your audience and comparing responses amongst different groups.

In line with market research online communities best practices, this also means that you can ensure a better quality of participant; if there is one who doesn’t fully engage, or drops out part way through.

Not only is there then sufficient time to find a replacement, but they have less of an impact on the quality of the group than when you lose one from eight in a real-time group.

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6. Wider range of use cases

The wider range of activities and the asynchronous format mean you can use online research communities for a wider range of research goals.

You can engage participants who are taking part in a high involvement purchase such as a house or a car, and follow the buyer journey over months, for example.

Or you can create communities of people in similar circumstances to conduct sensitive and supportive long-term research for social purposes or to understand specific medical conditions.

7. Better value for money

Online qual has cost advantages over in-person groups – no venue or catering costs, no travel costs and, often, lower incentives.

What's more, it enables you to engage many more participants, each giving more detailed, contextualised responses and more answers, including to questions you’ve not even posed. This results in even better value for money.

8. More agile analysis

Because online qual and research communities are typically conducted over several days, there is greater time to synthesise data, and test and validate hunches and emerging ideas and concepts with participants during the course of the project.

This can be invaluable for insight teams who are supporting agile innovation or development teams who need a fast turnaround so they can test and learn as they go.

9. Better stakeholder engagement

With online focus groups, for stakeholders to be involved they have to be present at the specific time. Even then, there are only limited opportunities for them to ask additional questions or for clarification through the moderator.

With online research communities, they can log on at any time, send additional questions to the moderator through the platform and even share in the ongoing analysis and insight generation.

10. Better participant experience

Online focus groups are over quickly and it is hard to create a good group dynamic. In contrast, participants in online communities have time to get to know each other and can be encouraged to read and respond to others’ contributions.

In fact, encouraging collaboration and a positive group dynamic is one of the top market research online communities best practices you should aim for!

This can lead to feeling more connected and to an overall more positive experience.

In September the Market Research Society (MRS) published the findings of its second-wave study of the effects of Covid-19 on the research industry. With lockdown not so much a distant memory, but thankfully over, you might be mistaken for thinking things had returned to how they were before.

However, the research painted a much different picture.

In August, two thirds of survey participants reported an increase in their use of online qualitative research, up from 39% in April; an impressive 30% hike in just four months.

As we approach the winter and a possible second lockdown, the move online shows no signs of abating. To quote Edward Appleton and Sven Arn:

Qualitative research is undergoing rapid transformation, possibly a lasting sea-change: due to the coronavirus pandemic, qual is going online. Fast – and big-time.

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If the pandemic is forcing you to be more creative and look at new ways of delivering on your research brief, be that tactical or strategic, let us help.

You can take advantage of a FREE discovery call so that we can help you understand how online qual can work for your project in practice.

Over the last decade we’ve worked with over 400 agencies and brands running everything from foundational studies, new packaging or product tests to co-creation workshops – we love online qual and we know you will too.

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