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The way the research industry thinks about hard-to-reach audiences is broken

Published 17 Feb 2021 4 minute read

Seldom Heard

Much large-scale quantitative consumer research is conducted online nowadays, with a sample that is representative of the makeup of the nation, according to demographics such as age, gender, location, working status and ethnicity. This is a broad-brush approach and it’s inevitable that there will be some groups of people who are under-represented in this type of study. Often it is those who:

  • lack good access to the internet
  • are time-poor
  • are elderly
  • have health conditions or physical impairments
  • have language or cultural barriers that prevent them from taking part.

In quantitative consumer research this is typically accepted for pragmatic reasons: the cost of widening the pool of recruits is higher than the perceived benefits. And as if to close the debate entirely, marketers often argue that these under-represented groups won’t have sufficient differences in opinion or experience regarding the topic of interest – be it cornflakes, coffee or cosmetics - to make it worth the expense and effort of including them.

Online qualitative research is more inclusive

As qualitative researchers who conduct a lot of studies online, we feel differently.

One of the great advantages of online qualitative research is precisely that it is possible to recruit people from what are sometimes called ‘hard to reach’ groups – a term we feel should not be used, as it puts the onus on the research participant, and not on the researcher.

It is our job to make our research inclusive and to think hard about whose perspective we should be seeking, to ensure our clients gain the insight and understanding that they are looking for.

And this starts with the language we use. The more accurate description of these groups of individuals is ‘seldom heard'. Not only does it reframe the issue but it also puts the responsibility of inclusion where it belongs with the researcher not the participant.

This thinking about terminology originated in social care and healthcare . For more than a decade, practitioners in these contexts have recognised that labelling people who are less able to access services as ‘hard to reach’ created a fixed mindset; if service providers don’t see that it is their responsibility to reach out and include people from these groups, there is no impetus to make service provision more accessible.

It is time the research industry caught up, as we face the same issues.

If you are faced with a client brief that specifies a seldom-heard sample, rather than thinking about how hard they will be to recruit, how would it be to change your mindset and that of your customers and think instead about the benefits of hearing different voices?

In a competitive market where brands are desperate to differentiate their offerings, who wouldn’t want to get fresh new perspectives from people who are seldom heard?

Bringing people together through online communities

Another great advantage of online qualitative research, and especially online research communities, is that the research can be a collaborative process which offers participants much more than just financial incentives to take part.

As discussed in our recent blog on how to get incentives right , people who take part in our research deserve to be properly rewarded but, as well as the cash, there are social and emotional benefits to be had from taking part.

Online qual and research communities bring together people who can be like-minded to discuss a topic of interest and relevance to them all, such as a shared hobby, or life experience. As such, taking part can be enjoyable and affirming, with people gaining a sense of belonging to the community and getting great satisfaction from the activities and discussions. This can break down barriers and encourage participation from people who may not otherwise consider being involved in research.

As researchers, when we promise a fulfilling experience, we need to ensure we deliver by making sure we welcome people effectively when they first join, creating activities that are engaging and enjoyable to do, and that bring people together and, if appropriate, sharing the insights and outcomes with them at the end.

Seldom-heard people may not be so hard to reach

There is a prevailing assumption that there are some minority groups that aren't online – the elderly, some ethnic minorities, people in rural settings, people in financial difficulties - but this isn’t necessarily the case. Broadband access has widened to the point that Ofcom reports that 96% of homes in the UK have access to super-fast broadband and there are only around 190,000 homes and businesses left (0.6% of premises) that don’t have a decent connection to the internet.

The ethnic minority population is, on average, 12 years younger than white British people and only about 3% live in rural areas, so there are only a small number of ethnic minority people who are not online - mainly first-generation Asian women, recent refugees and asylum seekers, and Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people. Older people are less likely to use the internet, but there are still 51% of people aged over 75 who do so, making it not so difficult to include this age group in research. Similarly, there are only 27% of people in social grade DE who don’t use the internet.

The online format means that the whole world is effectively your sample frame. You aren’t asking people to come to a physical venue, which could be a barrier for people in remote places, people with long working hours or those who are not confident or physically able to travel. You are also not asking people to meet others in person – which may again be difficult for people who lack confidence in expressing themselves verbally, or who have language barriers. If you create a wide variety of multimedia activities and games you can appeal to people who struggle with writing or typing, but who can share images, make video, or record audio.

An open mindset leads to better research

Online qualitative research is the most inclusive of methods and can deliver rich, nuanced, insightful results, but it takes open-minded researchers with a willingness to think differently about participants to get the best out of every research opportunity.

If you’d like to know more about how online qualitative research can engage diverse audiences or if you have a project in mind and would like to see a customised demo of our platform then please complete the form below and one of our team will be in touch directly.

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