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The Changing Landscape of Online Qualitative Research


Editor’s note: I’ve been an admirer of Itracks for quite some time and have been lucky to develop a good “virtual friendship” via Twitter with Derek Sawchuk and Jim Longo of the firm. When Derek originally posted this on the Itracks site and sent me a link, I immediately saw this as a great opportunity to share their thought leadership with a wider audience. I tend to gravitate to more “macro-level” themes in my own blogging and also am more quant focused, so a piece on how new technologies are specifically impacting qual is a welcome addition. I think you’ll really enjoy Derek’s take on the future of qualitative research, so please join me in welcoming Derek Sawchuk to the GreenBook Blog line-up of authors!

By Derek Sawchuk

We’ve Seen It Happen Before

Looking back on it now, it seems quite obvious, but if you had stood up on a podium somewhere in the mid-90s and announced that we were about to experience a flurry of call center closures, one might have pegged you as being mad! But it happened, and resulted in a new brother born to the marketing research industry – online surveys.

The qualitative industry is amidst a similar situation now, where new techniques are challenging the status quo. Although online qualitative research has been around for over 15 years, the impact on annual qualitative spending has been quite insignificant, averaging out around three percent. Until recently, qualitative research has not leveraged online technology in any significant way and has remained more or less untouched by technological advancements.

Similar to the quantitative shift experienced in the 90s, qualitative research is now making a strong play to embrace online. The infrastructure of social networking and user-generated content is firmly in place and generally accepted as an open portal to very rich and detailed information, just waiting to be analyzed. And it is not news that consumers have embraced the social and community aspect of the Internet like no one would have imagined 10 years ago. Technical advancements, driven by today’s social consumer, are changing the way we conduct qualitative research.

The Social Consumer

There has been a lot of chatter out there about the voice of the customer, even though the concept is not necessarily new. Brands have always been interested in what their customers have to say, and with the current economic state, they want to pay less for that feedback. With the advancement of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and reddit, the masses now have a place to congregate online and share their ideas with the companies that make the products and services that they use. Add a strange mix of anonymity and ego into the equation, and all of the sudden, we have an army of consumers that want to be heard. Today’s consumers spend more time online, have a wider social network and are demanding to be marketed with, rather than marketed at, thus resulting in new opportunities for engagement and research.

Online Qualitative Trends: Present and Future Cross Pollination

The integration of quantitative activities has been and continues to be one of the most popular activities for online qualitative researchers. Customized card sorts, ranking questions and polling exercises add a new dimension to online qualitative research projects. More recently, the advancement of markup exercises and online video dial testers has broadened the opportunity for analyzing multimedia online.


Using mobile devices for research, especially qualitative research, is a very exciting development. The trick is making it easy for the respondents to use, but at the same time having the software complex enough to be meaningful – a tough nut to crack.

Although there are a couple of qualitative applications available, most of them have limited functionality and cannot be integrated into a larger scale qualitative research project. The technical infrastructure is in place and the race is on for a feature rich qualitative application that makes sense for both researchers and respondents.

Community Lite

Mini communities offer an opportunity for clients looking for the basic functionality of an Insight Community, but on a smaller scale. Where ICs typically have 150-500 members, these smaller communities tap out at 150 members and run for a defined amount of time. Although the scale and financial barrier to entry are less – these mini communities will still serve multiple objectives – unlike a standard bulletin board focus group, which is designed to facilitate a single objective.

Social Media Research

The inclusion of social media data in qualitative reports is something that research buyers are beginning to expect. Adding an element of social media to a proposal or a report will give any qualitative researcher a clear differentiator. The good news is there are a couple of providers out there who are set up to assist marketing researchers.

Through social media researchers can use data to develop their research project or track the effectiveness of a campaign. This application has enormous potential and will soon become a standard component of most qualitative research projects.

“The infrastructure of social networking and user-generated content is firmly in place and generally accepted as an open portal to very rich and detailed information, just waiting to be analyzed.”

What’s Next – Holograms

In the next couple of years, 3-D and holographic technology will take the fiction out of science fiction. 3-D interfaces will allow us to interact with 3-D holograms of respondents in real time. Yes, that’s correct. Expect to see hologram technology change the way we currently conduct online qualitative research. Media is already moving in this direction and as holographic cameras get more sophisticated, they will begin to be integrated into mobile devices. This technology will allow researchers to interact with respondents in entirely new ways.


The landscape of online qualitative research is beginning to change and adapt to meet the needs of today’s consumers. As worldwide Internet usage continues to increase, the share of online qualitative research will increase with it. Although online will never fully replace face-to-face research, the former will continue to increase its share. The greatest challenge for online qualitative research is meeting the needs of a demanding consumer base that is leveraging new online technologies to voice their opinions.

Did I say greatest challenge? I meant greatest opportunity.

Originally published on the Itracks website.


RESOURCE: New Qualitative Research Methods & Tools

New Qualitative Research Methods & Tools If you face the task of choosing the best methods and the most appropriate online and mobile qualitative research tools, New Qualitative Research we offers the guidance, resources, and inspiration you seek.

  • User Guide will help you better understand the strengths and weaknesses of some new qualitative research methods.
  • Platforms Directory gives a comprehensive overview of qualitative research software, tools, and applications.
  • Providers Directory includes the firms & consultants who directly apply new qualitative research methods.

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12 responses to “The Changing Landscape of Online Qualitative Research

  1. Nicely done, Derek! Welcome to GB!

    Huge fan of online and seeing it dramatically increase.
    While I wont go as far as Tom (as there are definitely still times where in-person work is more applicable than online), I think online is evolving quite nicely.

    Keep it up!!!


  2. I offer a little bit of a pushback to this paean of new technologies for qualitative research:

    “Similar to the quantitative shift experienced in the 90s, qualitative research is now making a strong play to embrace online .” I respectfully disagree. Rather, it is that online technologies are making a strong play to embrace qualitative research. The distinction is important.

    “very rich and detailed information, just waiting to be analyzed .” The not so pretty backstory to the exponentially increasing access to more and more raw data is this: sellers of such make the mistake of describing it as “rich and detailed” when in fact, much of the information is very shallow because the online and mobile technologies are not capable of soliciting the “so what” behind the “what.” There’s plenty of “what” out there (data), but richness only comes with “so what” (why should I care, how do I make sense of all of this, I can see what people do and buy and how they act, but I can’t, in the online environment, as effectively understand WHY as in a traditional synchronous conversation with a trained interviewer.

    “Facebook, Twitter and reddit ” The difficulty here is that it’s the consumer driving the conversation, and they may or may not be responsive to the purpose of the inquiry and the methodologies afford the moderator little opportunity to effectively “follow up” responses for a deeper understanding of the “why” behind the “what.”

    On mobile devices: Penetration of smartphones is still low, rendering this platform, for the time being, useful for only certain applications/audiences. But even as smart phone ownership becomes more endemic, the gatherers of information cannot control the conversation and explore unanticipated avenues with the same dexterity as in traditional qualitative venues.

    [Holograms will] “allow researchers to interact with respondents in entirely new ways ” I would be interested in an articulation of these “new ways.” As I read this, I am wondering what the difference is between this and webcams. This seems like technology for technology’s sake.

    The bottom line is that I worry about a focus on access to reams and reams of data, and these fun and shiny new tools, without a thorough understanding of the trade-offs that are being made when the more traditional methodologies are abandoned because it’s “cheaper.” Many years ago, we use to talk about “research by the pound” in derisive terms. It ain’t the quantity, it’s the quality!

  3. Derek – thank you for your courage and conviction in espousing the benefits of conducting qualitative research online as you have done in this piece. I couldn’t agree more with your observation of the role of technology in quantitative research as it relates to qualitative research today. I have been doing research long enough to have seen how, what once was “mall-intercept centric” research, eventually become CATI-based and then Internet-based.

    Bottomline, we too have found in our experiences in online qualitative research that this methodology is superior to traditional, in-person data collection processes in important ways. We are able to yield more and richer data, reduce the amount of time needed to do the study from start to finish, and drastically reduce the cost of the services provided. That is a compelling business offer no matter what the times, but particularly so nowadays.

    I agree with Tom – I don’t know why anyone does qualitative research in-person anymore. Still, I’ll add that it could be due to one of those “bite the bullet” instances when your target population is simply not well-represented online. While these groups do exist, their incidence continues to become increasingly threadbare, as does the reasining behind doing qualitative research in-person.

    Good job –

  4. Seems to me we are still trying to understand what is evolving. Sample for qualitative is still important; getting the answers to your clients questions, not just what people want to talk about is important; figuring out how to take advantage of new technology is all important. I don’t think it is time yet to walk away from face to face qualitative, but figuring out how to possibly use social media appropriately, is in everyone’s best interest. New ways of connecting to customers is certainly out there, but there are still many who continue to choose not to be “connected”. If they are part of your target, you don’t want to ignore them.

  5. Well done, Derek!

    I always find it interesting to listen to the debate of “new” qual versus “traditional” qual (as I’m seeing in this string of comments.) I jokingly call myself The Whore of Qual because I embrace all of it and see tremendous value in approaching these methodologies from a holistic perspective. In my opinion, the more tools we have in our toolbox, the better; we then have the ability to carefully craft our research using the most suitable instrument.

    In regards to social media research, Sheila’s comment raises an interesting point: “Sellers of such make the mistake of describing it as “rich and detailed” when in fact, much of the information is very shallow because the online and mobile technologies are not capable of soliciting the “so what” behind the “what.” ” Just a few years ago, I would have agreed. But, the social media aggregators available today are becoming more sophisticated, and depending on the platform, CAN shed light on the WHYs behind the WHATs. Is it all encompassing? No. No single methodology is. But, the face-to-face interview has it’s limitations as well… all the more support for the mixed methodology, qual “cocktail” made possible by the resources Derek has outlined.

  6. @Carla
    Qual Cocktail . . . I like that.

    Thank you for your well thought out response, you’re obviously a very passionate qualitative researcher. I love the debate!

    Qualitative research is in fact only now making a strong play to embrace online. Many of the technologies that qulies use are not new, we have just been slower to adopt them as an industry. We’re using what’s out there and making it work for us – or embracing.

    Be cautious not to limit mobile usage to smartphones. Apple has launched millions of mobile units this year alone and the standard desktop is dying. In the very near feature, if you find yourself using a computer you’re going to find yourself using a mobile device.

    The new customer has a strong voice and is demanding to be heard. They want to be marketed with, not marketed at. If you’re ignoring this variable in your research equation then your reporting is incomplete.

    Every research problem requires a unique set of research methods and there is no single, magical solution. Online qualitative research is growing at 40% (Inside Research) and traditional qualitative is flat – that alone says a lot!

    Your clients are demanding online methodologies and if you ignore them you will find yourself irrelevant.

  7. Derek, Great post. I fully agree with you that data gathering (especially qualitative data) should align itself with fast changing (generation Y,X,Z – or whatever you want to call them) consumer trends. I also recalled Jim Longo who spoke passionately about MROCs at Merlien’s Online Qual conference back in Berlin in 2010. MROCs will continue to play an important role in consumer research.

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Derek Sawchuk

Derek Sawchuk

Vice President - Business Development, Maru/Matchbox