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Making Online Qualitative a Success: Through Their Eyes and in Their Shoes

We live in an age when research needs to be faster and cheaper without losing depth. This leads both clients and vendors to look for innovative approaches and tools to address these challenges.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas Series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Katja Cahoon will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 12-14 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX NA. Click here to learn more.

We live in an age when research needs to be faster and cheaper without losing depth. Both clients and vendors also face increasingly complex research challenges. Be they finding hard to recruit participants, scope creep because of shrinking budgets, internal and external pressures, and participant fatigue in the face of long screeners and surveys. This leads both clients and vendors to look for innovative approaches and tools to address these challenges.

In previous articles I have discussed some of the benefits of online research, myths surrounding it [], and how to find the right online platform provider for your needs []. In this article I want to talk about how specifically we and our global partners conduct our MobE [] studies, discuss some specific research challenges and how we have addressed them, and, importantly, emphasize one of the key benefits: building effective and strategic empathy.

Let’s look at two examples and five factors for deep and impactful online qualitative research:

  1. a) What if your organization wanted to understand a surprisingly large, very diverse, very important, yet often overlooked population? One that is also hard to reach and perhaps even harder to build trust with? We are talking about United States veterans and their challenges surrounding reintegration. The client, a media company, wanted to include veterans from across all branches and from locations across the US. We therefore decided on a hybrid online and Skype approach. Using our proven MobE approach and skilled moderators we were able to build rapport, which was especially important in order to have open and frank conversations with trained military. We obtained a powerful glimpse of veterans’ lives, challenges, needs, goals, and dreams through selfie-videos, photos, images, text responses, and follow-up Skype conversations. We worked collaboratively with the client to turn the large amounts of data into a powerful, emotional story about three veterans that illustrated needs and goals that were shared by many of our veterans. The story, using their words and images, helped the end client walk in their shoes and created a high level of empathy. This, in turn, lead to intense discussions about specific strategies to address some of the needs of this population, which has given so much.
  2. b) What if your organization needed to understand behavior as it occurred, in the car, on the road, at work, and in intimate settings at home with friends. Our partner in Mexico, Frame Consulting [], did a cross-country CPG study to uncover the deep associations and behaviors that frame specific need and demand states and how real people solve those needs – real time. Participants went on shopping trips, uploaded selfies, videoed social interactions, photographed snacks, beverages, and foods they prepared and consumed. We moderated interactions and asked deeper questions about the videos and the foods they consumed to obtain a clearer picture of the solutions they were seeking and the inherent tensions around those solutions. This enabled us to gain a profound and detailed understanding of the micro-spaces that dominated each of these situations. The visually appealing presentation, edited mini-documentaries, and consumer images and quotes created a vivid picture of real people in real situations, which helped the client to develop innovative solutions to their business challenges.

To summarize it, what are the five key success factors in these and other studies?

  • Careful design of the guide. We spend a lot of time understanding client goals and needs and design the guide accordingly. This is a key aspect of online research: the guide is programed upfront and needs to be clear, flow well, not bore participants, but rather engage them in multiple ways so that they can go deeper and deeper.
  • Importance of moderation. Moderation adds an element of flexibility and creates further depth. Since there is no face-to-face interaction it is important for the moderator to be highly skilled in terms of building rapport and make participants feel safe, esp. when sharing sometimes very intimate details. For example, we have discussed personal finances, chronic disease, mental health concerns, as well as a host of more lighthearted topics from breakfast, to water consumption, to concepts for a healthy and fun challenger beverage brand.
  • Duration sweet spot. Our approach does not deal with quick, context-less insights. We provide a profound understanding of a particular issue, experience, brand, or stimulus. In order to go beyond surface level insights, you need time (and a broad range of tools and approaches). We have found that 4-6 days are ideal for building rapport, having participants go through a variety of exercises, tasks, and questions, as well as follow-up to get deep insights that help to understand underlying emotions and tell a powerful story.
  • In-the-moment, where-they-are. Don’t turn qualitative research into a glorified survey. Meet your consumers exactly where they are, when they are going through the experience (or right before/after). That is the real power of high level online qualitative and the single biggest benefit compared to research conducted in a facility.

Watch through your consumers’ eyes as they document their in-home experiences, shopping journeys, how different people, places, things, and experiences impact their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. When there is no observer present you truly walk in their shoes, sometimes with very surprising results. We learned, for example, that you can use Smucker’s Jelly to make a pretty amazing vodka cocktail, that lapsed users of orange juice consider 5x more options than heavy users when in aisle, and that when two powerful taboos in US culture (death and money) intersect, consumers feel overwhelmed and shut down when confronted with purely rational arguments.

  • Importance of analysis. Enabling consumers to open up and gaining significant amounts of relevant data is one thing. Analyzing the data, telling a powerful story, and creating context is another. What is the use of 100s of cool, insightful, interesting videos if you have to slog through them yourself or try to figure out what the patterns or underlying themes are?

While there are important and fascinating automation tools there is no tool yet that can interpret data in context and tell a story that is relevant exactly to client needs. And that is precisely what good analysts do. Not just with text and images but also, and especially with videos. Videos, when done right, have the power to create immense empathy and truly showcase consumers’ lives. Live analysts catch nuanced differences between segments, interesting metaphor language to  be utilized in communications, and spot patterns that appear across different forms of data. We analyze the videos as we do other data, write scripts, and produce highly edited little mini-documentaries.

As one of our clients states: “I am using these to create instant empathy with top level management.” As we all know, emotion is an important factor in decision making and while facts and numbers are of course vital, in order to be effective we also need emotional material. Well told stories – in PowerPoint and video – do just that.

One final question begs addressing: when to use a high level online approach as opposed to other approaches? Here are a few examples based on our experience:

  • Experience explorations around food, beverages, health, wellness, and intimate care product related topics (e.g., menstruation or incontinence), use of technology, differences between behaviors at home and at work – just to name a few.
  • Brand explorations that require an understanding of consumer behavior in interaction with the brand, or around experiences relevant to the brand territory
  • Product testing (either including a shopping journey or via sending the product to consumers in advance)
  • Shopper insights
  • Concept evaluations that need to be done in context of consumers’ daily life or require cost-effective nationwide or multi-region representation
  • Anything that requires context or in-situ insights not from memory but while consumers are present. As we all know, memory is notoriously fallible and malleable and the quicker we can catch consumers in the actual situation, the better.

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