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Why a “People Person” Conducts Online Research

Online tools still allow moderators to connect with participants

Afraid you will sacrifice that “human element” when choosing to use online research tools instead of a focus group? Don’t be. Here is how conducting online research still allows for human connection.

Despite a surge in new online research tools, moderators are relying on focus groups to conduct research more than any other qualitative method, according to the Fall 2014 Greenbook Research Industry Trends (GRIT) report.

These findings may not be all that surprising — after all, isn’t the crux of your job as a moderator about connecting well with others to gather their insights?

We understand there is something irreplaceable about that human connection inherent in a face-to-face meeting. It is why, at times, you opt to hop on an airplane to meet with a client instead of chatting via Skype.

But do not completely write off online tools because you think they lack human connection.

That “human element” still exists in online research — just in a different way.

While in-person research is more of an “event,” online research can be considered a “process.” Because the two are different in nature, they have completely different benefits, uses and “human elements,” too.

To delve deeper here, we spoke to Brad Flatoff, President of Powerbox Innovation. He talked about the “human element” of online research, and how it can work well with in-person methods.

But first, let’s pinpoint exactly when face-to-face human interaction can be particularly useful in qualitative research.

In-person research allows moderators to:

  • Respond immediately. A focus group allows moderators to cover a lot of ground over a short period of time. Clients involved see that part of the process unfold in a matter of hours.

    This sense of immediacy also allows moderators to get a full view of what people are thinking. That is why in-person research is one great approach for exploratory research.

  • Pick up non-verbal cues. Observing emotions and expressions on people’s faces is important when you are exploring a new topic, and are uncertain what direction your research is going to turn.

    These non-verbal expressions convey attitudes that cannot be articulated verbally or on paper.

    “You just get a sixth sense about people’s attitudes and feelings,” says Brad.

  • Observe human action. Sometimes you need participants to respond to three-dimensional stimulus — like a new product they need to handle or touch.

    While moderators can have participants try products and then post photos, videos and diaries online, some products need in-person observation. Watching someone mow their lawn, for instance, is more efficient face-to-face.

    Brad once held a focus group to study participants’ experiences with ground beef. Because he needed to observe people opening the package and cooking the beef, it was beneficial to witness this in-person.

    Also, it allowed him to understand people’s immediate reactions to the smells, the packaging, etc. which helped him ask better questions.

However, Brad says it is very rare to be in a situation in which a moderator needs these three elements. That is where online research comes in.

Human Connection and Online Research

Think you lose something when you choose online tools over face-to-face methods? Think again.

In fact, you do not gain or lose anything when choosing one method over the other. As we said earlier, in-person is more of an event, while online research is a process. The two have completely different benefits and uses.

We already established when it is essential to have that human element inherent in face-to-face research. So how on earth do online tools still allow for a similar level of human connection?

  • Participants spend more time communicating. Online tools give participants the opportunity to write their hearts out, and more time to articulate insightful responses.

    “There is a deep human element here,” says Brad. “It is just being done through written communication.”

  • It is more longitudinal. Because online tools allow moderators to interact with participants over a longer period of time, moderators can form longer-term relationships with participants.

    There is more trust and rapport built in an online community than in a focus group, which can be considered to be another strong human element.

  • Participants are more candid. Online studies offer greater anonymity, meaning participants answer questions more candidly, as they have less incentive to please the moderator.

    They are also less likely to feel intimidated or swayed by the dominant voice in the room, which can happen in a focus group.

  • Users can post photos. Sharing photos is a great way to understand another person’s life.

    “There’s nothing better than a picture, I think,” Brad says.

  • It makes sharing diaries easy. It is more challenging for participants to track their behaviors over days, months or years and report their results in a focus group.

    Online tools make this easy. Plus, there is a human element in sharing your personal experience with others.

“I think online, there can be a much more intimate and deeper expression of an individual, if the moderator sets it up right,” says Brad.

Going “Multimodal”

As we mentioned before, the 2014 GRIT report announced that moderators are using in-person methods more than any online research tool. But why?

Brad says these results suggest there is more combination research going on. Moderators could potentially be holding more focus groups to supplement their online research.

A great way to do this is by using the benefits of being face-to-face to conduct exploratory research. Then, moderators can use the longitudinal nature of online communities to narrow down questions and follow-up.

“They work better together,” says Brad. “The end line is using both in the context of any given project.”

For more ways to go “Multimodal,” click here.

Choosing to use an online or in-person method, at the end of the day, is not an “either-or” decision. Both have their benefits, and their human elements. Consider experimenting next time to tackle a big project to “wow” your client.

See Digsite in action and discover how if it fits your needs-join us for an interactive demo webcast!


Topics: Online Communities, Moderating Online Qualitative

Jane Boutelle

Jane Boutelle

Jane is the CCO and Co-Founder of Digsite, where she and the team provide the first truly social platform for getting consumer insights and user feedback. She has a deep background in software product management and marketing.