Qualitative Research is dead, long live Qualitative Research?!

Last week I visited MOA’s afternoon session on online qualitative market research, together with 2 colleagues of mine who are also into the topic. It had promised to be a very inspiring afternoon on the future of (this domain within) research with speakers like Pieter Willems (PW/Next), Marja Ruigrok (Ruigrok/Netpanel), Stefan Peters (Intomart/Gfk) and last but not least Frank Geers (InSites Consulting) and Ronald Laan (Heinz Europe).
Of course, we saw how focus groups are done online with richer insights and less social bias (… and in a more cost-efficient way) through ‘online discussion groups’  in the Heinz case . But most of all, the speeches made me think about some fundamental changes ‘online’ and ‘the 2.0 phenomenon’ are causing to the backbone of (qualitative) marketing research. Here are some of my reflections of the past days:
– Qualitative is definitely coming out of its’ niche: having qualitative feedback from consumers and constantly feeling the heartbeat of the market is more important than ever for companies. The relationship we have with our research participants evolves into an ongoing online dialogue between them and a company. Facilitated through us, the research agency.
– Qualitative – traditionally conducted on smaller samples – can now easily be done on larger samples of e.g. 200 people (because of the cost and time efficiency of the online data collection method), this allows an additional more quantitative analysis on data who are qualitative from nature. Leading to new and richer insights. Allowing people to put post-its with emotions and comments on a concept, billboard or leaflet and looking at those hundreds of data points from an aggregated level is a nice example. Next to that we have online research communities on which hundreds or even thousands of participants are active, resulting into a huge amount of qualitative (posts, short comments, discussions …) and quantitative data (polls, ratings, positive or negative reactions, surveys …).
– Qualitative data is not only collected via interviews and discussions anymore. It’s also scraped from natural conversations on the internet and analyzed via text mining. To say even more, the data are not only textual anymore. Pictures, videos … – both published and mined on the public internet or on research blogs or foray – are rich information sources for researchers and ethnographers.
I believe that text mining or semantic analysis can have added value to more traditional ways of qualitative analysis: interpreting the data from an aggregated/group point of view, unveiling (hidden patterns in) emotions, being able to search for differences between profiles in a quick manner …  It will lead to an ultimate blurring between quantitative and qualitative research. While e.g. bulletin boards and the generated information (text) are qualitative in the traditional sense of the word, semantic analysis adds quantitative flavor to findings. There is a shift here in the level of analysis from the participant to the information chunks they generated and the association patterns between them.
But there is more besides this ‘fusion’ between qualitative and quantitative research, between interviewing and observing in online and offline contexts.
Some dogmas of the research profession are coming under pressure, probably leading to a whole new research paradigm:
– Research, although a serious thing and task, needs to become more fun and engaging for the participants. By the type of tasks we gave and by making every step of the research process more transparent.
– Research does not have to take ‘hours’ anymore for participants. It may definitely be a group of shorter and more spread data collection moments which are aggregated at a certain moment in time. We are moving from ‘ad hoc’ towards ‘always on’ research participants who participate to a specific task when they feel like it, how much and long they want and through the device they prefer. Powerful analysis tools will be needed to interpret and combine all the collected data in a fast and meaningful way: combinations of different analysis methods in order to unveil all hidden ‘diamonds’ in these huge amounts of qual-quant data.
– We all know that playing on intrinsic motivation (giving feedback, making research participants in crowd to the research subject) becomes a need, but due to the rise of the social internet, also ‘social motivation’ becomes important. Knowing what other participants are doing, seeing how many people already participated and how many of them agree or disagree … This will definitely bring in questions on anonymity and privacy issues. What are the consequences of giving up participants’ anonymity on data quality and response rates? How far may or can we go in this? It’s something we are currently researching together with Stephan Ludwig, the Unimaas Phd student we sponsor.
Next to that, what is the relevance of homogenized research groups in this new research world? Do we still need it? Or will data be richer when we use heterogeneous groups of participants due to the empowerment of today’s consumer?
– Research should also be spontaneous instead of just triggered. Reactions, feedback on products may come into a research community spontaneously, just like it pops-up on a natural community. Participants should have the ability to drop ideas directly to a company through their dedicated research community.
– And finally, research does not have to take place in a ‘lab’ environment anymore. We have to do online research – or offer participants invites for it – were they are online: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter … these new online media are definitely the new e-mail!
Exciting times are lying in front of us, that’s for sure! Conclusion of Peter Zegwaart, the session chair: “Online qualitative is definitely not a gimmick. To say even more, it has the ability to reshape our industry drastically in the forthcoming years!”

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