As research options have grown tremendously over the past 10-15 years, with more and more online and mobile approaches becoming available, insights-seekers now have a full arsenal of tools on-hand.  Most often, researchers’ key question isn’t “Can we do this?”…it’s “What’s the best way to do this?”  One common debate is whether a project is better suited for a traditional/in-person approach, or a digital one.

Traditional and Digital approaches each have their benefits and trade-offs.  And, there are certainly initiatives which would be well-served by either option – often with the decision coming down to everyone’s least favorite factors of time and budget.

On the Digital side, benefits to leverage include:

  • Direct and near-constant access to participants. With over 75% of US adults owning a smartphone (including 92% of those aged 18-29) and 50% saying they couldn’t live without it, mobile research gives researchers a way to engage with their participants wherever they are:  at home, shopping in a store or online, preparing a meal, or going about their errands.
  • Maintaining consumer engagement over an extended period of time. Personally, I believe this is the most compelling reason to do online research. You can interact with participants for multiple days or even longer rather than only a few hours, resulting in a more thorough understanding of their lives. This often leads to richer learning and deeper insights into consumers’ relationships with the brands/products as they use them naturally over the course of their daily routines.
  • Recruiting advantages:  Whether needing to connect with a low incidence target, engage with consumers across several regions, book time with very busy participants, or engage with people who may have medical issues or other mobility challenges, digital qualitative offers many recruiting benefits.  By letting you recruit nationwide without sacrificing screening requirements, and enabling participants to work around their schedule rather than a facility’s, online solves many common recruiting challenges.
  • Covering sensitive topics. An online platform makes it easier for a respondent to share information that may be somewhat personal in nature since they are not face to face with other respondents or worried about what or who is on the other side of that one-way mirror.
  • Expedited timelines. You want insights and need them fast. Since there is a much larger pool of people to recruit from, screening for online research can be done quite efficiently. In fact, depending of course on final specifications, recruiting can often be done in as little as three days. Shorter recruiting time often results in quicker study execution.

That said, in-person approaches certainly offer a host of unique benefits as well, such as:

  • Strong collaboration & co-creation.  Having a group of people in a room together focused on a single topic is an unmatched opportunity for brainstorming ideas and optimizing on each other’s input.
  • Understanding what isn’t said.  Engaging with participants in-person provides the moderator incomparable opportunity to key in on body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal feedback – all of which can be extremely valuable in qualitative research.  Participants also pick up on each other’s non-verbal cues, which help to shape their own thinking and responses.
  • Freedom of flow.  Being “live” in the room with participants means experienced moderators can go with their gut and flex their plan as needed to keep the discussion on track.  This may mean incorporating individual or group creative exercises not necessarily planned in advance.
  • Getting up close with consumers.  Many clients love any opportunity to see their consumers in-person to get a stronger feel for who they are, how they think and feel, and what matters most to them.  Particularly for clients who don’t tend to do a lot of qualitative research, any opportunity to see and listen to their consumers in-person is tough to pass up.
  • More consistent sharing of stimuli.  Whether showing advertising ideas, packaging designs, new product concepts, or just about any other type of stimuli, presenting it in-person ensures that all participants see the same thing in the same way at the same time.  When sharing stimuli online, participant screen settings could slightly impact aspects such as colors or font clarity.

While there’s often no “wrong” choice between digital or in-person qualitative, there usually is a “better” option for any given research initiative.  Partnering with a team well-versed across all qualitative approaches is the best way to ensure you’re investing your research budget wisely.

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