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Online Qualitative Research: Tried, Tested and True

You might think online qualitative research is new and leading edge, even though it’s been around in some form for roughly two decades. As with many technology developments in commercial marketing research, our industry repurposed and modified technologies to meet our own needs.

When Jennifer Dale and I set out to write a comprehensive guide to online qualitative research, Qual Online: The Essential Guide, it was only natural to start by seeking out the roots, finding and documenting the pioneers in the industry that have made so much possible.

Online qualitative really started with the online focus group, live text-chat sessions that were conducted in AOL chat rooms. The first known such session was conducted by Marian Salzman in 1992, but competitors quickly followed, and private chat rooms were not far behind.

Early development of online functionality was relatively slow, as the two timelines here show. Timeline for online qualitative research in 1990sAlthough bulletin board systems had been available since dial-up days in the late 1970s, they weren’t adopted for commercial use until internet access was more widely available. Dedicated bulletin boards (aka discussion forums, threaded discussions, asynchronous) didn’t really take hold until the early 2000s.

Easy access to video tools changed the game again. Researchers quickly saw the potential of handheld and web-enabled video cameras such as Flip Video, and research platforms quickly evolved to permit video uploads.Timeline for online qualitative research, selected launches, 2000s

Although SMS messaging was available from the mid-90s, its potential as a research tool did not really emerge until much later, when cellular phones had penetrated into the general population.
The advent of the smart phone has meant a major shift to mobile enablement of all of these methodologies.

Here in the middle of the 2010s the current challenge for research platform providers is whether to offer a dedicated app, or simply enable a mobile-responsive platform that is accessible through any internet device. Another concern is whether or not the participants can gather multi-media data for later upload, or if they must have a live connection to participate. Research participants will hardly care about the technology underpinnings, as long as the tools are easy to use, and don’t impinge on their data plan limits.

The opportunities for abuse of trust have expanded greatly with the easy capture of video, and the potential to secretly examine other participant data on their mobile device without informed consent. ESOMAR, working together with the Mobile Marketing Research Association, has now modified the standards for ethical marketing research to take into account the widespread use of mobile technologies for gathering insights.

Although the early days of online qualitative were dominated by a half-dozen well-regarded platform suppliers, the 2010s have seen an explosion in providers accompanied by new buzzwords. We needed a taxonomy to classify these many approaches, a set of labels that fit not just the methods we have today, but the ones that are likely to emerge. Highlights of this taxonomy will be presented in Part 2 of this series.

Susan Abbott is a consultant with a passion for customer insights that power new ideas. She is president of Abbott Research and Consulting, and co-founder of Think Global Qualitative, a global alliance of master qualitative researchers. She is co-author, with Jennifer Dale, of Qual-Online: The Essential Guide.

This is an excerpt from Qual-Online The Essential Guide: What Every Researcher Needs to Know about Conducting and Moderating Interviews via the Web by Jennifer Dale and Susan Abbott. Published under license from Paramount Market Publishing, Inc.