Change for the better

Editor's note: Curtis Kaisner is director, qualitative methods, at Gongos Research, Auburn Hills, Mich. Karen Lindley is director, digital methods, ConsumerView online qualitative, at Gongos Research.

As the saying goes, there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. But we believe there is another certainty: change. We frequently read statistics about how quickly our knowledge is morphing and expanding and we experience the changes technology imposes on our lives every day.

The corporate world is not immune. Yet the very nature of change can present challenges for corporations that may be used to moving more gradually and deliberately. Exhibiting responsiveness and nimbleness are keys to not just adapting but embracing changes brought on by technology. And, as a researcher, whether you consider yourself a traditionalist or technologist, we have a duty to help drive, and usher in, this change.

Consumers – considered the very lifeblood of marketing research – are rapidly embracing technology in every facet of their lives. New gadgets and lifestyle technologies have not only become ubiquitous but necessary. Reaching consumers “where they are” and in a manner that makes them feel most at ease will ensure our qualitative insights become richer and paint a more authentic picture of how products and services fit into their lives.

While it may be necessary to gather a group of consumers at a central location to discuss the features – and hear the sound – of a new home theater system, it could be just as effective to ask consumers to go to a store with smartphone in hand and upload a confessional video about their experience with that same system. Imagine the unfiltered insights as we effectively guide consumers toward this moment of truth. We leave the raw reaction, literally, in their hands, and in the video archives that provide powerful evidence to back data.

Look into the past

To better understand how we can embrace opportunities to make qualitative methods richer through technology, we need to look into the past. The first live, online groups offered moderators a new way to interact with consumers. Yet their dependence on typed communication eliminated the ability to read non-verbal cues. This set the pace of listening and probing at “only as fast as consumers could type.” These constraints limited the sorts of topics that could be covered in this medium. If you wanted to gauge facial expressions and emotions, this approach came up short and certainly did not give the intimate feel of in-person sessions. The options for stimuli and screen-sharing were limited or non-existent.

As a result, the first online qualitative approach was met with skepticism. This doubt halted further exploration and delayed its arrival in the research world. Eventually, this technology gained traction in the late 1990s with the initial patent summarized as a “System and Method for Conducting Focus Groups Using Remotely Located Participants over a Computer Network.” The initial patent was filed by Greenfield Online in 1999 and was later acquired by iTracks in 2001. Since that time, multiple vendors have joined the online focus group space and this technique and its offshoot applications have been moving forward ever since.

Fruitful interactions

Today, the online focus group platform has drastically evolved, enabling us to have fruitful interactions with consumers though the use of Webcams and shared computer screens. Webcams allow faces to be seen and expressions captured, creating a reality that closely replicates an in-person group.

Virtual focus groups today also integrate screen-sharing, allowing researchers to conduct a variety of testing: Web site and app usability studies; imagery and ad concept mocks and mark-ups; heat mapping; and picture and word sorting.

With online focus groups, researchers can also share an array of multimedia stimuli such as PowerPoint decks, storyboards, video and audio tracks.

The online surge has not stopped there, as the evolution of online focus groups has occurred simultaneously with the advancement of other technologies. Online journals, communities and video diaries are also embraced for their ability to capture in-the-moment consumer reactions. And, adding in photo and video uploads gets us another step closer to the consumer – in the store, at the point of purchase and during consumption. They help bring feelings, emotions and motivations to life with minimal intrusion, capturing a rawness that other earlier forms of online qualitative were unable to provide.

Unfortunately, these platforms require consumers to recall the moment they wrote their response, snapped the picture and/or shot the video. They still lend themselves to afterthought interpretation by consumers.

New integrative approaches

The increase of hybrid research methods is a reflection of how researchers are melding the strengths of multiple techniques to form new integrative approaches. Doing so allows us to view consumers through multiple lenses, creating a more complete consumer picture. And, while these innovative techniques can serve as a replacement for traditional methods, they are often best utilized as enhancements to research. While each technique is not one-size-fits-all, we must recognize and leverage the benefits of each to create a comprehensive research solution.

Let’s look at a few select hybrid scenarios.

Scenario 1: Product exploration – video diary + online focus groups (FGs) + short-term marketing research online community (MROC)

Situation: A candy manufacturer wanted to understand awareness of its football sponsorship and the role its products play during the viewing of playoff football games among consumers viewing in home, at parties or in person.


  • Video diaries/confessionals – View playoff game rituals including preparation/shopping, viewing and all food/beverage consumption on game day.
  • Online focus groups – Gain deeper understanding of behaviors/rituals and discern differences between regular-season games, playoff games and the Super Bowl itself.
  • Short-term MROC – Gather ratings (quantitative) and reactions (qualitative) around awareness and fit of sponsorship along with feedback on various promotional concepts. 

Scenario 2: Product placement – online journal + online bulletin board + online FGs

Situation: A clothing manufacturer wanted to perform product placement research with fashionable men to determine its pants’ fit, comfort, style, durability, washability, etc., and competitive benchmarking.


  • Online journal – Gather unaided consumer feedback/observations as they wore, washed and re-wore the pants.
  • Bulletin board – Glean additional insight into targeted areas of interest by posting specific questions (with the ability to post follow-up probes for more depth/clarification) over the course of the product placement.
  • Online FGs – Gain detailed product feedback and competitive perceptions from groups with product placement respondents and their personal friends. The discussion guide was developed to address themes revealed though the online journals and bulletin boards.

Scenario 3: Web site usability –  Online IDIs

Situation: An online retailer needed to test the layout, design and functionality of its new Web site within the constraints of a tight budget.


  • Online IDIs – Utilizing our standard online FG platform, we are able to share the moderator’s screen with respondents, give them control and perform a standard usability interview with them seated at their home computer. (Note: Usability interviews can also be conducted online for smartphones or tablets using a special low-glare HD Webcam.)

Real-time glimpse

With the onset of 4G smartphones, we are dabbling in the ability to access consumers through videochat platforms. Sure, we can chat online now but a smooth audio and video feed is not possible without a direct Wi-Fi connection. This limits where consumers can take us and what they can show us. Once the kinks are worked out, mobile chats will offer an unencumbered, real-time glimpse into the lives of consumers.

Imagine this: A client is observing via computer a consumer entering a retail outlet with the same home theater system as in our earlier example. Synchronized in real-time, the moderator from her office directs the consumer to a special seasonal display and asks what they notice first. Both client and moderator witness what the consumer sees and the questioning begins. No memory recall is needed. No reflectivism enters the research process. No overrationalization is brought to the table. No team of researchers following them in the store.

In reality, we’re not far off. Current trials of real-time interviews via smartphones and other 4G mobile devices show great promise. So far, we’re witnessing seamless video observation and audio communication without lags. With 4G rollouts on the rise, we expect this transition to take hold by the end of 2013.

In the meantime, we are leveraging 4G hotspot devices as part of incentive process, breaking the Wi-Fi tether and further enabling participation of 3G owners. Similar to sending external Webcams for online groups, these hotspots are a great interim solution to getting closer to mobile netnography.

Driven by dreaming

Innovation is not accomplished solely through invention. It’s driven through adaptation – taking an old idea and making it better – leveraging existing tools and applying them differently to suit your and consumers’ changing needs. But it’s also driven by dreaming. It’s okay to ask ourselves, “What if?”

No longer reserved for quantitative research, online – and very soon mobile – methods will breathe new life into qualitative research. These options will enable researchers to think more creatively and perhaps less scientifically as a discipline. This will also allow us to bring consumers into the research process in a way that better resonates with them. As a result, insights will be more rooted in reality, adding a fresh layer of authenticity to research. That’s the kind of change we can all welcome.