Editor's note: Sarah Faulkner is owner of Faulkner Insights. She can be reached at sarah@faulknerinsights.com.

As we’ve adapted to the many changes in market research wrought by the pandemic, virtual qualitative research has become even more of a staple in the insights professional’s toolbox. But while these online approaches provide many benefits, they can also come with significant pitfalls. Here we’ll review the advantages of virtual qualitative research as well as common challenges, along with tips to mitigate them.

Key advantages of virtual qual

Eliminates location constraints. Conducting qualitative research virtually means connecting with people without having to travel to their locations, saving considerable time and money. It also allows recruiting across cities and regions to boost geographic diversity or compare key locations.

Recruiting benefits. Because consumers can be recruited from multiple cities, recruiting low-incidence or hard-to-find participants becomes easier, given the larger potential pool of prospects. Virtual interviews can also increase the likelihood of recruiting busy executives, physicians or high-net-worth individuals who might not be willing to come to a facility (or have researchers in their homes or workplaces).

Allows more client team members to engage. Many more client team members can view the research in real time without the limitations of travel budgets, time out of the office and back room/in-home space. Team members can also join as their schedule allows or quickly access digital recordings.

A range of digital tools. Thanks to virtual interview platforms, moderators have unique tools to enhance the experience for participants and more easily capture some types of responses. There are virtual whiteboards, on-screen mark-up tools for concepts and ads, polling questions and more. Plus, client viewers can send probes/follow-up questions to the moderator via private chat to minimize disruptions.

Key challenges of virtual qual

Quality of team engagement. While virtual qual allows a greater number of team members to engage, the quality of that engagement can suffer without the team being physically present for the research. If someone is investing time and money to attend physical research, they are more likely to focus their attention on viewing the interviews/groups and actively participating in the debrief. Even with the best intentions, blowing off virtual groups is much easier and more likely to happen. Or, perhaps even worse, paying partial attention to groups on a screen while trying to multitask.

Tips to overcome this challenge:

  • Book a conference room during the research times with livestream viewing and ask people to block their calendars to replicate the backroom experience as closely as possible. 
  • Bring in snacks and meals for fuel (and as an attendance incentive) and assign someone to lead mini-debriefs after each group/interview, capturing notes in the room on a whiteboard or flipchart (as well as a full debrief after all the interviews).
  • If the groups are happening too early or late for practical livestream viewing, reserve a room and calendars for a time the following business day instead. 
  • If the online qualitative research is asynchronous (e.g., bulletin boards, digital diaries), reserving team time and a central space for review and debriefing during the project is also a valuable approach for driving team engagement.
  • If the team works virtually/across multiple sites and it isn’t practical to have a physical viewing session, schedule virtual debrief calls at the end of each research day to encourage people to actively view the groups in real time.

Quality of participant engagement. This challenge typically comes in one of two forms: technical issues or distraction. There are myriad potential technical challenges with online qualitative research, including poor video or audio quality, slow connection speed, access trouble, user error and more. When connecting from home, distraction can also be a real issue, whether it be kids or other family members interrupting or making noise, dogs barking, the temptation to multitask, etc.

Tips to overcome this challenge:

  • Include technical qualification questions and requirements in the screener. Make sure potential participants have the right equipment, expertise and expectations before qualifying. Some areas for questioning you might consider adding include: participant access to high-speed internet; equipment owned/used (e.g., laptop, tablet, smartphone, webcam); comfort/experience with technology/platform; willingness to be recorded or submit video/pictures, etc.
  • After qualifying, in the research invitation, tell participants that they need to participate from a private, well-lit room with minimal distractions. Ask them to log onto the video platform a few minutes early to test their audio and video.
  • Ensure your research supplier or platform vendor provides live technical assistance and troubleshooting. They can help participants test everything in advance and provide any assistance needed in the background without disrupting the group. 
  • When the participants are online, before the group starts, either the moderator or a project manager should also take the opportunity to address any potential issues upfront with individual participants. For example: turn lights on, contain the barking dog, get closer to the microphone, get closer to the camera, etc.

Maximize the value 

Online qualitative research is a wonderful addition to the portfolio of consumer research tools and techniques and has many valuable applications. Knowing when to use online qual, and how to avoid potential pitfalls, will ensure you and your team can maximize the value of every engagement.