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Being a "quali" before the advent of online qual research involved running around moderating focus groups after work hours, analyzing content on handwritten A3 sheets of paper, listening to tapes of focus groups, and having whiteboard analysis sessions with the team. So basically, as a qualitative researcher, most of my fellow qualies - unlike our "quanti" cousins - didn't really feel the need to embrace technology (with the exception of email and PowerPoint) to set up a study and host and analyze data. The work of qualitative researchers was more about face-to-face meetings and paper-based approaches.

For a long time, this approach worked. We got away doing qualitative work without the need to use the latest gadgets and/or any technology. But as we revealed in our interactive infographic on the evolution of market research, many factors have changed research in general and qualitative research in particular.

One of the most important factors is that consumers today have moved on to conversing online, a lot more than they did in the past. This, in turn, has made qualitative researchers sit up and notice the benefits of online technologies. However, moving to online qualitative research requires a different approach: You can't just run the same qual study the way you've been doing it offline.

If you're wondering what's ahead in the future of qualitative research, it's helpful to look at the past and see how the practice evolved. Here are four ways online research has forever changed qualitative research methods:

  1. Made quant and qual studies more concurrent than sequential

Before the birth of online qualitative research/insight communities, the old model required researchers to do quantitative studies first, identify any anomalies, and then run qualitative studies last or vice-versa. Either way, it was a sequential process. This took time. From analyzing quantitative results to crafting the necessary follow-up, qualitative studies took weeks, if not months.

Today, with insight communities and advancements in mobile capabilities, you can set up a qualitative study at the same time as a quantitative study. For example, participants who answer a pivotal survey question can automatically and immediately be directed to a discussion forum, where they can tell us why they feel the way they do. Doing so is becoming more seamless - even in mobile. In that way, quant and qual studies are now more concurrent than sequential, allowing people to elaborate on their answers immediately after answering a survey. Also, putting like-minded people in a moderated discussion makes the learning richer than just being an open-ended question in a survey.

  1. Forced researchers to change the way they approach asking questions

Given the highly controlled environment, traditional qualitative research methods usually have a funnel-down approach. This typical approach reduce biases: it leaves the best question last and ensures that context is established early.

However, online qualitative methods, especially discussion forums, require flipping this approach on its head. In fact, for discussion forums, it's a good idea to get in with your best question first. This is partly because of tapering participation rates: sometimes participants get busy or they've said everything they wanted to and don't feel that they have more to add. Also, people are increasingly doing something else (sometimes they're not even home) when they participate in research. As drop-offs happen naturally, you should get people involved quickly in the main question and follow up with probes to understand the why. With this approach, you essentially get to the same level of contextual detail. This requires going in with more hypothesis so there is something for all invited participants to respond, react, and engage with.

  1. Sped up the time it takes to do qualitative research

Perhaps this is the point that is most obvious, but it's also the most significant: Online options have changed the speed at which we can conduct qualitative research. With online qualitative research, you can field a study as quickly as two days from the time you have identified a research need.

Even for multi-location studies, you can involve geographically diverse participants and stakeholders without leaving your own office. The need to travel to conduct focus groups or to ask questions has significantly declined. Online research saves time for researchers, participants, and stakeholders.

  1. Basic qualitative research principles remain the same

Advancements in online research have made qualitative research faster, cheaper and more efficient. The technology is there to do qualitative research in less time, increasing the volume and frequency of the studies that we do. The opportunity costs of doing online research are also a lot lower: You can respond to emails, analyze your findings, and write your report all from your desktop.

With all these technological advancements, one thing hasn't changed: the need to ensure that your research is guided by business and research needs. While an appreciation of the various technologies and different methods helps qualitative researchers remain relevant to consumer lifestyles, sound judgment doesn't replace it. In the same way that focus groups are not the solution to all face-to-face qualitative research, qual researchers need to start with their needs and work from there. Whether discussion forums, video chats, or something else, figure out the best online qualitative methodology that will help tackle your research and business needs.

Online research demonstrates how technology can significantly add value to qualitative research. The sun may be setting on the old-school quali, but as long as we embrace the new technologies - including mobile, social media, and text analytics - qualitative research will evolve into a more interesting and powerful tool and quali researchers will be have a more complete set of skills to go with the time. And while my fellow qualies need to embrace these technologies, they also need to safeguard the practice, thinking creatively by ensuring that online qual continues to be guided by research and business needs first and by technology second.

To learn more about the history of market research and what's ahead in its future, please see our interactive infographic or click the image below.

Evolution of Insight

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