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For companies that still rely on traditional face-to-face focus groups, taking qualitative (qual) research online can feel like a big risk. But for customer research to get its mojo back—for customer intelligence to maximize its value—companies need to engage with the empowered customer in a relevant and timely way. Because of mobile, cloud and social technologies, customers today are always online and connected. Qual research needs to keep up.

Here are five reasons why it’s critical to upgrade your approach immediately.

  1. Engage more customers by removing barriers.

When you take your qual research online and use an insight community, you’re no longer restricted to the 10 or 12 people who happen to make it to a particular room at a particular location. Online qual allows for greater flexibility, allowing you to invite many customers from multiple locations. In fact, many companies using a Vision Critical insight community routinely engage more than 50 qualified customers, usually from various locations, in their forums. A majority of people who join these forums actively participate and contribute.

Online qual can also complement traditional research methods—something that a retail brand that we work with recently discovered. The London-based company scheduled a focus group in Russia, but lost a few people a few days before it was scheduled to happen. Thankfully, the company already had an insight community, so its customer research team was able to contact members who were in Russia and who fit its criteria and invite them to the focus group. Being able to reach out to engaged customers quickly helped the company complete its focus group, avoiding losing valuable time and money in the process.

  1. Give everyone an equal opportunity to participate.

One of the downsides of focus groups is the tendency to have a “talker” who overpowers everybody else. When you have one enthusiastic person dominating the conversation, you get skewed information. That’s not an issue with an insight community, where everyone gets an equal chance to respond. No one person dominates the conversation, and people can freely express their views—even on sensitive subjects

  1. Get visuals and see your customers in action.

Inspired by advancements in social media, mobile qual research has come a long way. Instead of being limited to text, people can participate using photos and videos—media that people find more engaging.

Insight communities allow you to see what your customers see, no matter where they are. For example, one retailer asked its community to post pictures of their outfits, discovering in the process that customers had no idea how to pair their products with their shoes. That insight helped shape the company’s advertising campaign.

The ubiquity of mobile means you can be with your customers in their day-to-day lives and not be restricted to just the few hours you spend with them in a focus group. Through visuals, customers can also engage with your brand in a way that’s more enjoyable to them and more useful for you.

  1. Integrate your insight.

Most quantitative (quant) research methodologies have already moved online. From surveys to insight communities, today’s empowered customers are more likely to engage online with companies.

By moving your qual online along with your quant, you can talk to the same customers in different ways. For example, if your customer answered a survey, you can invite them to an online discussion to further explore the topic. Or, you can be guided by the views of your customers in a forum, then invite them and other customers to validate those trends in an online survey. When you’re working from the same online customer intelligence platform, you can provide a more seamless experience to those participating.

  1. Save time.

Within forums, you can highlight quotes that are particularly useful and catch a quick overview of themes using word clouds. You can get instant access to full online discussions without waiting for the conversation to be transcribed. This speeds up the process, shortening the time between engagement with your customers and delivering the insight to your organization. Saving time means you can focus on solving your business questions sooner.


In the age of the empowered customer, speed isn’t just a nice-to-have: it’s a requirement to be able to deliver better products and services and to ultimately drive sales. All aspects of customer research, including qual research, need to keep up with the speed of business today. More importantly, moving your qual research online provides a better experience to the people that matter most to your company: the customer.

Re-imagining research: 10 golden tips for the modern researcher

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