Keeping You Ahead of our Changing, Challenging Times: a Look at Online Qualitative Research

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While the pandemic has put a pause on so much, it’s also pushed forward a world of change.

That makes it a good time to be a researcher. But it also requires a re-think. You can’t keep doing the same old surveys asking the same old questions. For example, how would you put together a survey to help hosts fine-tune the sessions they’re hosting on the Clubhouse app? I don’t think I would even know what questions to ask.

All of the recent changes to the audio landscape make this a great time for qualitative research. Focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnography—these are the qualitative techniques where, by getting up close and personal with consumers, you get insights on new behaviours and attitudes. It’s like opening a window to see what flies in. You identify all those new things that look like they matter so you can follow up with a survey to measure them, allowing you to re-calibrate your reality.

During COVID, focus groups and personal interviews have moved online, and it’s working. To get a better idea how, I had a recent chat with the experts at Dialsmith.  We’ve partnered with them on several studies over the years. They’ve long been a leader in online content testing working with many of the major media companies including radio broadcasters and podcast publishers. In the past year, they’ve ramped up their online qualitative research capabilities to meet the explosion in demand.

I spoke with Dialsmith CEO David Paull and Research Director Gina Derickson, and they shared some of their learning.

1. With online qualitative, you are able to get more geographic diversity, with less travel

There’s no need to go to Peoria to know how it plays in Peoria. You can have people from Peoria in the same group as folks from Portland or Pensacola. Or do separate groups for each, all in one day.

Or, going to Dialsmith’s sweet spot—online dial testing of media content—you could do a large scale national dial test of a new podcast or radio show one day, look over the findings that night, and dig into the results the next day in a couple of online focus groups.

2. Online focus groups and in-person interviews require some heavy lifting on the technical side

You need to goofproof the technology. For security, Dialsmith uses Zoom for Government, the same platform used by the Department of Defense, the CDC and law enforcement.

You also need to make sure the respondent’s technology doesn’t hold the group back. Gina spells out the process: “Our tech support team sends a test to recruited respondents where they go onto Zoom and do a recording, so we know how well the platform works on their computer and internet connection. We can see the quality of their video and audio. If we need to have a follow-up, we reach out and coach them through any changes they need to make.” Dialsmith finds they need to follow up with 20-25% of recruits.

3. You can do just about anything with online focus groups you can do in a facility

Some group exercises can be more challenging than they would be in person. But a little creativity can go a long way. Gina often shares screens to do projective picture exercises: “You just have to think through the logistics of doing it.”

The added bonus is that you are reaching people in their homes. This gives you the opportunity to have respondents show you a product they have in their home and how they use it. Do you want to know how smart speaker owners ask Alexa for the music, the radio stations or the podcasts they listen to? Ask them to show you.

4. Plan on no more than five or six participants for each virtual focus group

It’s an issue of real estate. You want respondents’ faces to be big enough on screen that everyone can feel part of the conversation.

Five or six people may seem like a drawback. But, having done a few hundred groups over the years myself, I see a benefit here. You’re always able to get your greatest ‘ahas’ when you’re able to drill down for insights from individual participants. Gina agrees: “If it’s a two-hour focus group and you have 10 people, you take your 120 minutes divided by 10 people. You’re paying everybody pretty generously to talk for less than 12 minutes.” In fact, to ensure a more personal online experience, Gina finds that she’s been doing more one-on-one, in-depth interviews over the past year.

5. You can have as many observers as you like for online qualitative—there are no limits

Forget trying to cram 15 people into the back room behind the one-way mirror. You can set up your online sessions with as many observers as you like. Dialsmith uses Zoom Webinar. David describes how that works: “We make the respondents the speakers who are on camera, and we make the clients the attendees.  We give our clients the links, the more the merrier.”

6. Costs typically come in a little lower than traditional focus groups

Moving focus groups online means you save on facility costs. Much of that is, however, offset by the effort required to ensure a secure and successful online session.

The big savings come from travel. Neither the moderator nor the client observers have to hop from market to market. And, of course, food costs—no need to shell out for sandwiches for the respondents or Skittles and potato chips for the backroom.

What does the future on qualitative research look like? Will the shift online be one those changes accelerated by life under COVID? Gina feels that qualitative won’t go 100% online, and that there will still be a place for in-person focus groups and in-depth interviews.

Clearly though, just like a lot of other industries including audio, the qualitative research sector is gearing up for some major changes post-COVID. David quotes Steve Schlesinger, CEO of the Schlesinger Group, one of the largest players in qualitative research, as saying they’re expecting as much as a 30-50% downturn in offline qualitative post-COVID.

Qualitative research will be key for companies to understand and manage the change we’re all facing. The cool thing about online qualitative? It could get you there one step ahead of everyone else.

As part of our research services helping broadcasters, publishers and advertisers tap new opportunities in audio, Signal Hill Insights regularly conducts qualitative research. For more information on the different approaches we use, check out the Qualitative Research page on the Signal Hill website. Or reach out directly to set up a conversation.