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Are online ‘forums’ the new ‘groups’ of qualitative research?

May 3, 2011

I manage the qualitative division of Vision Critical Australia and New Zealand and many of our research buyers approach us with one of two questions. It is either, 1) what is possible with online qualitative research? Or, 2) how can we do lots more research and spend less?

There is however a bit of context that one needs to understand before we launch into discussing ‘what buyers should be asking for’.

Focus groups have their place and purpose, which is different from a triad, or a paired-interview or a depth interview. While the principles behind these methods overlap, they do yield different results. However, the ugly reality of qualitative research is that, client budgets most often dictate approach. If I had a dollar for every-time a client has opened the conversations saying “we don’t want to make this too complex, we just want to do a couple of groups…” or “we just want to do a few groups to get a feel for …” or ‘we don’t have a lot of money on this …so we were thinking of running a couple of groups’. Setting up a triad by distinct brand preferences and using a conflict exploration technique extracts rich data, which perhaps is a lot deeper than a focus group. But, the general value perception is to compare three participants vs. eight in a room. We have seen mini groups and triads being used when participants are hard to find or the client does not have budgets for a full group. Not ideal but, that I guess is the reality of our business!

Similarly, I have also noticed a trend in client requests to run ‘a forum’ or a ‘quick blog’. In many cases, they are not sure what to expect, or have a clear vision of what the outputs might be or how they will use the information and they want to dabble with online qualitative research as someone has informed them that it’s getting used a lot lately.

A ‘forum’ has its benefits but, like every qualitative methodology also has its shortcomings. At Vision Critical we follow the principals of traditional qualitative research and are guided by the business objective rather than the method or a tool. On many occasions, we choose to deploy more than one method to extract the right information.

In this dynamic online qualitative space there are many definitions, explanations, choices, players and interpretations of methods and tools. Here is my perspective on the various tools.


It’s a great tool for when you want to develop a landscape understanding. For example; tell us about your last holiday? What does your mobile phone mean to you? Describe what tea means to you? A forum typically evolves quite organically and if the topic has been posted correctly it ends up taking a life of its own and progresses to the dominant direction the members/ participants want to steer it with their views and posts. This also implies that it does not give the researcher control and the ability to the ever important ‘whys.

In my view a forum is like trying to make sense of the comments after an online article the trail could take you in many directions. However, since this is market research forum the need to have some degree of control always helps.


This is where all the action is, i.e. the features and options available to choose from and being introduced in the market. You can Geo-tag posts, have twitter and other social media feeds or allow participants to upload photos and videos or take the discussion to their smart phones and tablets and back. They are slick, purposive and provide a greater deal of control and diagnostic opportunities, as opposed to organically evolving basic forum. Personally, I enjoy using them as its threaded view allows to probe on the why and gives us the opportunity to explore every post and challenge them if need be, without derailing the discussion . The best way to use an advance bulletin board is to funnel the topics as you would in a topic guide and introduce, build the context before you ask the question. If we were conducting a study on Tea, our first post would be about asking, ‘what does tea mean to you?’ and then progressively introduce the second post of how is that different from earl grey and peppermint tea?. This is great approach, as we build the context and then provide stimuli to explore further. Progressively, we can introduce visual stimulus and concepts to do some more diagnostic questioning. While it is an appealing experience for the participants, for the moderator it allows to make comments and tag posts, then be able to extract the posts with all those comments. Personally, if I were operating with a business need in view, I would only ever work with these advance discussion tools.


Live chats have more elements similar to a focus group, short duration (90 to 120 Minutes), 8 to 12 geographically diverse participants, stakeholders viewing the live discussion and the ability to get the moderator to probe on things of interest. You could run these in your PJs from the convenience of your home or a coffee shop, as long as you have access to internet, you could be anywhere! A topic guide can be either uploaded in advance where you can drip feed the questions with a click of a button, or type them up as you go. The cool thing about new age live chat software is that you can whiteboard ideas, show concepts (audio, video and images) and give the participants tools to highlight, stamp, click on or other things that the moderator would typically do in a group discussion. You can even create flash based programs for projective techniques; we have successfully used House Building, Kelly’s Triad and Collage Building technique. Personally, I find these quite satisfying to run!

Many providers today offer text, audio and video group facility but, I would not go there yet with the latency and fluctuating internet speeds in Australia. Also audio needs a lot of training and practice to get trained on voice recognition and lack of non verbal cues. I have run video groups in the past in other markets and have proven to be interesting but, I would not try video groups in Australia just yet. Perhaps when NBN has penetrated the market!


There are many tools available today which can go beyond the realm of quant only, for example, we can get consumers to recreate their pantry virtually for us by a simple drag and drop exercise. Provide a magnetic board and get consumers to drop images to make a collage or a mood board. ‘How do you feel when you have a Tim Tam…using images’ or ‘which of these images can you use to describe how you feel when you are having tea?’. We can provide the images or allow participants to BYO. What I like about this is that the moment participants click submit, you can divert them to a forum or bulletin board or live chat and show them their response and ask them why? Now multiply this with 50 participants and imagine the outputs…absolutely rich and engaging

What I tell all Clients who ask about running ‘a forum’ is that there is a lot more that they can do and it’s about thinking beyond the individual tool. The perspective needs to be about staying true to the objective of the study. Use the medium that is right for the study, research objective and business need. Its not about choosing the one that suits the budget and stakeholder comprehension and comfort levels.

Online qualitative research is not a replacement to traditional qualitative research…just yet. But, the digital nation that we are becoming, the need to talk to consumers in a platform that they are already conversing in is the imminent future. Qualitative research is a new immigrant to this medium and has a lot to learn and explore.

So, are online forums soon becoming the ‘groups’ of qualitative research? As a terminology, perhaps! But, the good news is that qualitative research is extending to where consumers are conversing and market research was not. Also, with the new competitive landscape of Web 2.0 we are breaking the ugly, disengaged, web1.0 and mundane interface that market research questionnaires gets accused of.

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