Today there are numerous digital solutions (some more agile than others) for conducting online market research projects. However, it is not always easy to see clearly, target and choose the most appropriate providers, methods and tools able to achieve one’s objectives.

Qualitative online market research had a promising beginning… but it was soon criticized and perceived as rather impractical, not easy to implement and not necessarily cheaper than classic qual.

When the online market research platforms began to appear in the 2000s, they presented themselves as being particularly innovative, convenient and practical. The main benefits highlighted were cost reduction (for travel and logistics) and the possibility of running several simultaneous fieldworks in different countries, replacing the “classic” qualitative studies practiced previously ­– mainly focus groups and face-to-face interviews.

Companies were promised online studies with hyper-motivated consumers, willing to spend hours behind their computer screens to answer many questions and fill in several templates and diaries over a significant period of time, and whose answers contractors could read remotely.

A few years later, after the first waves of this type of projects, marketing professionals, research agencies and corporate companies measured the limits of these early tools and approaches:

– Recruitment was long and difficult because, at the time, consumers were not as comfortable with new technologies as they are today; in addition, the connection process requiring many clicks coupled with the discovery by the consumer of the too long list of questions asked were discouraging. This generated a much higher drop-out rate than recruitment for a “classic” fieldwork

– The different platforms designed for online market research were not always very intuitive nor ergonomic; it was sometimes a struggle for the consumer to log in and fill in the tasks; customer/observer follow-up was not intuitive enough; finally, the moderator needed a considerable amount of time and technical support to properly set up his project

– These first platforms could experience computer bugs that complicated the flow of the online fieldwork

– Photo and video upload was very limited (few photos, small size and average quality, almost no video)

– The length of the online fieldwork was rather long (7 to 14 days) in order to give consumers the opportunity to reflect and answer in detail all the questions, if possible by adding pictures to illustrate their thoughts

– The synthesis and analysis processes were long also because the exports of the data collected were slow. The analyst had to process dozens and hundreds of pages of verbatim that were almost not at all filtered nor organized.

As a result, interest in online market research had not really been validated.

Then, in the 2010s, there was a transition period during which a real IT work of optimization of the user experience was carried out. Online market research platforms have become more user-friendly for consumers but also for moderators, analysts and clients.

Significant improvements have been made to make it easier and faster for participants to connect from any device: computer, tablet and/or smartphone. Because the digital and mobile industry had known a considerable development.

Filtering and segmenting options for different targets have been added or optimized for a more detailed and accurate analysis for each segment.

Live follow-up of the participation rate, immediate accessibility to participants’ responses were also facilitated in order to allow clients to smoothly follow the study remotely and moderators to more easily interact with participants. While at the very beginning of online studies additional probes to the initial questionnaire were not a priority, over time, the systems and platforms dedicated to online market research have worked a lot to improve this aspect. When running a qual project, it is essential to enable moderators to probe when they encounter incomplete or inaccurate answers, to ask for additional information from less active consumers.

Data storage capacity has been increased, ergonomics and data confidentiality have been improved. So that participants can express themselves freely via text, images or videos on a single platform. Thus, the moderator-analyst could centralize all types of information (without having to use other channels for large-format photos and videos for example).

Over time, these early online crowdsourcing platforms aimed at better understanding consumer habits, uses and attitudes have offered specific add-ons such as mark-up, mapping tool, drag and drop, simultaneous translation, picture book to differentiate themselves from the competition. These new features have been added in addition to those common to most providers: blog, newspaper, forum / collective discussion space, individual questionnaire, chat. They allow corporate companies to obtain a detailed evaluation of the products and/or services ideas and concepts before or after the market launch.

In the last 3-4 years or so, a new era of online market research has begun with fundamental changes in structure, content and aesthetics.

In recent years new technologies have significantly evolved and have fully penetrated into our lives: they have impacted all activities and professions and have inexorably changed the way a large part of the population lives, communicates, buys or works. Indeed, many people no longer picture their lives without a Smartphone or an account on at least one social network. Digital transformation and innovation affect most businesses, regardless of their size. Big data, social-listening, ethnographic qual research on mobile or online platforms have become common in many sectors to collect inspiring attitudinal and behavioral insights to nourish strategic thinking, communications, product development or operational marketing.

Today, online studies are no longer perceived only as a basic alternative solution to “classic qual (with people physically present in the same room)”, as a module added out of curiosity nor as a first step towards digitalization, as it was the case 10 years ago. Also, online research is not used anymore for testing only.

Co-creating with consumers, step-by-step co-construction and design-thinking approaches (getting to deeply know your target, listening to its needs, identifying its most important problems, formulating hypotheses to meet its needs, testing them, learning, then testing again, learning and optimizing) are commonplace in most companies, research firms and marketing agencies. Immersive phases in the consumer universe during key moments, alternation between individual and collective exchanges and collection of various data from different sources (ethnographic interviews, creative labs or validation/optimization face-to-face groups, online or mobile platforms, social networks, Internet reviews, press) are being mixed and matched in order to create methodological processes that give a broader view on the research subject and objective.

Currently, when designing a research / innovation / exploration process, insight consultants and agencies no longer recommend conducting a quant phase to begin with and then a qualitative step to investigate deeper certain aspects, or vice versa (qual then quant). This era is over. Nowadays the recommendation would be similar to the following approach:

– Start with a social listening module, coupled with a blog or an online diary to understand consumer journeys, to explore trends, uses & attitudes and collect rich content,

– in a second phase, several hypotheses / concepts / prototypes will be shaped,

– then, they will be Quant tested and will be prioritized,

– and finally, the ideas with the greatest potential will be selected by the marketing teams in order to be improved and finalized with the consumers’ help.

Last but not least, the development of new technologies also enables researchers and insight consultants to shorten logistics and recruitment times. For instance, when one has difficulties in finding certain specific target profiles through the traditional approach, recruitment can be done faster and astutely via social networks. In addition, it is also possible to carry out several fieldworks simultaneously in different countries without significantly lengthening the duration of the project. Marketing automation tools, AI and chat bots have enabled this and so much more.

Extremely interesting, hybrid and agile future perspectives for online research

In the years to come, hybrid online research projects (Qual-Quant but also Qual+Social Listening+Desk Research) will be increasingly valued. The barriers between more “traditional” and innovative methods, between purely Qual and purely Quant studies, between online and face-to-face methods will gradually blur and will tend to disappear. This will happen mostly because of the agility of this type of approach, but also because of their ability to be easily integrated into more complex innovation processes.

The extent of co-development, of immersion in the universe of a certain category of the population, of conversation and connection with consumers at a deeper psychological, sociological and emotional level will be much higher. Thus the word “study” in itself will probably become too vague and obsolete. There will be more exploration and the consumer-citizens will actively participate in building a more humane, environmentally friendly and more conversational future society built on trust.

In this context, from a decision-making facilitation perspective, the online projects will become particularly agile, relevant and efficient. This will be enabled by the development of new technologies, of automation tools that facilitate the exchanges between several people, by the improvement of the targeting possibilities, the improvement of the visualization tools of the collected data, but also by the ability of the next-generation marketing consultants to juggle all these new tools and solutions to solve business challenges.

Tomorrow’s online marketing platforms will enable the emergence of new products and services increasingly more in line with the real consumer expectations. How? By co-constructing meaningful and virtuous solutions in order to diminish the sense of guilt and the current paradoxes. The economy of tomorrow will be made up of sustainable and economically viable solutions with a positive impact both on the environment and the society.

> For more information on the benefits of online qual for innovation, please read this post:

> Here you will also find the best practices to set up a successful online qualitative study:

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Online market research – an agile method for delivering rich, relevant and actionable insights

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