Can Online Research Techniques Ever Really Replace Face-to-Face Methods?

In line with the progress of all things digital, there has been a great deal of interest in new high-tech online research methods in recent years. Various articles and luminaries have set out how online methods are able to surpass the value gained from traditional face-to-face techniques.

It is certainly true that they show a great deal of promise as tools, but the reality is that every research method has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the ultimate aims of the research, budget and timescales, one method may be ideally suited to one research project but woefully suited for another.

So, where could these new tools add real value in the FMCG market research mix? We’ll examine the situations where online methods can work best and where more traditional face-to-face methodologies are worth considering.

Artificial Intelligence Analysis

Artificial Intelligence on phone

As social media has become more and more ubiquitous, it represents a rich seam of comment, opinion and observation expressed by consumers all across the globe. Once, it was inconceivable to analyse due to the size of this growing data mountain. Now, software developers have made it possible to gather insight from this data by producing complex AI software able to ‘scrape’ the internet for relevant text. This is then analysed and segmented, ultimately turning it into indispensable insight.

This software has had a huge impact on the industry, allowing businesses to measure reactions to their brands and track the progress of certain trends. One example where it has been useful is in studying the meat free movement – a trend which receives a great deal of attention on social media.

AI allows businesses to measure the volume of positive vs. negative comments and allows them to segment comments into different types depending on the language used e.g. 15% of comments may be around sustainability, 5% may relate to animals etc. This information is useful in highlighting motivations, attitudes and opinions of consumers – theoretically a way of achieving the ultimate research goal of attaining qualitative insight at scale.

While this software is sure to delight many brands keen to see real-life, real-time data, social media insight should clearly be taken with a pinch of salt. Social media profiles are a reflection of the best versions of peoples’ lives and comments made may not necessarily represent the most reliable view of that person really thinks. This is one of the reasons why online forums can be a better source of data as commenters tend to provide richer explanations of their genuine thought processes.

However, while forums, and indeed social media, are useful where there is controversy or a lot of discussion around a brand, product area or trend, they are clearly likely to be of limited use for areas people are unlikely to be discussing online. For relatively small brands for instance, or very niche categories, there is unlikely to be a huge amount of data available. Therefore, these online scraping techniques at the moment are best utilised for examining popular trends over time.

So, for brands looking for genuine feedback on their product or brand where spontaneous feedback is not available, interaction with consumers is still required, whether this be face-to-face or online.

Focus Groups

food and drink focus groups

The traditional mainstay of Food Market Research, face-to-face focus groups have been the victim of some criticism in recent years. Relatively high costs and lead-times have led many businesses to look for alternative methods able to be delivered in a shorter timeframe and/or at a lower cost. One way of achieving this is of course to conduct the focus group sessions online. This can either be done with respondents linking up their webcams and logging in at a set time, or a more chat-room style method can be utilised where respondents can type instead of talk on camera.

Both methods give the benefit of widening the sample and making recruitment more straightforward. Without the need to be in a certain place at a certain time, this makes the sample of potential of respondents much larger, so therefore easier and faster to recruit. Without the need to travel, this makes the commitment much lower from participants, lowering the need for high value incentives. It also removes venue and travel costs for the research team and makes it easy for the client to attend the groups ‘incognito’ without influencing respondents.

Of course, online groups can provide benefits other than cost and speed. For instance, some people find it easier to express themselves when typing or in the comfort of their own home, which can make it easier to ensure everyone is heard.

However, losing the face-to-face element means respondents cannot interact with new products. Watching respondents taste, touch and interact with products ‘in the flesh’ for the first time is one of the magic moments of research, giving deep and genuine insights. This is often the most valuable part of face-to-face focus groups as it allows insightful feedback on new product packaging or even recipes where products are tasted. While images of packaging and products can be presented online, feedback is likely to be much more detailed and insightful when respondents are able to interact with the actual product.

Another benefit of the face-to-face focus group is that they can often be conducted in-store, provided there is an amenable retailer open to this. This means a section of the group can be conducted on the shop floor as respondents can be taken down to the relevant fixture to talk through their decision-making hierarchy in front of the fixture. This adds another dimension to the group as it ensures respondents are really engaged with the category of interest, which tends to make their comments more insightful and ‘lifelike’.

Regardless of whether focus groups are conducted face-to-face or online, one of the fundamental influencers on the quality of the insight gained will be the quality of the moderator. A poor moderator will allow certain respondents to dominate, influence other peoples’ opinions and lead discussion down avenues which although they may be of side interest, are not relevant to the goals of the research. So, in essence, the efficacy of the moderator can in some ways have a bigger impact than the method of delivery of the groups.

Market Research Online Communities (MROCs)

Market Research Online Communities

While online surveys tend to be most effective at gathering instinctive opinions and focus groups better at getting considered feedback, there is sometimes a role for monitoring reactions and opinions over time. This is especially the case for products used in the context of the home environment, for instance a product which needs to be prepared/cooked, or a skincare or supplement product which needs to be used over time for an effect to be felt or seen. In these kinds of situations, there is a clear role for MROCs.

MROCs are best thought of as an online platform, much like a private social media site, which respondents are encouraged to log onto regularly to provide an update of their thoughts and opinions. A variety of tasks can be utilised, including:

  • Polls e.g. which of the two products shown do you prefer?
  • Video/image uploads e.g. showing a cooked meal or the results of using a skincare product.
  • Journals & forum discussions e.g. an update on anything they have seen experienced that day that may be of interest e.g. a similar product, an advert, a conversation they overheard etc.
  • Packaging feedback e.g. through using ‘heatmap’ methods, consumers can annotate images to select which particular elements resonate with them and which elements they dislike. Feedback can be quickly actioned, amended designs can be presented and designs can be moved on rapidly over a period of just a few days.

While MROCs can be highly valuable in certain situations, using them in conjunction with a face-to-face method can be a very effective and rounded combination. Conducting a set of focus groups first and using the same respondents in the MROC can be an ideal way of ensuring the long-term engagement and emotional investment from the members of the study community. It also useful in providing insight to guide the topics to be covered during the course of the MROC.


The growth of online research techniques has undoubtedly made market research more accessible for businesses by reducing the cost and time required to get valuable consumer feedback. However, the role of face-to-face techniques should not be understated, and these methods will always have a central role in quality market research.

The rapport and comfort built through face-to-face contact encourages ease of expression, while the ability for respondents to seamlessly bounce ideas, opinions and emotions off each other are priceless. The opportunity to watch and video record consumers interacting with a product directly are also of great value to brands looking to get reliable, authentic feedback. That is not to say face-to-face is always the ‘gold standard’ as in certain situations, online methods may be more appropriate.

Ultimately it is fair to say the ideal method, or indeed combination of methods, depends on the specific research goals. We would be happy to discuss the options with you to create a bespoke methodology for your requirements. Feel free to contact Kim at or Hamish at

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