Digitalising Data Collection – The Methods of the Moment
The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered the ability of researchers to engage with participants in face-to-face environments, forcing many to shift to online forms of data collection. With face-to-face research still not permitted unless there’s an absence of any alternative method (MRS Code of Conduct 2021), both brands and agencies alike have had to enter into a new era of research, with practices and processes evolving from short-term fixes to the next new normal.
There’s no doubt videoconferencing has been particularly promising throughout the pandemic; a method of remote data collection that still offers many of the benefits of the face-to-face environment. Benefits of videoconferencing include its facilitation to recruit more geographically diverse samples without the hassle of negotiating travel logistics, however the method presents itself with different challenges such as contending with questionable internet connections and loss of insight as a result of not being able to assess the non-verbal behaviour of participants.
Netnography is a digital variation of ethnography, a research method which allows researchers to fully immerse themselves and observe individuals within a real-world, naturalistic environment. This paints a more authentic picture of the individual’s behaviour rather than asking them to fill in a questionnaire or chatting to them on the phone, in which bias is introduced through the need to portray themselves in a certain light they feel is expected of them. Netnography is a logical evolution of ethnography that adapts ethnographic research techniques to the study of individuals, cultures and communities through computer-mediated methods.
This technique uses the information publicly available in online forums to identify and understand the needs and decision influencers of relevant online consumer groups. Netnographic methods can be particularly engaging for respondents, not only generating better results, but also resulting in fewer drop-outs due to the ease of access and the absence of travel. Online data collection tasks often come more naturally to respondents as a generation glued to our phones means respondents already know what they need to do. Such methods present further benefits in terms of accessibility, and thus enable individuals to take part in research whilst carrying out daily activities. Results are often more honest due to the absence of an observer, with individuals more likely to act differently when being watched.
An example of a netnographic method is online communities. Our clients are increasingly opting for the method and it’s clear to see why. The rich depth of insight this method yields is second to none; often used as a multi-method approach, the technique enables integration of daily polls, heatmap analysis, photo uploads and even mini focus groups to take place simultaneously, making this method a highly efficient means of generating data, particular for time crunched clients.
Throughout the pandemic, digital connectivity has played an increasingly important role in how we stay connected, which, for many, has exacerbated reliance on online groups, with Facebook groups seeing a significant rise in engagement. Facebook recently conducted a large-scale study with 50 leaders of Facebook Groups in 17 countries, along with 26 global experts in online community building. Researchers were given access to internal Facebook insights, and ran a parallel YouGov survey of 15,000 Internet users in 15 countries. Results showed that 77% of respondents indicated that the most important group they are now part of, operates online. These findings further highlight a consideration in how the likes of online communities can be used to build a connection with your audience, and how such groups can be utilized groups within outreach strategies.
The Online Focus Group
Focus groups are one of the most utilised methods of research, with the strength of a focus group discussion often reliant on the process of discussion rather than the result of the discussion. If you find yourself questioning whether the virtual focus group is as methodologically sound as the traditional/face-to-face focus group, the answer is yes, with online focus groups often offering additional advantages to that of traditional face to face groups.
Firstly, with many of us still working from home, and planning to now do so for some time, virtual groups are advantageous in that, they offer greater flexibility, with respondents able to join from the comfort of their home and at whatever times most suited to their personal schedules. Respondents also often feel more relaxed in their own homes, making them more involved in the focus group discussion; we often find this results in deeper content and substance from each focus group. Lastly, online groups are accessible to participants from any geographic location, participants who do not have access to transportation and participants with busy schedules. In this way, virtual focus groups have allowed for a greatly expanded pool of potential participants. This also allows research teams to recruit patients from locations that may have otherwise been left out of the traditional recruitment process.
There are some disadvantages of virtual groups that can’t be ignored, including some participants needing technological assistance if they lack experience and poor internet connections creating disruptions, however we cannot dispute how beneficial the digitalisation of research has been for brands throughout the pandemic.
So are these short-term fixes or the ‘new’ normal?
The COVID-19 crisis has upended countless industries, strategies, technologies, and practices, but in the case of market research, the crisis has revolutionised its future. There’s no question that the face-to-face ‘evergreens’ will remain a viable and valuable tool in market researchers’ toolboxes now that the outside has re-opened , (namely, depths, focus groups and surveys), however with such a surplus of advantages to digitalised methods, they will no doubt have their place in our new normal.