top of page

Data Collection in a Time of Distancing

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

In many industries, the transition to online and remote service delivery options has already been underway, but in light of COVID-19, businesses have been faced with the challenge of – somewhat unexpectedly – transitioning almost all of their operations to virtual, work-from-home platforms. Various sectors are quickly finding ways to connect with their target audiences without compromising health and safety. For example, a St. Louis health system is providing free virtual visits for those with virus concerns, and many restaurants quickly transitioned to delivery or curbside pickup.

In the world of consumer market research, exploration of online research platforms is not a new conversation. In fact, the majority of quantitative research is already conducted online or by phone. However, there is a heightened sense of urgency around developing or refining a company’s ability to engage more deeply with consumers virtually without compromising the value of in-person interactions. Companies need consumer feedback, perhaps now more than ever, to guide next steps in an uncertain time.

Context plays a major role in determining which platform is most valuable. In our previous post, “Tell Me More”: Qualitative Research, we summarized some common methods for conducting qualitative studies. Here, we will expand on those methods to cover more virtual tools and how you can migrate in-person qualitative to online.

Real-Time Qualitative Methods

Focus groups: Our current social-distancing environment makes the traditional focus group methodology inexecutable. Companies are quickly shifting this face-to-face methodology to online. Online qualitative studies have many advantages:

  • More in-depth: We are able to dive deeper with each respondent and gather richer responses. This can be completed via a traditional-length focus group using webcam or in a format with interviews and activities spread over the course of 2-4 days among participants. In this particular format, participants will typically spend 15-30 minutes completing their responses and/or activity each day, and this can include uploading videos or pictures.

  • Speed: Online projects can often be completed in a shorter timeframe than traditional focus group projects, due to the simultaneous nature of data collection (all markets at one time, if desired) and no travel.

  • Cost: Without travel and research facility costs, online qualitative methods can often be less expensive than traditional focus groups.

In-depth interviews (IDIs): IDIs can be one-on-one or they can be with groups of two (dyads) or three (triads). These can be conducted in person but are frequently performed by phone or video call. IDIs, especially when conducted virtually, allow for deeper exploration of participant responses and are best suited to more sensitive topics that individuals might not feel comfortable discussing in a group setting.

Chat groups: In chat groups, participants respond in real time in an online chatroom to visual stimuli provided by the moderator. They engage in discussion around concepts or products, and chat groups are excellent for evaluating new concepts, assessing web usability, testing ads and copy, and brainstorming or ideation. Chat online focus groups can also be the lowest cost of all online qualitative research methods.

Longitudinal Qualitative Methods

Digital discussion/bulletin boards: Bulletin boards occur over a period of several days and allow multiple participants to discuss or comment on a product or service. The moderator will engage participants with questions or comments and probe into areas of interest.

Online diaries: Online diaries and journals allow individual participants to provide in-depth feedback on their experience, often by utilizing video and image uploads, to tell their story over time.

Digital ethnographies: This methodology allows the researcher to observe or interact with the participant in their environment by utilizing video and image uploads. It can include “shop-a-longs”, in-home visits, and other forms of participatory observation. Digital ethnography is a less invasive and more natural way to do in-home ethnographies.

Moving to Virtual Platforms

As you consider transitioning in-person qualitative research to a virtual platform, there are important factors to consider in the method design, including: your target audience, privacy and security, what level of engagement you’re seeking, and which tools are at your disposal to use. In some cases, a hybrid approach may be most appropriate. Additionally, the research questions you wish to answer or approach you wish to take are key considerations for determining which virtual method is best suited for your project. Different types of research approaches include: brainstorming or ideation, voice of the customer, consumer experience/journey, feedback from an expert or influencer, web/feature usability, brand image and positioning, and logo or concept testing.

(Insights Association, KNow Research, Inside Heads)

Here are some of the virtual qualitative tools that our team is most familiar with:

  • Aha! Online qualitative platform

  • Recollective online bulletin board

  • Qualtrics

  • Online Communities, such as Fuel Cycle

  • User-testing platforms, such as UserZoom and Blink

While virtual platforms are not replacing important in-person research, understanding the alternatives allows a company to be responsive and nimble in a changing world. Whether due to time constraints, budget cuts, internal company shifts, or an unexpected virus, having an inventory of tools at your disposal enables a business to continue important consumer research even in unprecedented times. The transition to online has already been underway, and at Simply Strategy we are proud to continuously be on the cutting edge. We utilize an arsenal of tools to leverage our skills as moderators and researchers to elicit necessary insight. We can and do use technology to capture qualitative human experience. It doesn’t have to be a big, scary shift. We say, “full steam ahead,” and we are here to help clients with leveraging virtual options for market research.


Some content for this post was drawn from the “Migrating Qualitative Projects Online” webinar presented on March 31, 2020 by the Insights Association, KNow Research, and InsideHeads.


bottom of page