Marketers are going online more and in-person less to gather research data

Photo: Getty Images/SDI Productions
Feb 25, 2021
Tom Ryan

A new study exploring consumer research not unsurprisingly finds a significant shift towards online qualitative research over the last year, raising speculation on whether in-person methods may be another casualty of the pandemic.

The study from GRIT (Greenbook Research Industry Trends) indicates that online methods have grown slowly but took the lead for the first time in 2020.

A survey of nearly 1,100 suppliers and buyers of research found the use of:

  • Online focus groups increased to 74 percent in 2020 from 54 percent in 2019; 
  • Online IDIs (in-depth interviews) increased to 74 percent from 62 percent;
  • In-person IDIs shrunk to 66 percent from 82 percent;
  • In-person focus groups slid to 69 percent from 87 percent.

The study notes that some aspects of qualitative research — citing recruiting, project management and moderation as examples — don’t change much whether conducted online or in-person. Many tech tools that have emerged to create more efficiency, such as video recording, facial coding, automated transcription, text analytics and report automation, are also equally applicable in both modes.

But the study suspects research buyers that may have adopted online methods out of necessity during the pandemic are recognizing online’s advantages. Researchers note, “Online methods deliver methodological flexibility and tangible pragmatic advantages such as travel cost savings, risk and liability mitigation, diverse recruitment options, schedule flexibility, and general speed and cost efficiencies. It is safe to assume what we will see is a long tail of growth continue to play out even as the pandemic recedes.”

Tighter timelines and research budgets may also push buyers toward online methods.

The “silver lining” for in-person approaches is that they did not decline even further, given the restrictions seen over the past year. The researchers said it’s reasonable to assume qualitative research that is “experiential” in nature (dependent on touching, tasting, smelling or using something) cannot easily be replicated currently using digital methods and could still represent a significant portion of qualitative work in general.

The study stated, “That foundation may provide a path for suppliers heavily invested in physical facilities to adapt, while simultaneously incorporating more digital approaches into their offerings.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should consumer research buyers as well as providers be doubling down on digital research solutions? What do you see as the pros and cons of online versus in-person qualitative research methods, and do you think the advantages have shifted in recent years?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Digital research is the better option because it measures behavior, not intent."

Join the Discussion!

14 Comments on "Marketers are going online more and in-person less to gather research data"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
David Naumann

Digital-based consumer research tools will continue to be the future trend due to the low cost and flexibility they provide researchers. Consumers have become familiar with video conferencing platforms which makes it easier to execute. The downside is for testing products that require tasting and smelling. One option is to send all the participants a package with the goods and have them test the items in order while on a video call.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Remember first that we’ve shifted online because we can’t do in-person. Even as places like malls reopen, the question of the whether the sample is vaguely representative is a very iffy one. And online has its issues, whether qualitative or quantitative. There is a lot of concern about burning out panels and whether respondents are paying as much attention when doing this online. Greymatter and Harmon Research have been doing a lot of work on this – the answer is not pretty. Cautions are needed, which makes DIY research even more dangerous these days unless you really know what you’re doing.

Mark Ryski

Good points Steve. The shift to online research is understandable, but I’d be exercising even more caution for the reasons mentioned.

Suresh Chaganti

We have seen a pretty strong shift towards online over the past year, mostly driven by pandemic safety considerations. It also opened up the thought that less expensive online methods can substitute for in-person interviews. But because of that, what we are also seeing is that the quality of responses is also coming down, and the interpretations are of questionable value.

I think surveys that used in-person interview methods should at least use virtual methods like Zoom meetings to do such surveys. Changing from physical to virtual is one thing. But changing the survey method from an in-person interview to filling out a digital survey will not yield comparable results.

Jeff Weidauer

Digital research is the better option because it measures behavior, not intent. Focus groups and in-person interviews are interesting and may be used in some specific areas as color commentary, but the single worst way to find out how someone will respond is to ask them. With all of the tracking and widely available data analytics, accurate performance stats are easily accessible and far more accurate than qualitative surveys.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Jeff – I’m pretty sure you’re referring to behavioral research and not digital research. Digital research refers to any research that is initiated and conducted online vs. in-person vs. observation. So a survey can be initiated online or in person, it can be conducted online or in-person, and it can be the exact same survey with the exact same pluses and minuses.

Ricardo Belmar

Online consumer research has been a necessity because of the pandemic and while techniques have improved dramatically, there will still be a need to conduct research where consumers try out a physical product. That can’t be easily replicated with consistency in an online or virtual format, or by sending a product to consumers to try out themselves. I expect we’ll continue to see a mix of techniques used, but online methods will continue to be popular overall because it’s easier to scale than in-person. However both will still be needed in many cases to paint a complete research picture. The current spike will likely flatten out, much like the proportion of e-commerce spend vs store spend has done over the past year.

Di Di Chan

It’s a myth that digital will remain only online. Investing in digital is not wrong. Investing in only online digitization analysis is already falling behind. When Amazon and Alibaba came offline in 2017, they validated a new online-to-offline direction for the future of retail. For example, the fastest-growing retail technology during pandemic times is scan and go mobile checkout, which reached over 30 percent shopper adoption at top grocery locations after only a few years of rolling out. With more than two decades of market adoption, the pandemic only boosted e-commerce adoption in the grocery space in the high 20 percent.

Dr. Stephen Needel

It’s digital research, Di Di – see my comment to Jeff above.

Ryan Mathews
All research – including the very best ethnographic studies – is inherently biased, so the question is which approaches increase or decrease that bias. Digital research is cheap, popular, and – at the end of the day – of limited value. Focus groups on the other hand are more expensive, more cumbersome, and probably even less reliable. Good ethnography, and God knows there is more bad ethnographic work than good, is probably the best, but it is also the most expensive. Before we delve into debates over actual purchases versus intentionality, et al., – remembering that in most cases, all you are actually doing is measuring behavior within a forced choice set – let’s look at root cause problems associated with the methodologies. AI systems identify patterns in consumer behavior alright, but (so far at least) only within the programming biases they have built into their coding. Focus groups are rarely representative, often too eager to please or to have a forum in which to vent, intensely subjective, and dependent on the skill and biases… Read more »
Ken Morris

The pandemic has forced consultants to be more creative to ply our trade and as such has forced us to use digital tools to complete our engagements. We have found that in many ways tasks like qualitative research can be enhanced using techniques like video recording, automated transcription, search analytics and white boarding tools. We record all remote sessions, which we do not do for in-person meetings and now don’t have to rely on notes and memory. This is one of those items that won’t go away once we reach herd immunity, this is here to stay — and saving clients up to 20 percent in travel costs makes this that much more appealing to budget conscious retailers.

Cynthia Holcomb

The trend to qualitative online research presupposes the intimate future of Ai-enabled, multi-dimensional processing of online human inputs to solve for “implicit” human outputs. In other words, consumer research insights discovered by an algorithm programmed to solve for complex, multi-dimensional, hidden consumer insights versus the age-old linear subjectivity of human-enabled consumer insights. Ai enabled, online consumer research allows brands and marketers to move past the previous methods and systems solving mainly for manually enabled “explicit” outcomes which are now expiring, in a digital-only world.

Kim DeCarlis

Digital research solutions simplify and accelerate the ability for retailers and brands to get answers to questions that help them better serve their consumers and grow their businesses. But they may also benefit from the social media effect: the willingness of people to be more brutally honest about their impressions from the relative anonymity of a keyboard rather than an in-person discussion. That said, it will be important to maintain a balanced approach to research moving forward, using in-person where the topic is more organic and fluid, requiring a conversation, supplemented with digital where the topic is more discrete.

Rachelle King

The advantages of digital research solutions are relative. If cost savings on travel and risk/liability mitigation are important, then digital research solutions are perhaps more advantageous. However, if you just look at it as: we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, social distancing is a thing and nearly everyone is already stuck at home; it seems digital research is not only advantageous but also the only logical solution, for now. Notwithstanding the tactical/sensorial research that may benefit more from in-person gatherings, it’s hard to find cons against digital research solutions. I would expect this is just one more pandemic-accelerated behavior that will stick around post-pandemic.

"Digital research is the better option because it measures behavior, not intent."

Take Our Instant Poll

What’s the likelihood that in-person qualitative research methods will see significantly less use after the pandemic compared to before the crisis?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...