The advent of online qualitative research has been predicted and announced for over a decade now. First with moderated email groups, then online focus groups, then bulletin board groups, and more recently video enabled online focus groups and virtual world focus groups. Whilst all of these efforts have been interesting and have generated some noteworthy results, none established themselves as a major part of the toolkit of market research.
At long last, all that may be changing. Online qualitative may finally be arriving, as part of a larger change to both society and research.
Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia changed the world and dragged almost one-in-four of the world’s population online, with current users numbering approximately 1.6 billion. The next phase of this massively disruptive change is being led by innovations such as twitter, iPhone, and Google Latitude.
The first wave of the Internet gave people the chance to connect to central services, as online banking, search engines, and news. The second wave, Web 2.0, was to give people the chance to connect with each other and to create their own content. The latest wave is all about being connected all the time, in a way that almost forgets that the Internet is method that makes it happen. In the words of Iggy Pintado, in his book Connection Generation, we are becoming “Super Connectors”, whilst Mark Earls, author of Herd, describes us as the “Super Social Ape”.
The consequence for research is that we are finding that we need to be involved in the lives of consumers. We are learning to have ongoing conversations with customers. These conversations engage people as they live, not by asking people to try to recall their history or by asking them to ‘project’ into hypothetical futures, but by experiencing things with them.
This new paradigm for research, immersed in people’s lives, is what I am referring to as New MR. The leading examples of this New MR, at the moment, come from online research communities. These communities bring marketers, customers, and researchers together in an ongoing conversation.
Head of Synovate, Adrian Chedore, has described communities as the fastest growing aspect of market research, and the reason for his deal with Vision Critical. However, unlike online data collection, online communities are a true category destroyer. Communities compete for quantitative research budgets, but deliver qualitative research benefits. Communities transform the researcher from the ‘hidden observer’ to an active participant, co-creating value with both the brand and the customers.
At the leading edge, communities are collaborating with their members, encouraging them to become crowd-sourced researchers. The exciting part about e-ethnography is the way that the process of observation and analysis is shared between the researcher and the members.
I suspect the next few years are going to be like a game of musical chairs as companies move their projects from one mindset to another, for example from a brand tracker to monitoring blogs, and a cust sat from quant to an online community, focusing on discussions about real experiences.