The Ups and Downs of Online Research - (Archived)

As online survey software becomes more sophisticated, organizations are increasingly turning to web-based research as a viable business intelligence tool. That can be a wise decision, as under the right circumstances it can deliver timely and cost-effective results. However, carefully consider all the factors before deciding if an online methodology will effectively meet your research objectives.

Can we access the audience for an online quantitative study?
In many industries, it can be very difficult to rent reliable email lists as compared to phone lists. In addition, the available lists may not be representative of the entire population you need to survey. Furthermore, given that many people won’t respond to the survey request, the number of available email addresses may not be large enough to deliver a statistically valid sample. However, if you’re conducting a customer or employee survey and have an in-house database with email addresses, an online survey may indeed be the best approach.

Is a blind survey the best approach?
For many types of research, such as brand awareness and competitive analysis studies, disclosing the research sponsor upfront can negatively impact people’s willingness to participate or, equally detrimental, bias their responses to questions. At the same time, response rates to unsolicited blind email surveys can be extremely low, as the email must first make it past spam filters and then compete with many other emails for the recipients’ attention. As a result, online surveys are more successful when the sponsor’s name can be revealed and when they’re targeted at customers, employees, or other groups that are already familiar with that company.

What’s our best option for obtaining qualitative data?
If your research objectives call for qualitative exploration and conducting in-person focus groups is a viable option, by all means do. Important insights are often gleaned from the immediate reactions and interactions, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice and other cues that only a live focus group can deliver. However, in some cases it’s not possible to recruit for and conduct focus groups with people spread across the country. Or, for example, if the audience is made up of high-level executives, they may be unwilling to travel to a focus group facility at a specific time. In these cases, the next best choice is in-depth interviews (IDIs) conducted either in person or via telephone. Though IDIs don’t offer the interactivity of a focus group, they still provide rich qualitative data.

Certainly, the technology exists to conduct online focus groups, which typically take place over several days in a dedicated chat room with a professional moderator. However, virtual focus groups aren’t optimal in business-to-government and business-to-business markets, as most professionals are unwilling to log in multiple times over numerous days to participate in a discussion.

Is it an either/or decision between phone and online?
No, sometimes a hybrid approach is optimal. For example, phone is often mandated by the fact that the study requires sample and quota control to meet the objectives (i.e. perhaps the marketer needs to talk to people within a certain spending range). In these instances, researchers can give people who decline to participate on the phone the option of receiving the survey via email to complete at their convenience. This combined approach often lifts response rates. Or, by directing willing participants to a website while on the phone with them, researchers can measure effectiveness of advertising and direct marketing creative treatments with a statistically valid sample. Finally, because some people tend to not be thorough when completing an online survey, researchers can improve the data quality by calling those individuals for clarifications or further input.
Keep in mind that “online” doesn’t mean “do it yourself.” Making important decisions based on the findings of poorly designed and/or executed research – regardless of the methodology – can have costly consequences. So, even if you’ve bought that online survey software that sounds so easy to use, always consult an experienced research professional for guidance before conducting your study in-house.

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