Today, even as we exit the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, staying connected online remains the new norm. We work online, socialize online, shop online, learn online – we live online. 

Something else we now do online – participate in market research focus groups or interviews. While online focus groups and in-depth interviews have been an option for market researchers to utilize for years, many would-be participants were not adequately equipped to participate in online research sessions in years past. The COVID-19 pandemic also changed that. 

In the pandemic, over 80% of U.S. adults say they talked with others via video. Many tried new things technologically and adopted the use of new technology much more quickly than they ever had before. Because of these changes brought about by the pandemic, it is now much more common to conduct qualitative market research online

In fact, as of 2023, 93% of market researchers say that they are using online/video focus groups more often than they were three years ago. On the consumer side, 90% report using online video submissions and participating in online video in-depth interviews more often than they were three years ago. There has also been an uptick in participation in online video focus groups. Today, brands in nearly every industry are engaging in some type of video-based market research to obtain consumer insights.

Not only is online market research now more common, it also offers many advantages (see: Benefits of Conducting Online Qualitative Research) such as:

  • Providing a more convenient experience for participants, clients, and moderators without the commute to a research facility
  • Ensuring a more nationally representative sample and including participants from all over the country in a single online session
  • Providing equal data quality to research conducted in-person
  • Reducing the cost and time to collect data
  • Providing a more real and authentic experience for participants
  • Allowing moderators to utilize online polls to obtain instantaneous feedback  
  • Allowing moderators to more clearly interpret facial expressions via camera close-ups

Online Qualitative Research from Limelight Insights

Despite the many advantages, it’s important to acknowledge that there are also some potential drawbacks of doing something that’s traditionally been done in-person, online. However, there are ways you and your market research partner can overcome these drawbacks when implementing your online qualitative market research plan. 

Potential Drawbacks of Online Qualitative Research

How the Right Market Research Partner Can Help

Technology issues, including participants with lacking technical proficiency:  In a solely online environment, what happens when someone’s video platform crashes? What happens when a participant can’t figure out how to connect to the focus group or interview on time? Navigating tech issues can be a challenge when conducting online qualitative research.Provide in-house tech assistance – Market research partners with in-house tech support can help troubleshoot tech issues in real-time and get participants ready to engage. In addition, some market research partners, such as Limelight Insights, provide technical support that includes “tech checks” for participants ahead of their research session to ensure they can utilize the technology properly.
Distractions at home: What if the dog needs to be let out while you’re in the middle of a group conversation? Or what if a participants’ young child is demanding their attention? Distractions when people are participating in research studies from home can present a challenge to moderators to keep participants on task.Establish clear guidelines and expectations during both the recruiting process and the online sessions themselves Recruiting experts should establish clear guidelines and expectations when recruiting participants for online sessions such as requiring participation from a quiet indoor location. In addition, trained online moderators can effectively manage participants throughout a group or interview to eliminate distractions and multi-tasking.
Challenges establishing organic conversation flow/rapport: While in-person groups allow a moderator to make small talk with participants beforehand and establish rapport which makes participants feel more comfortable opening up, online groups can impede some of this human connection, to an extent.Utilize professionally trained online moderators – Those with expertise in online qualitative research can build trust with participants and create a comfortable and open environment, even in an online setting. These moderators know how to employ techniques like ice-breaker exercises, revealing small tidbits of personal information about themselves to make a connection with participants, and conducting fun/creative projective techniques that get at underlying feelings and perceptions to help draw out even the most challenging or quietest of participants and establish a rapport in the virtual room. 
Screen fatigue: We’re on our computers now more than ever. Some clients express concerns that participants may not be as engaged in online sessions because they are simply burned out from being on their computer too often.Managing timing of an interview or focus group – Market research firms who specialize in online qualitative research know how long interviews and focus groups should be based on observances of plateaus of engagement/participation. Good moderators can also spot those who are less engaged (see point below), help pull them back into the conversation, and manage lacking participation by shifting gears as needed. 
Participants may attempt to hide/not participate – We’ve all done it – seen that others were carrying a conversation and checked out of a Zoom meeting. Some clients have expressed concerns that this might occur more often in online groups as participants feel like they can hide behind the screen or defer to others.Providing trained online moderators who know how to engage quiet participants – Even in an online environment, a good moderator will keep an eye out for those who are a bit too quiet and will find creative ways to get them involved in the conversation.
You cannot hand out hard copies of stimuli or assignments: How will the moderator share my ad campaign? What if I want participants to write down a list of advantages and disadvantages? Providing the appropriate technology tools and designing carefully crafted questions to collect feedback on your stimuli – Sharing stimuli and conducting projective exercises are different in an online environment. However, an online qualitative market research expert will know, 1) Which platform to use to effectively share stimuli in a variety of formats (e.g., video, image, screen sharing, etc.), and 2) How to develop an effective discussion guide to elicit feedback online including designing appropriate projective exercises. In other words, a good market research partner will ensure that all polls, activities, stimuli, and questions are formatted for an online environment and are easy for participants to access/use. 

One Final Tip to Overcome Potential Drawbacks of Online Qualitative Market Research

Keep the number of participants manageable – An important part of ensuring an effective focus group session is managing the number of participants you include. Too many, and you can’t have an effective conversation or get to all of the topics you wish to cover. Too few, and you risk not gathering enough qualitative data to provide meaningful insights. A professional market research partner can recommend the ideal number of participants for an online session based on client objectives so everyone has a chance to let their voices be heard and all important topics can be covered in the time allotted. 

Are There Instances When In-Person Research Makes More Sense Than Online Qualitative Research?

While online qualitative research has many advantages and workarounds for any potential disadvantages, note that there IS a time and a place to conduct in-person focus groups and interviews. For example: 

  • When a consumer needs to interact with a product – Maybe a taste test or product usage test is required to help meet your research objectives. If so, in-person groups or interviews may make more sense so participants can taste, touch, and feel your product.
  • When observations of behavior in the “real world” are needed – Do you need to see how consumers navigate your store? Or do you want to see how they navigate a railway system using your new and improved signage? In instances like this, in-person observations are likely needed.
  • When your target audience stipulates in-person research – Are you speaking with a group of consumers who live in very rural areas that may experience internet instability? Is the group you wish to speak with in a low-income demographic that may not have access to a high-speed internet connection and webcam? Consider in-person sessions when these audiences are your primary target.
  • When engaging in an ideation session for new product generation – If your research requires engaging in long innovation sessions to generate ideas for new product concepts, and having all participants in the same room to engage in a variety of creative exercises is required to meet your objectives, in-person sessions may be the best fit. 

Avoid Potential Drawbacks By Consulting With Experts for Your Online Qualitative Market Research

We work online, socialize online, shop online, learn online – we live online. Now, we can also conduct and participate in qualitative market research online. While it’s important that you recognize the potential drawbacks of conducting research online, it’s more important that you find a market research partner that can help you overcome any potential issues you might encounter. Your market research partner should have the know-how and ability to effectively recruit for, monitor, and conduct high-quality, online qualitative market research to help your brand reach its goals. The full-service team at Limelight Insights can do just that. 

Our field service team maintains both regional and national databases for recruiting representative samples, has high standards for screening participants for inclusion in your online study, and helps manage the online, logistical components of your interviews and focus groups including technology checks with participants and managing any tech issues that arise throughout the session in real time. Our full-service team of highly trained and expert online market researchers know how to craft a custom online qualitative methodology to meet your unique study objectives and promise to create an open environment where all participants feel welcome to share their opinions about your product or service. For your next online market research initiative, look to Limelight Insights. Call (240) 380-1500 or email