The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed our way of life. What lies ahead is mostly unknown, though the human desire to connect is stronger than ever. As we grow accustomed to being physically distant and safe-at-home, the digital world seems a readily available and ripe environment to fulfill our social needs.

Human connections are fundamental to qualitative research. Unlike quantitative research, the qualitative research practitioner plays an active role throughout the interview, directly communicating with participants to learn more. Now that in-person connections are restricted and researchers are finding themselves without travel itineraries, it’s wise to consider alternative options.

When restrictions relent and in-person fieldwork returns, digital qualitative will continue to be an effective option for engaging respondents, and one that more companies will utilize.  Today’s climate has created a digital testing period. Now is the perfect time to start auditing your materials and tools to run your qualitative research initiatives digitally without sacrificing data quality or depleting your budget.

For some, this shift to the digital landscape has been expected. Jennifer Dale, CEO of InsideHeads and 22-year Marketing Research veteran, co-wrote the book on digital qualitative in 2019, aptly titled Qual-Online: The Essential Guide: What every researcher needs to know when conducting and moderating interviews via the web. Her perspective on the recent burgeoning growth of online qualitative research is one of optimism and opportunity. “The current environment is forcing researchers to consider alternatives and think beyond the four walls of a focus facility,” she said.

Katrina Noelle, President of KNow Research and Co-Founder of Scoot Insights has used her 17 years of market research experience to explore methodical innovation in the field and has recognized the shift from traditional qualitative research methods to digital alternatives. “Being able to add tools to your arsenal to use creatively going forward is key, digital is just giving you more options,” she said.

There is an exponentially growing list of popular online tools for conducting qualitative research. With such a vast selection of software and strategies, it can be overwhelming to determine which is most effective in maximizing data quality and insights without breaking the bank. In an Insights Association webinar last month, Jennifer and Katrina shared strategies for migrating in-person qualitative research to digital. Although there are a seemingly endless number of techniques, with more innovation occurring every day, Jennifer and Katrina shared a few methodologies that can help transition in-person studies to digital platforms: Chat Groups, Webcam Interviews and Groups, Bulletin Boards, Online Diaries and Social Media Listening.

Chats are conducted in groups of between 5-20 participants and generally run between 90 minutes and 2 hours. Unlike traditional focus groups, or even webcam groups, participants communicate solely through text, and do not show their faces, only their username. Chat Groups provide a level of anonymity that fosters openness and honesty without fear of social pressure associated with speech or appearance. This method is optimal for brainstorming, concept testing, and website usability, as the moderator has the ability to present images, show videos, and offer up live web pages for participants to navigate on their own.

Webcam Interviews and Groups use video conference software and simulate a face-to-face experience. In a webcam-enabled study, the moderator and 1-5 participants have conversations on video. Webcam interviews are most effective when participants are comfortable in the spotlight and expressing their unique views on camera.

Bulletin Boards are forum-based discussions where participants post responses to topics over a few days. This method supports agile research methods, allowing you to tailor concepts to a specific audience, using continuous feedback as a tool.  Boards are also great for capturing feelings and behavior in the moment and over time.

Online Diaries are also asynchronous and similar to Bulletin Boards. Like forum posts, diaries allow participants to provide personal insights over time. Unlike Bulletin Boards, these entries are private and not shared with other participants.

Social Media Listening involves diving into data that exists within social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) and mining for themes, ideas, and insights. In this method, the moderator serves as a fly on the wall, while Social Media Engagement refers to the interaction by the researcher with participants through social media.

When it comes to software and tools to apply these online qualitative strategies, you need not break the bank. Today there are an abundance of digital tools to satisfy every conceivable research objective and budget. For internal meetings, consider using apps you and your team may already be familiar with, like Slack, Airtable, Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote, Microsoft Office, Trello, etc. Free and low-cost tools such as Whatsapp, Zoom, and Skype can be used for both internal meetings and research fieldwork.

The key to finding the right tool for your online qual project is understanding your research objective and your participants. What means of engagement will satisfy the objective? How will everyone in the study need to communicate exactly? What methods support that type of communication and also fit the ability and expectations of participants?

Consider security and privacy of project and participant data before committing to any tool and recognize that free tools often lack available support as well as data ownership. If the information you are testing is highly confidential, consider made-for-research tools. Those new to online qualitative research are encouraged to seek out specialists in industry directories and ask for recommendations from trusted colleagues.

To keep client observers engaged in digital qualitative, Katrina recommends actively interacting with them on a daily basis. “Keep your team engaged with insight morsels,” said Katrina. “We strongly recommend daily recaps, summaries, something you loved that came out of the research. Find a way to simulate connection and conversation. Be creative and think innovatively. Create a Zoom happy-hour to talk about the key findings of the day or other ways to keep clients tuned-in.”

It’s important to bring your humanity and humility to online qualitative research, especially those conducted in real-time. No program is perfect, and digital disruptions are inevitable. Be considerate of participant situations and varied level of technical know-how. Participant devices range from the latest Mac to an aging laptop.

Armed with the resources to conduct qualitative research wherever people are, quallies will be well positioned to adapt to whatever the new normal will be post COVID-19. “Keep your knees bent,” says Jennifer, “you never know which way the ball is going to go.”