Research online: the future is here

Investigación online

Some time ago, I visited my good friend Guillermo Gallardo, and as we talked about the current situation of market research, he claimed that today what is most important in the research industry is the development and use of online platforms. Although he didn’t say anything new to me, his absoluteness made me realize that the future has reached us.

We are all witnesses of the great change that the Internet has had in our lives and our societies. It has provided immediate access to an amount of information that we had never dreamed of and has brought about new ways of communicating and interacting. But although not all people are aware of this, it has also brought new ways of doing research, with new alternatives at our hands.

In quantitative research, this change has been quite fast. Globally, more online surveys are done online each day, with samples obtained through a panel provided by a supplier or taken from the client’s own database. With growing frequency, part of the information obtained through these surveys is obtained through the use of mobile phones.

The speed of this change has been boosted mainly by two factors:

  1. Surveys online usually imply a lower cost and a faster speed than those which are done face to face or over the phone, although they do not always offer information of the same quality level.
  2. There is a large number of suppliers and a wide range of options of both platforms and samples for doing research online.

Change has been much slower in qualitative research, partly because online qual does not offer clear advantages in terms of cost and speed. The platforms required for doing so are relatively expensive, especially considering that the samples tend to be small. Besides, the cost of moderating and analyzing these studies is as high or even higher that in traditional qualitative research, since they require more time and technical knowledge.

But beyond costs and timings, there are many people who resist to accept methodologies like focus groups online or bulletin board groups. For those who are not aware of these, they are an asynchronous focus groups, that last several days -versus two hours in traditional focus groups- and do not require that the group is connected at the same time; each person can answer whenever possible. There are people who believe that it is not possible to obtain in-depth information and true insights through an online research, because there is no evidence that this is true.

In spite of the above, qualitative research projects have been growing slowly, and it is possible to predict that this tendency will continue in the future. However, it is not likely that it will replace face-to-face interviews or traditional focus groups, like some people believe. There will always be certain topics and/or situations where the best methodology will still be traditional face-to-face research

Now, the most important change that Internet has produced stems from the development of social media. Media which implies, not a one-way communication, but a two-way communication; where there is not only one person or one audience listening and watching passively, but many people communicating, receiving information and sometimes answering to it. We are talking not only about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and those type of networks, but also about blogs, wikis, virtual worlds and others which already exist or which are being created every day.

It is precisely in those social media where there is a real revolution taking place in terms of how market research is done. The studies which can be done through social networks have no limits beyond the researchers’ imagination: they go from analyzing the content found there to forming and handling research communities where thousands of participants provide their opinions. In many cases, they are studies that can not be classified as either quantitative or qualitative, but can be considered a combination of both.

As we can see, the future has not only reached us, but has appeared as something which is constantly changing. For researchers, this implies that it is time to get energized and start acting, to be creative and innovative, because the methodologies used today will probably be outdated shortly and replaced by new and more productive ways of obtaining actionable information.