A laptop screen displaying focus group participants in a video call,  representing the debate between recruiting participants for research online or face to face.

Online vs face-to-face market research post-Covid: Which is best for your project?

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, should market researchers be recruiting participants for research online or face-to-face to achieve the best possible insights? Read on to discover the thoughts of our own market research experts here at Angelfish Fieldwork!

The COVID-19 pandemic left nothing and no-one untouched...

… and the UK market research industry was certainly no exception.

With the country in lockdown but consumer insights still imperative to brand and business success (in fact, even more so than ever before), market researchers sought new means to carry on with their projects.

In the end, most turned to online solutions, replacing face to face (F2F) focus group venues with video conferencing and chat platforms such as Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp, as well as using the market research online community methodology more prevalently.

However, with restrictions now lifted (at the time of writing) in the UK, some market researchers are tentatively moving back towards F2F methods, such as in-person focus groups and one-to-one or at-home interviews, while others are still questioning whether this is the best approach.

For example, research conducted by MRS and Watermelon found that 5% of businesses reported that they would no longer offer F2F market research services in the future.

This has then left us with a single, yet complex-beneath-the-surface question: Which approach is better for your market research post-COVID; online, or F2F?

Our experts have answered this very question below, breaking down the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches and reviewing the evidence for each before coming to a final conclusion (click the links below to jump to different sections of the blog!):

  1. The benefits of online market research
  2. The drawbacks of online market research
  3. The benefits of F2F market research
  4. The drawbacks of F2F market research
  5. The verdict
  6. How we can make these methodologies better

 

A group of focus group participants sitting in a circle, representing the debate between recruiting participants for research online.

The benefits of online market research

1. It is generally more accessible and inclusive

Often, all that is needed for great participants to get involved in market research is a device with a camera and microphone, and an internet connection.

This means that, practically speaking, you can access a wide range of participants from a whole host of different locations with a variety of demographics, making your research results more applicable to the population as a whole.

What’s more, those with accessibility needs can take part in the comfort of their own home, and provisions can be put in place to make it as easy for them as possible to take part.

2. Participants have more equal opportunities to share their opinions

Jigsaw Research* found that introverts felt more confident to share their opinions online than they did in person. As a result, online research means you are likely to get more rounded and inclusive insights than you perhaps might in an F2F setting.

3. Responses tend to be more considered

In an online setting, participants have more time to collect and structure their thoughts and opinions, which means that their responses are often highly insightful.

4. Responses are often a greater reflection of participant’s individual opinions

Online, participants are generally less influenced by those around them as they are in the comfort and safety of their own home, and behind the safety of a computer screen. As a result, they tend to be more honest about their thoughts and feelings.

As The Nursery Research and Planning* found in their own study, this was even more profound in their instant messaging group, compared to the video chat. Thanks to participants only being identifiable by first name – and therefore being semi-anonymous – participants were much more direct and honest with their thoughts!

5. Practically, online research is more cost effective, quicker and easier to arrange

However, it’s always important to remember that the quicker, cheaper and easier route does not always mean you’ll get better insights from your study!

The drawbacks of online market research

1. There’s less of a sense of a “group” or “community” identity

While being in their own home might boost a participant’s sense of individuality and anonymity, making them more open, considered and honest, they typically don’t form a group bond in the same way that participants in F2F groups do (more on that below).

In fact (as found by The Nursery Research and Planning), while participants are keen to voice their opinions, this tends to be more about reinforcing their own sense of identity, rather than contributing to a group consensus.

This is important to keep in mind for your research, as humans are ultimately social creatures, and interact in group settings on a daily basis; so, if you’re looking to generalise your results to the population as a whole, your results may not be as applicable if gathered from an online setting.

2. It is generally more moderator-led

As found by both Jigsaw Research and The Nursery Research and Planning, online studies tend to take less of a “discussion” route than F2F studies, with conversation not flowing as naturally as they would in person.

As a result, moderators or researchers generally end up prompting or guiding the conversation, which increases the risk of researcher bias influencing the insights gathered.

3. There’s a risk that the group study will just “feel like another Zoom meeting.”

In a world where we’re all “Zoomed out,” participants may be more easily distracted/less engaged in an online study, compared to if they are in a room with other participants (it’s a lot more difficult to sneakily check your phone in person than it is on a video call!).

4. Practically, if the technology used fails, the project suffers

Imagine being in the middle of a brilliantly insightful online discussion with your participants, and bam – the platform you’re using crashes for one or all of your participants!

The flow of conversation is interrupted, insights are lost, you’ll have to make rearrangements and adjustments, and you may even have dropouts from the study.

Of course, this can be prevented by running tech validations and checks with participants prior to the research, but it’s an important factor to keep in mind.

The benefits of F2F market research

1. There is a greater group dynamic

In The Nursery Research and Planning’s study, participants were examined from both a social identity and personal identity perspective.

In their F2F focus group setting, they found that participants engaged more with their social identity – and this was the case regardless of which side of the debate (for the study’s purpose, covid restrictions) they were on!

What’s more, in person, participants can more easily read each other's body language and understand different tones of voice.

In The Nursery’s study, all the above resulted in the participants being more deeply involved in the group dynamic, as well as joking and laughing with each other, demonstrating F2F research to be highly applicable to the population as a whole.

2. Conversations are generally more participant-led

Unlike online groups, which we earlier mentioned are less discussion-based, conversation flows easily and naturally in a shared physical space, with participants being more receptive and responsive to each other's ideas, and moderators or researchers not usually needing to prompt.

 

A woman taking part in an online focus group, representing the debate between recruiting participants for research online or face to face.

The drawbacks of F2F market research

1. Participants may not be as open and honest

In an in-person setting, participants are generally more concerned about being liked and accepted by the group compared to in an online environment. As humans are naturally more guarded when they meet strangers for the first time (which is nearly always the case in market research), this may mean that participants aren’t quite as open and honest about their true opinions.

2. People are more likely to defer to their group identity than their personal identity

While this is great for generalising results to the population as a whole, it tends to be less representative of the individuals taking part in the research.

3. Participants may miss the chance to share their opinions altogether

As Jigsaw Research found in their research, one participant felt like they couldn’t “get a word in" in F2F projects, and that “the mouthy types dominate.” Indeed, as mentioned above, introverts tend to feel more able to contribute in a virtual environment, so it may be that vital insights are missed in an F2F setting.

Practically, it is less accessible and cost-effective

Compared to online, F2F research incurs greater costs, both for the researchers (venue hire, travel costs, refreshment provision etc) and the participants (travel and parking costs). It is also much more difficult to get a representative sample, as your ideal participants may not be able to travel to your specified venue.

So... what’s the verdict?

Taking all of the above into consideration, we’ve concluded the following:

  1. As online and F2F each produce such different insights and behaviours from participants, we should treat online and face to face as separate methodologies.
  2. Treating them as such, we should (on a project-by-project basis) use a blend of the two methodologies, depending on the topic of the study and what outcomes we are hoping to achieve.
  3. We should continue to find ways to make these two different methodologies better – both as separate entities, and when combined.

In short, the future looks to be hybrid... with greater insights uncovered than ever before!

Here's how we can start to make online research even better:

  • Ensure you use the best technology available, and have back-ups available in case of crashes
  • Include an overrecruit so that you can guarantee a full quota of participants.
  • Encourage a group dynamic and individuality by referring to people by name, and using prompts to enable them to work together.
  • Have cameras and microphones on so that body language, facial expressions and tone of voice can be easily read and understood by all involved.
  • Ensure participants have no distractions around them – e.g., phones off, doors closed.

Here’s how we can start to make F2F research even better:

  • Remind participants that this is a safe space where they can share how they really feel without judgement. Choose a comfortable, private venue that promotes this feeling of safety!
  • Include warm up/ice-breaker activities to help your participants feel more comfortable, break down barriers, help your participants have fun and subsequently boost their engagement.
  • Ensure every participant has the opportunity to express their thoughts and opinions – for example, if you spot that one participant is being especially quiet, or has tried to speak but has been interrupted, give them the opportunity to speak.

Whether you’re recruiting participants for research online or face to face (or a blend of both), Angelfish is here to help!

After all, the best insights from market research projects stem from recruiting high-quality, engaged and enthusiastic participants! We’ve been successfully sourcing these very individuals for our clients over the last ten+ years, resulting in some truly outstanding and actionable insights for their brands.

So, if you’re looking to recruit participants for research online or face to face, be sure to get in touch!

Let's Talk

*Many thanks to Peter Totman, Head of Qualitative Research, Jigsaw Research, for his discussion on “The zoom group fantasy: Asking some hard questions about online qual” and Dr Emma McHarg, Head of Data Science and Lucy Foylan, Account Director at The Nursery Research and Planning for their presentation on “A hybrid future: Exploring human interactions on- and off-line" at Impact 2022, whose research has been referenced throughout this blog.