Consider the Email Interview

The idea of conducting qualitative research interviews by way of asynchronous email messaging seems almost quaint by marketing research standards.  The non-stop evolution of online platforms, that are increasingly loaded with snazzy features that equip the researcher with many of the advantages to face-to-face interviews (e.g., presenting storyboards or new product ideas, and interactivity between interviewer and interviewee), has made a Web-based solution an important mode option in qualitative research.

The email interview, however, has been taken up by qualitative researchers in other disciplines – most notably, social work, health sciences, and education – with great success.  For example, Judith McCoyd and Toba Kerson report on a study that was ‘serendipitously’ conducted primarily by way of email (although face-to-face and telephone were other mode possibilities).  These researchers found that not only did participants in the study – women who had terminated pregnancy after diagnosis of a fetal anomaly – prefer the email mode (they actually requested to be interviewed via email) but they were prone to give the researchers long, emotional yet thoughtful responses to interview questions.  McCoyd and Kerson state that email responses were typically 3-8 pages longer than what they obtained from similar face-to-face interviews and 6-12 pages longer than a comparable telephone interview.  The sensitivity of the subject matter and the sense of privacy afforded by the communication channel contributed to an outpouring of rich details relevant to the research objectives.  Cheryl Tatano Beck in nursing, Kaye Stacey and Jill Vincent who researched professors of mathematics, and others have reported similar results.

Marketing researchers may feel far afield from the alternative world of research professionals in sociology, medicine, and education but there are clearly lessons here of import to all qualitative researchers.  While many marketing researchers may not work on the kinds of issues faced by other social scientists, they are certainly capable (and obligated) to learn design best practices where they find it.  In others’ use of email interviewing we learn that, among a list of varied advantages to the email mode, there are three key benefits that rise to the top:

  • Email empowers the interviewee to tell a story.  In a private environment with unlimited freedom to relate their narrative – and where emotions can be expressed freely and the interviewee can cry or laugh or burn with rage without the social pressure of face-to-face contact – the participant is emboldened to share and give details.
  • Email gives the interviewee the opportunity to reflect and edit.  The ability to read and re-read responses to interview questions before they are given to the researcher is important to gaining the thoughtful feedback qualitative researchers are after.  Mobile research may be great at tapping into in-the-moment behavior but qualitative research is more about understanding how people think.  The opportunity email provides for reflection and consideration, in order to get at that thinking, is an important advantage to the mode.
  • Email enables the interviewer to reflect on responses and modify questioning as needed.  The email method not only benefits the interviewee but the interviewer gains the ability to ‘custom fit’ the interview questions based on an interviewee’s response.  And, importantly, the interviewer can take useful time to carefully consider the response(s) and calculate the most appropriate follow up.

I hope to read more from marketing researchers in the future about their use of email interviewing, and to learn their best practices for this Internet-based qualitative research design.

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