Every researcher working with human subjects strives to ensure the highest ethical standards. Regardless of whether the research is quantitative or qualitative in nature – or in the field of health, communications, education, psychology, marketing, anthropology, or sociology – researchers care about protecting the confidentiality, anonymity, and basic “rights” (such as privacy and freedom of thought) of the people who agree to be part of their studies. It is with this in mind that, in addition to gaining IRB approval (as required), researchers openly discuss the goals and intended use of their research with participants, as well as asking them to carefully read and agree to the appropriate consent forms. Online group discussions (focus groups) present a particularly delicate matter. Unlike any other overt form of research – unlike an online survey dominated by closed-end questions, or an online in-depth interview with one person at any moment in time – the online group discussion – with its amalgamation of many people (typically, strangers to each other) responding at length to many open-ended questions over the course of multiple (possibly, many) days – potentially raises important security and identity concerns among participants. Even with a signed consent form, online group participants may still have serious doubts about the containment of their input to the discussion and, hence, their willingness to contribute Read Full Text
The idea of conducting qualitative “research” by way of simply listening in on conversations posted on various social media venues is, from a research design perspective, curious. It is curious because the business of understanding how people think (i.e., the business of marketing and social research) has never been about just hearing them talk, reading their words, and/or observing their behavior. While capturing this information may prove interesting and in some circumstances useful (e.g., counting the number of mentions of a competitive brand or variations in reactions to a new product introduction), it is not good enough when the intent is to learn about underlying perceptions and motivations.
The assertions of marketing researchers (in particular) who continue to promote speed and techno-whiz over design principles leaves the rest of us wondering if rigorous design considerations really matter and whether we need to “buckle our seat belts” as we race to an anything-goes research paradigm. Marketing researchers (in particular) have been in this race for quite some time. Even before the Internet and all the gadgetry, there has been an over-emphasis on finding the path of least resistance – a path absent of speed limits and tolls, delivering results as quickly and cheaply as possible. The Internet and gadgetry have just transformed this path into a popular, well-paved superhighway.
In recent articles, we learn that – costly and time-consuming – face-to-face focus groups are “on life support,” that “micro-surveys” are the future, and that feedback from “brand ambassadors” in the marketplace can fill in when management’s need-to-know can’t wait for the oh-so-slow process of real research. All of this is beginning to sound a lot like really bad qualitative research design where:
- Sample representativeness is of little concern.
- No thought is given to the transferability of the outcomes.
- The final deliverable is full of great – colorful, fun, creative – quotes and images.
- There are as few demands as possible on the participants, and even the researcher.
- An attempt to make meaningful connections based on how people think is nonexistent.
What if, instead of promoting the research superhighway, folks discussed with their buyers/users of research the design issues inherent in various approaches, the trade-offs involved, and how to construct the best-quality research design possible within the reality of cost and time parameters. The superhighway is great for advancing the technology that advances our quality of life, including our ability to enjoy new options in our research designs. But when the highway itself becomes our focus – and not the quality measures in design that we know translate into reliable research – it may be time to take the next exit, turn off the engine, and just chill.