Introduction to Asynchronous Online Qualitative Research

(aka Online Discussion Groups or Bulletin Board Focus Groups)


By Krystal Rudyk, Marketing Manager

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It’s been more than three years since the beginning of the pandemic (yes, it’s actually been three years since everyone started playing Among Us and baking sourdough bread – the pandemic babies are in preschool now!), so by now the qualitative research industry is relatively familiar with online focus groups and interviews. The % of total spending in market research attributed to online qual tripled between 2019 and 2022, most which can be attributed to a decrease in spend on face-to-face interviews and focus groups. And even with much of the population returning to the office at least part-time, that trend is not showing signs of reversing.  

Online focus groups and interviews are here to stay – and for good reason! They’re cost-effective, convenient, and agile. They eliminate the need for travel, making geographic barriers a thing of the past, and are much more environmentally friendly than in-person methods. And, with the pandemic accelerating technological innovation in the industry, research-specific online platforms like itracks Realtime mean you don’t need to make any sacrifices in terms of features or quality of insights. Still, online focus groups and interviews aren’t perfect, and they aren’t always the best choice for gaining qualitative insight.  

Fortunately, qualitative research isn’t limited to focus groups and interviews. There’s another method available that often flies under the radar, but can help your projects soar – Asynchronous Online Discussions.  

Asynchronous online qualitative research has been around for nearly as long as people have been using the internet – long before the pandemic. However, with many researchers only recently moving from primarily in-person methods to online, it’s a methodology with which a lot of researchers are still unfamiliar. This article is intended to serve as an introduction to the methodology so you can include it in your online qualitative research repertoire going forward. 

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Qualitative Research 

In simple terms: 

Typical focus groups and interviews are Synchronous, meaning the moderator and participant(s) are present and engaging in discussion together, at the same time, for a relatively short period of time. The researcher and participant(s) both show up at an agreed-upon time, have the discussion, and then leave. 

Asynchronous Focus Groups (or Discussions) occur over a longer period of time and allow for the moderator and participants to ask and respond to questions at different times. This usually occurs using a message board of some sort, ideally one like itracks Board that is built specifically for this purpose. Asynchronous focus groups are especially unique because there isn’t really an in-person equivalent to online discussion boards. It’s a methodology that, for the most part, didn’t exist before qualitative researchers started using the internet to help them gain insight.  

The specifics of how the study is conducted will vary from project to project, but here are some high-level guidelines to get you started.  

Project Length 

How long your asynchronous discussion lasts, and the timing of the questions, depends on the goals and nuances of the project. Generally, you want to give your participants enough time to think things over, respond, and (if your project calls for it), engage with any other participant responses or additional moderator prompts. The most common length for a project in itracks Board is 2-3 days, but can range anywhere from 1 day for shorter projects to multiple years for long term online communities.  

Different software solutions will have different pricing and booking models, but some (like itracks Board), offer subscription-based pricing with unlimited projects so you can extend or add groups as needed. Maybe you had planned for only one discussion board, but as the discussion unfolded you realized that the project would benefit from more participants. Or maybe you had only planned for the project to last 2 days, but as it develops you realize you want to extend it to a week. Subscription-based pricing allows for this flexibility without any additional technology costs. 

Discussion Structure 

Using itracks Board, researchers can also control the timing of questions. While programming the discussion guide, researchers can decide whether questions are visible to participants all at once, only once previous questions have been answered, or at certain times on certain days, depending on how the study has been designed. Moderator prompts, incorporation of media stimuli, and different question modes can all help in maximizing participant engagement and honesty.  

Researchers can also make use of features like group segmentation to branch the discussion off based on user demographics or responses to previous questions. There are a multitude of options for structuring discussions in feature-rich asynchronous platforms like itracks Board, and which option is best will differ from project to project. Try not to worry too much about all of the options – most researchers who are new to asynchronous (and even the async veterans!) learn as they go, so the creativity and ingenuity of the study design increases with each project that is put under their belt. Even the researchers behind the most successful asynchronous projects typically have a list of things they would do differently next time. 

Response Type  

When people think of online discussion boards, they typically think of text-based responses. While text-based responses are definitely a popular method of communication in asynchronous research, many research-specific platforms will offer other options which can make for a more dynamic research project. 

For example, users of itracks Board can post video or audio responses, which may add to the intimacy or “humanness" of a discussion. This can be especially useful in projects where openness and vulnerability are important but would not be as appropriate for sensitive discussions where participants would prefer anonymity. Researchers can also incorporate quantitative data via polls, or media markups and heatmapping exercises via iMarkit. Again, knowing which response types are right for which situation will come with experience.  

Group Size 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the optimal group size will depend on the specifics of the project. However, a good place to start is within the 15-20 participant range. The asynchronous method makes it easier to manage a slightly higher number of participants than synchronous focus groups as everybody isn’t trying to speak at the same time. Higher numbers also allow for more inter-participant discussion, more efficient project design (you need fewer groups for the same sample size), balancing out less engaged participants, and more possibilities for group segmentation.  

Again, though, the ideal number won’t be the same for each project. Longer projects may require a larger group to account for possible drop-offs, whereas  projects addressing  sensitive topics may call for a smaller, more intimate groups. Use your judgement and experience as a qualitative researcher to decide which group size is right for your project – there are very few hard and fast rules with Asynchronous Online Qualitative Research.  

Looking for more reading on Asynchronous Focus Groups? Check out Bad Internet, Bad Timing, and Bad Availability: Overcoming Common Online Qualitative Research Roadblocks with Asynchronous Focus Groups.