The Definitive Guide to Online Qualitative Research

Explore the most efficient research methods, learn how to address common challenges and maximize participant engagement for your next online qualitative research project.

Find your way around in the world of online qual.

As a qualitative researcher, you'll focus on exploring ideas, description of complex topics and formulating theories because qualitative research projects seek to gain an understanding of the “why” and “how” of different concepts, experiences and phenomena. Text, video and audio data is collected to gather in-depth insights into an opportunity, problem, or to generate new ideas. Let's start exploring this whole new world by defining the key concepts of online qualitative research.

Sample and Participants

Qualitative research typically uses smaller sample sizes allowing the researcher to go in-depth with fewer participants as opposed to quantitative research, which is more focused on collecting numerical data to facilitate statistical analysis of the data. Qualitative samples are usually non-random and may be selected based on the purpose of the study, convenient access or snowball sample where respondents refer others to be researched in the study. Ideally, the sample is representative of the target group that the research is focusing on with a balance of diversity and includes participants that are able to effectively articulate their thoughts, perceptions and experiences. Check out this blog to learn more about recruiting participants!


Qualitative research projects may evolve over the course of the project in order to ensure there is flexibility to provide a thorough understanding of the topic in question. Most qualitative studies include engagement between the participants and researchers to explore the research topics in-depth that facilitates a greater understanding of the context of experiences and exploring complex topics. Studies can also be designed to allow for inter-participant interactions to encourage a collective discussion to enhance understanding of the topic.

However, a risk of group discussions is “group think” where a participant shares an opinion and the group rallies together on that opinion without expressing their own opinions. That's why one of the major advantages of text-based focus groups or online discussion boards is that “uninfluenced” question types can be used to force respondents to respond to the question independently prior to seeing the responses of others.

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Many qualitative research studies include observing stakeholders that can discuss the research and engage with the moderator. The observer engagement can identify areas to explore further and contribute to enhancing the understanding. However, stakeholders may be biased and may influence the participants, so having them in a separated environment where they can only observe the participants is important.

In-person focus group facilities often have a one-way mirror on one of the walls of the focus group room. In the next room, also known as the “backroom” observing stakeholders can view the room via the mirror and discuss the research amongst themselves. Online qualitative platforms create a “virtual backroom” that allows observing stakeholders to view the research taking place, discuss with other stakeholders and privately message the moderator conducting the research without participants being aware or biased by the exchange.

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Data and Analysis

The data collected during qualitative research may include words, images and videos. There are many creative approaches that can use different research activities such as creating a collage or sorting images. Besides, image market-up exercises can produce a heatmap report showing the key areas of positive or negative feedback. The qualitative research analysis is often inductive where the research builds theories, concepts and summary descriptions of the data gathered. The analysis often involves the categorization of data into patterns. Video or audio data may be transcribed to text to allow for easier analysis, searching and categorization of data.

When to use qualitative research

With qualitative research, the goal is to enhance understanding of the participants’ perspectives within their personal context. The results
for the stakeholders can come in the form of a report as well as the actual experience of observing the research. Sue Moore, a customer immersion specialist stated, “The experience of observing clients speak about their experience provided the executives with the emotional intelligence to make critical changes in the company. While they had seen quantitative charts and graphs showing the problems existed, it wasn’t until they heard the clients describe their experiences that the executives gained the emotional intelligence needed to make the change.

Qualitative research reports often include a summary of the research and key insights. It is common to include video or audio highlight reels or text verbatims/quotes showing key insights discovered during the research.

Quantitative and qualitative research are very different in terms of the sample, design, data, analysis and results. It is very common for research programs to use both quantitative and qualitative research to meet the full set of research goals. The best choice for the project is determined by your research objectives and choosing the approach that will best meet your research needs.

Research methods

There are many types of qualitative research methods offering researchers and stakeholders different environments to hold discussions and observe participants. More recently there has been a rapid shift to online methods offering easier access and faster turnaround times. Here is a quick overview of the more common primary qualitative research data collection methods:


Traditional Research Methods

In-person Focus Groups: Hosting a discussion in-person typically with observing stakeholders viewing the session from a hidden backroom – think your traditional two-way mirror setup.

In-person In-Depth Interviews (IDIs): Personally asking people questions in one-on-one conversations, while sitting together in the same room.

Observations: Recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered in detailed field notes.

Synchronous Online Research Methods

When we say “synchronous” in referring to online qualitative research, we mean that everyone participating in the research is participating at the same time, together. This means that responses are instantaneous, and the session typically takes place over a relatively short period of time.

Video Online Focus Groups: Video focus groups involve a moderator hosting a discussion with multiple participants using an online focus group platform with video streaming. Everyone participates from their own location, but video enables participants’ facial expressions, changes in vocal tone, etc. to be seen. Because everyone must take turns speaking these are often limited to 6-8 participants but could include more or less depending on the project. In platforms designed for online research, observing stakeholders (these could be clients, execs, staff from other departments) watch and engage with the moderator from within a virtual backroom.

Video In-Depth Interviews: Video IDIs are similar to video focus groups, but involve one participant for deeper one-on-one streamed video sessions. Again, when using the proper platform, stakeholders can observe from the virtual backroom and provide feedback to the moderator to gain a deeper understanding or help drive the conversation.

Text-based Focus Groups: Text-based focus groups use text responses as the primary method of communication. These are handy for groups where you want to include a lot of participants in a short period of time, anonymity or extra-candid responses are desired, or for live event research where the participants are watching a live-streamed event and providing comments.

Live Professional Sports Event Research Using Online Text-Based Focus Groups

Telephone Interviews: Telephone IDIs are similar to video interviews, but the communication is audio-only and there is a web view of media available during the discussion.

Asynchronous Online Research Methods

There are also online qualitative research methods where participants are asked to log on at their convenience and share posts over the course of a couple of days, weeks or months – these are asynchronous. In asynchronous online research, the posts may be private and viewable only by the moderator, or viewable by other participants who can then engage, allowing a threaded discussion to evolve.

Online Discussion Boards: In online discussion boards, discussions are generated using a platform where questions are posted and participants respond to questions using text or video. Some questions may request that the participants share media or complete other exercises.

Diary Studies: In diary studies, participants provide responses to a series of questions on an online platform. Typically the discussion is one-on-one between the researcher and participant with no inter- participant interaction. itracks Board offers an “interview” question type to allow for private discussions between the researcher and participant.

Online Communities: In communities, participants engage with the research over a longer period of time. For example, research activities may be posted weekly to engage with the participants over days, months, or in rare cases, even years.

Online Ethnography Studies: In an online ethnography, the researcher observes and gains an understanding of the behaviour of participants engaged in the research topic. Studies typically involve the gathering of media that shares information related to the topic of interest. The key difference here is that the researcher should be observing the behaviour as it happens, as opposed to asking about it later. So, for example, a participant may live-stream themselves cooking dinner or grocery shopping so that the researcher can observe this, as opposed to asking the participant later on about their experiences cooking or shopping.

In-Home Usage Tests: Participants use a product and record videos showing their experience with a specific product. The study often involves in-depth discussion regarding their usage experiences.

There are many types of qualitative research methods offering different approaches and advantages. It is common for qualitative research initiatives to leverage a hybrid approach of both qualitative and quantitative or several qualitative methods. Examples could include
an online survey integrated with an online discussion board where target participants may move directly to the board. To allow for maximum flexibility, it is often best to choose a platform that allows you to switch between methodologies in your projects (for example, itracks GO’s platform including both Board and Realtime).

Technology and Data Management Considerations

In the past, participants had to be scheduled in advance to complete a study at a specific place and time. With the introduction of online qualitative research, participants can join a study from almost anywhere and anytime! It is much easier to find time to participate in research if you do not have to account for additional travel, parking and waiting time. These benefits aren’t just for the participants either— online qualitative research is more convenient and sustainable for market researchers too. Check out this article, where we look at 7 myths about online qualitative research!

Because online qualitative research can be done from any computer and most mobile devices, participants with low mobility are more likely
to be able to participate in online environments. The accessibility of online qual increases the ability for everyone to take part in the research. Besides, in many cases, because participants are in the comfort of their own homes or offices they tend to provide deeper insights and more robust
responses than those in an unfamiliar environment.

Global Studies are Easier to Manage

  • No travel costs or inconvenience
  • Participants from across the globe can be reached at the same time in the same project
  • Translation can be automated and instantaneous, and the same project can be easily translated into many languages
  • Transcripts can often be made available as soon as the project is completed

Online qualitative research offers similar conveniences to the moderator. The researcher doesn’t need to travel to several places to complete the research in multiple markets. A research team can then focus on what’s important– the content of the data– saving them time and money associated with travel. Global research can be carried out across multiple time zones and in several different languages, all within the same project. Multiple markets can be researched simultaneously to produce reports for the client in a shorter time frame.

Data Collection and Reporting is Accelerated

Online research allows a researcher to execute all the steps required to manage a project all from one place. By doing so, they can compress both time-frames and budgets! Projects can be set up and booked online within minutes. Users and questions can be efficiently uploaded, with a typical project setup time being one to three hours. Research participants can then be recruited immediately, as less notice is often required for online participation. Automated technology allows the research team and moderator to collect the project data quickly. Groups can be scheduled more efficiently than in the case of real-time groups, as the moderator does not need to move between locations. Asynchronous methods allow for efficient interactions simultaneously with multiple participants and sub-groups.

Text-based digital research also offers the benefit of instantaneous transcription. Some technologies offer advanced filtering and analysis tools to support reporting. As we move forward, biometrics, text analysis tools and automated video analysis will further assist with efficient data analysis and reporting.

Research Challenges and Solutions

Listening to the Introspective

In face-to-face groups, extroverts stand out more in the discussions; they like to be heard. In this context, insights from introverted participants are unlikely to be obtained at the same level as extroverts. The online qualitative environments allow moderators to connect with all group members equally and receive those hard-to-get opinions from participants that might not otherwise be heard.

Increased Client Engagement

Virtual backrooms available in online qualitative research offer the ability for client observers to interact with the moderator in real time, with safeguards in place that make it so these same observers cannot interact directly with participants. Client engagement can be significantly increased, allowing clients to be involved with everything from assistance in clarifying terms, giving real-time feedback on customer questions and logistics, as well as identifying comments and themes where they would like further probing.

Talking about online qual to your clients

We’re living in a digital world, and qualitative research has evolved to match these changing times. Online qual solves a lot of problems that researchers have faced with traditional face-to-face methods and it’s a clear next step if you want to reach more participants, gather better results, and deliver on your client's ROI. Sometimes people can be apprehensive when trying something new, especially online, so we’ve put together a few tips on how to make the switch and introduce online qual to your clients.

Emphasize its cost-effectiveness and efficiency. If you’re introducing online qualitative methods to clients for the first time, you may want to emphasize the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of online projects compared to traditional face-to-face methods. Online qualitative research can save you and your clients precious time and money and can garner the highest quality of results.

Start with well-designed projects. Ideally, a client’s first experience is with a well-designed project, increasing the likelihood of quality results and a positive client experience. It may also help to identify studies that would only be possible in an online environment. Ideally, an introductory project would be targeted at a population that has a strong preference for online environments (e.g. millennials).

Mix familiar and unfamiliar. Another approach is to consider introducing online qualitative research using a mixed methodology project where there is a mix of traditional groups and online groups. Sometimes it’s daunting for some people to make the leap to the digital world, and a transition period with mixed methodology projects can help them recognize the benefits of online qual while keeping your client in their comfort zone.

Involve them in the backroom. The involvement of clients in the backroom during online qualitative studies may assist in building trust in the methodology and the research findings. For clients that have traditionally used face-to-face interviews and focus groups, the use of video during online studies may enhance confidence in the recruitment process and research methodology due to its similarity to in-person interactions. Video IDIs and video focus groups have often been used as a first step in transitioning from traditional in-person research to online qualitative methods. Much like traditional paper surveys evolved to phone surveys, and then subsequently evolved again to online surveys, the same transition is taking place within qualitative research.

Everything you need to know about research participants and recruitment

Recruitment in online communities is a fundamental part of any successful study. Recruitment for online research is typically carried out in three main ways: from online panels, via ad hoc recruitment (more traditional methods such as recruiters in the field, personally, telephone, live or web intercept, or social media communications); and from client-supplied lists. To get the best results for your research and to ensure high client and participant satisfaction, you don’t want to recruit just anyone – you should consider the following ways to ensure your participants are the best fit for your project.

All participants should have proper technology and equipment. Participants also must be able to access the technology needed for the study (e.g. computer or mobile device with adequate internet connections). They may seem like the perfect participant, but if they can’t properly share their opinions with you, then your research with them can’t continue! You can test this by having them run through a quick technical screen test online in advance of the actual focus group or interview. As a bonus, the advance “tech check” can also serve to test the next aspect, which is to...

Consider participant personalities. When finding the right participants for online qualitative research, the requirements of the screener, as well as the personalities of the participants must be considered. As with traditional methods, participation within digital qualitative sessions is much deeper, more in-depth and more effective if people are articulate, expressive and comfortable sharing in group settings.

Over-recruit. If a project has quotas to recruit within specific population segments and a lower incidence/hard-to-reach respondent audience, recruiting participants can be a challenge. It’s recommended to over- recruit by 15% to 30% to make sure that there are enough participants and to account for the possibility of dropouts or people with technology problems on the day of the group. If you’re using software designed for research for your groups or interviews, you should be able to have backup participants wait in the “waiting room,” and only admit them to the discussion if needed.

Keep participants engaged. For research taking place over several days, like with an online discussion board, there is the additional challenge to keep participants engaged and active throughout the study. The key to keeping quality respondents is setting expectations upfront in terms of how often they will be needed and what activities are expected of them. Additional instructions and support should be allotted to those groups of people, who may not be as comfortable within the online space, to keep them engaged. Engagement can be boosted through effective moderation techniques, incentives and leaderboards within the software, and showing posts by users. Finally, incentives are key in online research. Determining the “ask” of the participants and then applying an appropriate incentive – for the time invested and the participant type – can keep participants active.

Ask screening questions about technical aptitude. It is important to make sure that participants are not only able to join from a technical perspective but are comfortable doing so. In addition to asking if people have a laptop, computer, and webcam, we also ask questions about how comfortable people are on camera, and what their comfort level with sharing their opinions is.

Be thoughtful when choosing your incentives. How much participants receive, how and when they receive payment, what format they will receive it in, and what needs to be done in order to receive payment can all play a part in recruiting the right participants, as well as having high-quality participants return for subsequent projects. We find that choosing an incentive that can be redeemed digitally, and that has
real value (i.e., is something that the participant will actually find useful) is best.

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Clearly communicate the expectations of respondents. This includes:

  • Timing. When will the research be conducted, and how much time will be required of participants?
  • Incentives. In addition to choosing the right incentive, it’s equally as important that participants are aware of all of what the incentive is and how and when they will be able to collect it, otherwise, they may become frustrated. Inform them during the screening process, and via email so they have a written record of it.
  • Software/hardware expectations. Even though you’ve already screened them for technical aptitude and equipment requirements, you still need to remind them what is needed to participate leading up to the activity, and that they will need to pass a tech check to participate. For example, they may be expecting to be able to use their phone when an actual computer is required. Maybe when you screened them they weren’t on a VPN but planned to be during the activity. Some platforms require the download of a program or plugin before you can use it, which can take time (fortunately itracks Realtime and Board are secure web-based platforms which are accessed via a browser so this is not required). Communicate all of this in advance to ensure there are no hiccups once the group actually starts and your clients/ observers are watching.

Communicate expectations and reminders through multiple channels. Employing a multi-channel strategy to confirm and remind participants is important in making sure communication channels are open. Different people favour different methods of communication, even amongst the same generation or demographic, so using multiple channels gives you the best chance of reaching everyone with important information. These channels can include but are not limited to, email, phone, text, social media, and messaging apps (e.g., Facebook messenger, WhatsApp). The OnlyQual team primarily uses email and text messages but has also used messaging apps and good old-fashioned phone calling to reach out and keep participants aware of the project details.

Have participants re-confirm their participation after going through automation. We often request that participants take some type of action to truly indicate interest in the study. If a participant is not responsive to our requests and communications early on there is a high likelihood that they will not be fully engaged in the research. We watch for people who do not confirm, respond to text messages, emails or phone calls and remove them early in order to open up spots for truly engaged participants.

Moderating online qualitative interviews and focus groups

Making the switch from moderating an in-person focus group to moderating an online real-time focus group can seem a little scary at first, but there is nothing to fear! There are some key things to consider regarding moderation in any environment. The moderator

  • Should be impartial and non-judgmental,
  • Needs to have a clear understanding of the research project objectives and deliverables,
  • Needs to have the skills to facilitate dynamic discussions, and
  • Needs to be able to follow the flow of conversation and maintain order.

While often similar to in-person focus groups, there are a few things to consider when moderating an online real-time focus group.


Don’t reinvent the wheel. When moderating an online focus group you don’t need to start from scratch. If you are used to moderating a traditional focus group, you can easily transfer the same skills to an online environment. Skills like generating a rapport, looking for cues to follow up on and being able to encourage participants to dig a bit deeper are all things that can be used in online qualitative research. They may require some more planning and look a little bit different than what you do in person, but only small changes to the core aspects of what you do in-person are required to effectively moderate.

Make yourself approachable. Just like in an in-person focus group, it is important for you as a moderator to be approachable, so participants feel comfortable opening up. Details can be added to a moderator profile, including a picture that best represents who you are to this community of users. Some moderators will add different pictures depending on their participant audience. For example, you might use a picture where you are making a “funny” face when doing research with children under 10 (and their parents), but use a very professional headshot when doing another research study with small business owners. It is important that participants see you as a person who is approachable and someone they can go to if they have questions.

Lead by example. You can also use examples of language in your responses that can help provide participants with a larger repertoire of words to help them better express themselves. Participants may not know how to “act” in an online focus group, so you can help set the tone. If you want them to share something personal, maybe share something personal about yourself first. If you want them to speak conversationally as they would to a friend or colleague, emulate this tone in your posts.

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