. A common response from researchers is that they prefer in-person methods to online methods as in-person methods are more personable and allow for more expressivity in terms of facial reactions, body language and tone of voice. And how could it not? A person is physically in the conversation as it happens with the respondents who are in the room with him/her. This answer that researchers provide in regard to their preference for traditional focus groups makes sense. As humans we are physical and emotional beings who like to be seen and heard by other humans. Face-to-face communication has been around much longer than virtual methods and we are familiar with this method. But what about online methodologies? Is there perhaps a fear of stepping outside of our comfort zones and experiencing new techniques? Can these new methodologies offer some intrinsic benefits that in-person groups cannot? We all know that online focus groups can save on travel time for moderators, are more cost effective to organize and run, and allow access to respondents that are hard to reach or geographically dispersed. However, let us take a closer look at the form of communication in which these online methods facilitate.
Why Do We Stick To What We Know?
Traditional focus groups allow for us to see people’s faces, hear the tone in their voices as well as see their body language. These three important communication indicators are big signals which we are familiar in decoding. With the advent of the internet, cellular phones and social media, text-based communication has developed into a communication method or dialect of its own whether we like it or not. Younger generations that have grown up with smartphones and computers now use text-based communication as a means of communicating daily in addition to verbal or in-person communication. As a millennial, I find myself stuck in the “in-between time” where cellphones took over as a means of communication. Only a few kids in my high school had them. Now, young children have their own smart phones, not just the CDMA style flip phone that I started out with. I step back and think about how much has changed in society and even my own behavior since cellphones have become the standard. I used to visit someone at their home and ring their doorbell to let my host know I was at the door. Now, my first instinct is to text them from my vehicle and announce my arrival. I think to myself afterwards… why didn’t I just ring the doorbell? Texting has become my go-to form of communication simply because it is easier and faster… I have become one of those people. Really, who isn’t one of those people anymore?
It is not unheard of for a parent today to walk into a room of teenagers and find them engaging with each other through texting and posting on social media sites rather than chatting verbally. “How ridiculous”, you say…. “What has happened to kids these days?” Well, this group has a new, different way of communicating their thoughts and feelings while expressing their individual personalities. As creatures of habit, those of us in the other generational cohorts may not understand it at first, but it has become another way in which we humans communicate. While on the surface we may not think of the benefits that text-based communication provides, it indeed elicits expressivity in a different format that market researchers can decode and utilize in their research. It may not be comfortable or easy to utilize at first, but once researchers learn to leverage the benefits of text-based communication, it can provide numerous advantages. As these teens grow up and become the predominant consumer market, researchers will need to be comfortable with communicating to them through the methods they are most comfortable with. As an industry, researchers will have to adopt these methods eventually as they are here to stay.
Texting’s Role in Our New Digital Language
While finding inspiration for this article, I came across a TedTalk session, Texting is Killing Language: JK!!!, with John McWhorter who is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In this session, McWhorter discusses how online text-based communication is a new and different way of communication. Talking with our fingers. I was captivated by the topic and his colorful examples. One in particular instantly resonated with me. When you listen to people speak, our speech is much looser and is less reflective than writing. When we text or instant message, we have time to think about what we want to say and frame our words more carefully. We sometimes even review them. During in-person conversation, our brains and mouths are often instantly connected and we say the first thoughts that come to mind. When it comes to market research methodologies, wouldn’t it be better for studies that require answers with more thought and reflection, to probe participants in a way that will get them to answer with more thought and purpose? Since we tend to say the first thing that comes to mind through verbal in-person speech, it would prove more beneficial to probe people in a written format to get them to think about what they want to say and frame their words more carefully when they type it.
We can think of text-based language as a new language with a new structure, or a new dialect of the tech savvy. There was a time when our ancestors had not yet developed language and had to communicate through hieroglyphs, noises and even hand or body signals. Homo sapiens eventually evolved to be able to speak and write in languages that have also evolved or developed over time. Pondering this point further, it is remarkable just how many ways humans communicate and how all of these methods have evolved over time. As humans, we communicate physically, visually and verbally. These methods have all progressed and each method contains unique benefits or intrinsic signals along with them. Even the communication method being used and how the user applies it conveys something more than the message itself. What started physically as hand signals has evolved to hand gestures and sign language for the speech impaired. What started as hieroglyphs has evolved to vivid imagery. A form of physical – or a type of written communication, braille, developed for the visually impaired. Verbal communications from a basic language of sounds by our ancestors has derived into many languages in many dialects. Written communication in the form of books and letters has now evolved to emails and texts today. Text-based communication is another advancement or evolvement of human communication.
It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It
Admirers of grammar and proper spelling can argue that text-based communication is perhaps a little lazy, watered down, or aiding in the loss of rules and structure in our formal written communication; however, whether they like it or not, it is happening. Even as McWhorter pointed out in his lecture that, there has always been a critic worried about the loss of the quality of grammatical rules and spelling or “language”. Even in verbal speech, there is slang that has developed and has meaning to the demographic in which it is used. “Ain’t” and many other words that would make linguistic purists scoff are now officially in dictionaries. As anthropologists and researchers of human behavior, one should look at who is texting or typing what or why. The people you observe are telling you things via how they are typing/expressing themselves. The grammar, punctuation, and slang… all can tell you who they are, where they may come from, what social cohorts they belong to and more. It may take some practice at first, but if you look at it from a different lens or perspective, the cues are indeed there.
Online communication is indeed expressive, but in a different way. Think of a person whom you are having a face-to-face conversation with. To add expressivity to their words, they can use an inflection or lower tone in their voice, make symbolic gestures with their hands, use animated facial expressions or perhaps laugh – all to add personality or further the meaning in what they are saying. The same parallels exist for text-based communication. When we type via chat-based formats, be it IM’s or texting, expressivity and emotion can be conveyed in a similar, virtual fashion. Emoticons J, Emojis, all CAPITAL letters, and slangs (cool beans) are some ways in which we add personality and flavor to our text-based communication. As I watched the lecture by McWhorter, he dissects the use of “LOL” in text communication and the ways in which it has developed over time. Where “LOL” via text once meant laughing out loud to a joke or question, the usage of LOL in texting is used more frequently as a marker of empathy. Think about this for a moment. When you are texting someone and they are perhaps trying to be funny, maybe you can’t quite tell or don’t quite get the joke, but to break the tension or show that you can see where they are coming from you write an “LOL”. I know I have done this in text and in person… I didn’t quite know how to react or couldn’t quite understand what the person meant, but to break what could be awkward silence – I have laughed, giggled or sighed to move the conversation onward. This evolution of “LOL” as McWhorter denotes, is what linguists refer to as a “pragmatic particle”, meaning that it is how we use the language between actual people. Who knew that the term LOL meant more than simply laughing out loud?
The Impact on Market Research
Conducting market research earlier in my career, I would’ve loved to have known about online focus groups. At that time I was providing full-service market research, product design, and development for a client virtually. It was the first time our client had ventured into this product line and it was to be sold exclusively at their stores nationwide. The product had a specific set of users that were a niche demographic, heavy product user of the recreational item, geographically dispersed, and were loyal patrons of the store. Where do I find these people… and hold a focus group with a qualified sample on a limited research budget? Let’s just say that had I known the beauty and ease of online research for this project, it would’ve made my life a lot easier. While the traditional focus group I held ran smoothly, it was hard to keep people focused and get the answers I needed. Typing out the transcripts from the session’s recording ate up a chunk of time and budget. Once I had learned about online qualitative research methodologies and the things that online qual software can do (i.e. instant transcripts), a part of me cried inside a little remembering all of the time it took me to recruit, moderate and even transcribe the sessions that I’ve held in the past. You know that feeling when you’ve been working laboriously at something and then someone comes along and tells you there was an easier and better way to do it? A tingle of embarrassment then runs down your face and you want to give yourself a forehead smack? Well that’s how I felt!
And it is now that I challenge you, fellow market researchers and moderators of the world, to join me in the next phase of cultural anthropology and market research in the technology age. The next time you run an online focus group (and first of all I challenge you to run an online focus group if you have not yet), pay special attention to the textual cues that participants are giving off. How many LOLs do you see? How many smileys, slang words or ALL CAPS do respondents use? Did you automatically interpret what they meant by these cues and not realize you were even interpreting these cues as second nature similar to what you do with verbal speech? If you haven’t tried an online focus group yet as a methodology, don’t despair. As a researcher, trying new methods and knowing what’s out there only makes you more aware. If you’d like to try an online group and want some suggestions on where to begin, I recommend watching a past webinar by market researcher, Mindy Miraglia, who shares her story of trying an online group for the first time. As you watch the video, I encourage you to look at textual language and all of the expressive cues used in the online and mobile discussion board. Are they coming across effectively? Is it better, different, or a complement to traditional focus groups? Are there situations where it would make more sense to run an online focus group? I will leave that with you. I hope that when you text your friend or family member today, you will analyze that communication a bit more and realize that it isn’t just a “text”. It’s more, it’s the new way of talking… with our fingers.
 Fall 2014 GRIT Report. Greenbook http://www.greenbook.org/grit
McWhorter, John. TED Talks Video: Txtng is killing language. JK!!! http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk?language=en
 McWhorter, John. TED Talks Video: Txtng is killing language. JK!!! http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk?language=en
About the author: Heidi Abramyk (BDes, BCom) has accumulated 5 years of product design, product development and market research in the Apparel Industry. In her current role as Marketing and Design Specialist at itracks, Heidi utilizes her marketing skills and creative eye to communicate itracks’ brand and strategy.