The Return Of In-person Qualitative Research?

Like many industries, Covid-19 has forced how many of us conduct qualitative market research with a fundamental shift in approach and methods to accommodate social-distancing, protect health and provide reassurance to participants. Qualitative and Ethnographic research, typically done in person through focus groups, in depth interviews, in store shopalongs, observational research and ‘day in the life’ close contact has had to pivot almost overnight to online.

Last year in 2019, the majority of qualitative research would have been done in person, with online qualitative still a secondary approach for many. Since Covid-19, at Insights Exchange we have experienced a complete reverse of this with 100% of our qualitative research been done through video calls i.e. Zoom, mobile ethnography/research or online research communities and many of our research specialists are reporting the same. In fact, there was a mini-celebration this month as one of our specialists Nicky Fraser did her first Covid-safe focus group in 6 months!

For qualitative researchers, online is not a replacement for face to face research, particularly when the objective is to understand a person’s life context, environment and how they interact with a product/service in real time. However, whilst we would not want to make this a permanent shift, there have been some benefits in the need to pivot online. Researchers can now speak with people who they may have otherwise not been able to in person, research does not have to be put on hold, it has forced some researchers to become more technology-savvy and has enabled clients to be part of the research process as observers and even co-moderators.

The big question now is…as we emerge from Covid (in some countries), will this trend for online qualitative research stick around? If so, what can you do to ensure that you get the most out of your online qualitative research?


Get all your tech set up first so you are comfortable and confident with using it before the interview, live group or community. There is nothing like having tech issues or the dreaded ‘You’re on mute’ to kill rapport!


Clients should be invited to participate and be an observer (where appropriate) – it brings them closer to the research and makes them feel part of the process so they can own the outputs.


Experiment with different platforms and methods – there is no one size fits all. Zoom is great for in depth interviews, but security may be an issue. Ning community software is cheap and cheerful, but not built for market research. Recollective is purpose built for market research and for online focus groups, but does come at a higher price point. Qualie for a qual/quant solution all in one.


For those that haven’t done online qualitative research before, don’t be afraid of the tech. Whilst it’s not our ideal and can never replace the richness of in person research, there will always be a time and a place for it, even in a post-Covid world.