Online market research: a comprehensive guide

Person taking part in online market research
Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

As internet penetration has increased across the world, online market research has seen rapid growth. The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for further adoption as restrictions on face-to-face contact meant that businesses had to embrace new research approaches. The result? Many companies experiencing the advantages of online research for the first time. What’s more, the widespread adoption of tech during the pandemic – particularly amongst audiences that were traditionally easier to reach offline – means that online market research is a now a viable way of engaging more people than ever before.

In this guide we’ll:

  • Explore the key advantages and disadvantages of online market research
  • Explain the different methodologies available to you and when to use them
  • Share our top tips for setting your project up for success, moderation and analysis

What is online market research?

As the name suggests, online market research is a type of market research where data collection takes place on the internet. In this way it differs from more traditional forms of market research where data collection takes places offline (either in person or over the phone) such as focus groups or telephone interviews.

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of online market research?

Advantages of online market research include being faster and in some cases, cheaper to conduct than face-to-face market research, meaning that you can obtain results more quickly. One of the major disadvantages of online market research is that it relies on the people you’re trying to reach having access to the internet and as such it may not be suitable for all audiences. Some online qualitative methodologies also require a degree of tech savviness, and a longer time commitment than offline approaches.

Beyond this:

  • Online market research is particularly useful for global projects. If you’re looking to enter a new market and don’t have boots on the ground, online market research can help you build your understanding without having to fork out for flights and focus groups. It’s also well suited to multi-market research as you can conduct research in a number of countries in parallel to identify common trends.
  • Online research can help you get closer to customers and bring them to life for stakeholders. In a focus group or a face to face interview, you only have a short amount of time to get to know respondents. In contrast, some forms of online qualitative research take place over a series of days, weeks or even months. This allows us to dig deeper and build a richer understanding of customers and their needs than we might offline. Some methodologies even allow you to set photo and videos tasks. These result in rich multimedia outputs can be used to bring customers to life for stakeholders.
  • Online techniques allow for a more iterative approach to research. The longitudinal nature of some online qualitative methodologies means that it’s possible to adapt your discussion guide as the research progresses to capitalize on emerging insights. This is particularly effective for product development research. For example, in an online community, you can share initial concepts with consumers, iteratively improve them based on feedback and then put them back into the community for further testing. This approach allows you to build and refine the concepts as the research progresses.
  • Online market research can be good for sensitive topics. Many online methodologies offer a greater degree of anonymity than face to face research. As such, they can be better suited to discussing difficult subjects such as illness or sex.

What type of business questions can online market research help me answer?

Online market research is extremely versatile and can be harnessed to explore a broad range of challenges, including:

What are the main methodologies used in online market research and when should I use them?

There are a number of different research tools you can use to collect data online. They include:

Online surveys

An online survey is the primary method for collecting quantitative data online. Online surveys can be completed by your customers or respondents can be sourced from an online panel (a group of people that have agreed to take part in online research). If you opt for this route you can build a representative sample and extrapolate your findings to the wider population.

When to use an online survey

  • To understand trends and patterns of behavior e.g. buying habits
  • To understand attitudes towards your brand versus the competition 
  • To compare different groups (e.g. by age, gender or market) to understand similarities or differences
  • To track metrics over time e.g. brand awareness, customer satisfaction

When to avoid an online survey

  • Projects where you need to qualitatively explore an issue with consumers to understand motivations and the “why” behind behaviors
  • Projects where you need to co-create with consumers to iteratively improve an idea

Top tips

  • It can be tempting to pack your survey full of questions but you need to be mindful of time. An online survey should take a maximum of 15 – 20 minutes to complete. Any longer than this and you risk seeing respondent fatigue or a significant proportion of people dropping off before the end. This will mean that fieldwork will take longer to complete.
  • Mix up the type of questions you use to keep the survey engaging for respondents

Online communities

Online communities are a qualitative technique for exploring a topic over a number of days, weeks or even months. Pre-screened respondents are invited to a secure online platform where they take part in a number of activities each day. This can involve discussing topics in groups, one on one or taking part in video, photo or audio tasks.

When to use an online community

  • To deepen understanding of a target audience
  • To explore content preferences and consumption
  • To test audience attitude and brand perceptions
  • To test new ideas with consumers – this can be anything from products and services to packaging or new marketing concepts. Online communities are particularly well suited to this. Many platforms enable consumers to mark-up concepts so you can gather in-depth feedback whilst also protecting the confidential nature of the stimulus, through functionality such watermarking or setting videos to self-destruct once they’ve been watched.  

When to avoid an online community

  • When you need to explore a topic with consumers on an individual level

Top tips

  • Do your research on the types of platforms available. Each offer different functionality so go back to your objectives to ensure you’re selecting most suitable for your project and what you want to achieve.

Digital depths

A digital depth is essentially an audio or video interview which takes places online. These tend to last about 30 – 90 minutes. A typical program might involve 15 – 20 interviews per market, although this can vary based on your business objectives.

When to use a digital depth

  • To explore in-home brand or product usage or explore attitudes towards particular brands or products
  • To gain B2B market insights

When to avoid a digital depth

  • Projects where you require respondents to share and bounce ideas off each other
  • Projects that require large sample sizes as running 100s or 1000s of depths online or offline is just not feasible

Tops tips

  • One of the challenges levelled against online research is that it can be harder to build rapport online. To overcome this, consider pre-tasks that allow you to get to know the respondent beforehand and help them feel comfortable. This can be anything from asking them to complete a short diary task to some quickfire WhatsApp questions before you get started.
  • Be aware of market differences. In markets that have traditionally favored face to face methods, using video as part of a digital depth is a must for engendering trust.  

Digital ethnographies

The objective of a digital ethnography is to view a consumer’s life as it happens. Ethnography emerged as an offline discipline, but developments in technology mean that it is now possible to conduct ethnography online. From 360 cameras to smart home technology right through to the humble old smartphone, there are a number of tools you can use. And in some cases, these new approaches can uncover insights that you just would not gather when there’s a researcher in the room.

When to use digital ethnographies

  • To explore in-home brand or product usage or to explore attitudes towards particular brands or products
  • To identify unmet needs
  • To understand cultural differences between markets

When not to use digital ethnographies

  • Projects where you need respondents to bounce ideas off one another

Top tips

  • Not everyone will be suited to take part in digital ethnography. You need respondents who are open and willing to let you into their lives. One way of doing this is to include a casting phase as part of the project to identify the right people to participate.

Online focus groups

An online focus group is where a group of pre-screened respondents are invited to join a private online platform for a few hours. Like an in-person focus group, a moderator will guide the discussion, which can be either text or video based.

When to use an online focus group

  • To test attitudes and responses to concepts and ideas at a high level
  • To sense check ideas quickly with consumers

When not to use an online focus group

  • To obtain detailed inputs from respondents at a one-to-one level

Top tips

  • If you are used to running focus groups in person, don’t automatically assume that online focus groups are the next best thing. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, another methodology may better meet your objectives.
  • If you’re running a video based online focus group make sure that you’re able to see all of the participants at once. This will help in interpreting non-verbal cues and bringing people into the conversation.

Questions to ask yourself when designing your online research approach

As you can see, there are a number of different online methodologies available to use, each with their own distinct use cases, benefits and drawbacks. To help you design the best research approach, we’d recommend asking yourself 5 key questions:

  1. What am I trying to achieve? Some clients come to us dead set on using a particular methodology. We’d advise against this. By starting with your business objectives and then considering which methodology best allows you to meet these, you’ll be in a much stronger position to design an effective research approach.
  2. Do I need to collect quantitative or qualitative data? If you’re looking to conduct research at scale, you’ll need to opt for an online survey whereas if you want to explore a topic qualitatively, there are a number of different options available.
  3. What depth of insight do I require? Are you sense checking an idea or do you need to explore needs in real detail? This will have implications for the methodology you choose.
  4. Do I need to speak to consumers one-on-one or in a group? Different methodologies and platforms facilitate a different type of engagement with respondents. Think carefully about which you require up front.
  5. Which markets am I exploring? Not every methodology will work in every market. There are cultural factors and connectivity issues you’ll need to consider. For instance, if you’re conducting research in India outside metros or tier 1 cities, you’ll need to make sure your approach is mobile optimized but doesn’t require too much bandwidth. Or if looking to test concepts in China, you’ll need to do so in a one-on-one setting due to the Chinese habit to moderate answers and avoid causing offence in group environments. Our guide to conducting online research in Asia, can help you consider the best approach to take in each market. Remember, if you’re running a multi-market project, you don’t need to use the same methodology in every country. Harnessing an approach that will ensure you can answer your business objectives is more important than consistency of approach.

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Setting your online research study up for success

So you’ve decided on the best methodology for your study. The next step is to get into the nitty gritty of setting up the project. Here there are a number of key things to consider.

  • Simplicity. When you’re writing your questionnaire or discussion guide, focus on making it as easy as possible to understand. Cut out the jargon to ensure a consistent understanding amongst respondents.
  • Flexibility. For online qualitative projects, it’s worth building in an element of flexibility into your discussion guide. This will allow you to delve into emerging insights during the course of the research.  
  • Cultural nuances. We talked about the importance of culture when selecting your methodology. It’s crucial to bear this in mind throughout the entire research project. When you’re writing a questionnaire, preparing a discussion guide or designing specific tasks, consider how cultural differences might affect participants’ responses. For instance, in Japan people tend to avoid giving negative feedback so you use a traditional 5 point Likert scale here you’ll find that most people will answer somewhere in the middle, making it hard to ascertain the trend. To get a clearer go / no-go result, you’ll want to consider a 4 point scale in this market.
  • Testing and training. Some online qualitative research approaches rely on external technology platforms. Make sure you build in a comprehensive testing phase to ensure these work across different browsers and in different markets, particularly if you’re using a tool for the first time. You should also consider preparing training materials for respondents. What might seem intuitive to us as researchers, may be not be as straight forward for the person taking part in the research.

How to moderate online research

Moderation is arguably even more important online than it is offline. So what should you bear in mind?

  1. Don’t forget the basics. Just because the research is taking place online doesn’t mean that you can forget everything you’ve learnt about great moderation. Dress appropriately and try and mimic face-to-face interactions – even something as simple as waving hello at the start of an interview can help to build rapport and set someone at ease.
  2. Read the (virtual) room. Sometimes what people choose not to say can be as revealing as what they do.
  3. Do your homework. Earlier in this guide, we mentioned the value that pre-tasks can bring. Even a short WhatsApp exchange can be useful in helping you to understand more about a respondent and how they feel about certain topics so you can get the most out of them in the session.
  4. Curate the conversation. Unlike a focus group or an interview which might only last 90 minutes, online communities take place over a longer period and therefore require ongoing moderation. Moderators should think about how they curate the conversation by connecting individual respondents up to foster group discussion.
  5. Conduct research in the local language. If you’re running a project in another country, use local language moderators who’ll be able to understand and draw out local nuances.

Analyzing online research projects

Online market research is often considered to deliver more bang for your buck than a face-to-face approach because of the sheer amount of data you can collect. This is particularly true of online communities due to their longitudinal nature. As such, you need to carefully structure your analysis, ensuring you’re focusing on the ‘so what’ for your stakeholders.

There are also cultural considerations to take into account when it comes to analysis. You’ll need to bear in mind that consumers in different markets can answer questions differently when you’re interpreting the data. For instance, when asking about interest levels or purchase intent, the figures you see in ASEAN developing countries tend to be higher than in other markets. Even within markets, there can be regional differences to take account of. In Vietnam, for instance, there are cultural differences between consumers in the two major cities – Hanoi in the North and Ho Chi Minh in the South. Those in the North tend to favour products from well-known brands, while those in the South are more open to trying new things, and this is reflected in the data you see from these areas.

Considering harnessing online research in your own organization?

This is where we’re in our element. Find out about some of our online methodologies like online surveys or online communities or get in touch to discuss a project.

Free guide

How to conduct online market research in Asia: The Go-To Guide

What online methodologies work best in India? How do you get the most out of respondents through digital methodologies in China? Experts across our global boutique share best practice tips and techniques for conducting online market research in Asia.

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