Is online research the answer to your shrinking insight budget?

Is online research the answer to your shrinking insight budget?

What do you wish you knew about your current, lapsed, or potential consumers?

If you’re as curious as the team at Underdog, you probably already have a pretty long list. And perhaps that’s just for one brand, or one project in a packed activity plan. Make a consumer-knowledge wish-list for the whole year, and you start to get the feeling your budget is never going to stretch that far.

Chances are you’ve already contemplated taking some of your research online, especially if you’re hoping to get more bang for your buck. But you’ve also had first hand experience of the importance of true consumer proximity - of walking in their shoes in-store, watching them using your new packaging, or the magic of looking through their drawers (with permission) during at-home depth interviews.

Can online research ever deliver such richness? Or is it inherently limited – destined to be a poor man’s substitute for face to face research?

At Underdog, we build brands with bravery - so we’re not shy of trialing and learning from new methodologies.

Here’s our lowdown on three increasingly popular forums of online research – an honest look at the pros and cons, with tips covering everything we’ve learned from experience (…so you don’t have to!)

(Inspired to get a little closer to your current, lapsed, or potential consumers? Give us a bell to discuss Sniffer Dog– Underdog’s suite of research and insight capabilities.)



Online depth interviews with consumers & experts 

One of the core building blocks in our Snifferdog insight offering, and a common sight on many a research schedule, depth interviews are often a key element in getting to those big a-ha moments. 
But can you hold these interviews online – or do you lose more than you gain? 

Let’s take a look. 


· It’s true that holding depth interviews via video conferencing can be easy on the budget. Travel costs, venue costs, and general on-the-go subsistence costs are slashed, if not eradicated. The cost of travel time, which can sometimes take as long as the interviews themselves, is also wiped off the bill. Happy days all round.

· We haven’t found it any harder to build rapport with respondents online rather than face to face. In fact, there’s something quite intimate and natural holding the interview in your personal space – for the respondent as well as the moderator.

· Meeting your respondents online rather than in person has an unexpected benefit of unlocking a geographically-infinite recruitment pool. This is especially magical when you have a niche recruitment brief, are hunting down topical experts, or hoping to speak to high-fliers who value their time highly (and are unwilling to waste time or energy on travel for the incentive you’re offering).

· Holding your research online rather than in person can speed everything up. It’s often much easier for your moderator and respondents to fit an online interview into a busy week, reducing scheduling lead times.

· Recording is as easy as pie and often saved straight in the cloud (given appropriate consumer permissions). That’s near zero faff with video files, and the rest of your team can watch the interviews the second you finish.


· Online interviews aren’t suitable for all research topics. If you’re interested in opinions, beliefs, and recollections, then it’s perfectly appropriate to look for insights through dialogue. For example, exploring concepts or positioning territories can work really well online. If the brief demands in-context exploration, e.g. observed behaviours like watching consumers shop in-store, or use your product in real life, then online research is likely to fall short.

· Holding interviews online can also reduce the number of tools at your disposal. While participants can respond to stimulus shared on their screen, it’s hard to run interactive exercises like mapping, pairing, ranking, etc.

· If the client team is keen to watch the interviews live, online research may not be ideal. Most of the software we’ve used to date will always show all attendees (even if one doesn’t have a video/audio feed) – which gives the respondent a feeling of being watched, rather than holding an equal one-on-one conversation.

· Tech issues like poor wifi connections or difficulty logging on can waste time and dent rapport.



· Avoid tech problems through pre-interview testing. Engage your recruiters to run trial video calls with all respondents before your research begins – lest you lose research time to technical trouble-shooting.

· If you’re moderating from home, make sure you lock any pets outside the room – lest you get dive-bombed by your cat in the middle of an interview. Cats just don’t give a shit.

The bottom line
Would we recommend holding depth interviews via video conference? Absolutely – but only when the brief is right for it.



Online focus groups

Ah, the classic focus group. One of Qual’s answers to breath, and ideal when you want to spark a little debate between consumers. There’s a reason focus groups pop up in almost every insight stage – they’re hugely valuable, and hugely versatile.  But viewing facilities – expensive! And how much did you just pay for that bottle of water?! You’re up for exploring online alternatives – but maybe also pretty skeptical they’re going to deliver.

Here’s how we’ve found online focus groups at Underdog.  


· Here’s where we see some significant cost savings, especially if the real-world alternative would require viewing facilities and catering for a large team behind the glass. Holding focus groups online, I wouldn’t be surprised to save a few thousand on just one project.
· It’s easier for the project team to view group online research than one-to-one online interviews. There are enough attendees that a few observers will go unnoticed.

· Again, recruiting online unlocks a larger potential target audience, which can make it easier to find hard-to-get respondents, as well as speed up the process.


· It’s still possible to create a good vibe and build rapport between respondents – but in a group setting, it’s easier for respondents to get distracted by their lives at home.

· The discussion will take more of a relay vibe, as the conversational baton gets passed from one respondent to another. In a room together, a natural conversational overlap will take place, as respondents agree and disagree. On a screen, with each respondent in their own little box, overlap doesn’t feel natural, and wouldn’t be manageable. This means you simply won’t be able to cover as much material in your discussion guide as you would in a face to face focus group.

· Running a focus group online limits your discussion guide to pure discussion. You can’t really run interactive exercises, ask participants to collaborate, split into smaller groups, and really get hands on with your stimulus.

· Sometimes it’s worth the extra budget to have your client team and project team together in a viewing room. The discussion behind the glass can lead to valuable ‘a-ha’ moments and even project pivots. Consensus can be gained live, rather than in phone calls after the fact. Team engagement is often increased as they’ve heard consumers first-hand, making it easier to secure buy-in on big decisions further down the line. (Let’s be honest - those who don’t attend are highly unlikely to sit and watch 2-12 hours of video footage at a later point.)



You must be brutally strict with your discussion guide. Take a face to face discussion guide and reduce by 15-20%. Make sure your project team know that holding focus groups online means that less can be covered.

· Your moderator will need to work harder to build rapport and encourage interaction between respondents – it’s possible, but may not come as naturally.

· On a technical note, make sure your software allows everyone on screen at once (in a view that works for the moderator and respondents.) It is super frustrating if you are limited to 6 video feeds on-screen, and keep losing 2 of your consumers at random.

The bottom line:

Would we recommend online focus groups? The main gain here is reduced cost, but you do make compromises for this. However, if the budget can’t stretch as far as you want it, and the topic is right, there’s a role for online groups.



Online forums or communities

Now things get a little different. Online forums (also called communities) aren’t just an online equivalent of something that’s been happening in real life for the last 50+ years. 

Online communities usually take the form of a closed network of specifically-recruited respondents gathered together to explore a topic of common interest. The community is ‘hosted’ by a moderator, who will post a variety of tasks, probe for depth, and encourage participant interaction. Different providers offer different platforms, each with their own functionality. 



· Online communities are ideal if you want to cover sensitive topics, especially in the world of healthcare. It’s amazing how much your participants will open up about something like digestive health in a forum context.

· Running an online community unlocks the potential for loads of different research exercises, as well as a huge range of outputs across different media - video, collage, photos, audio… There are too many options to list.

· You can really make your online community whatever you want it to be. It can be any length, any level of complexity. You could take the same participants through an entire innovation project – from very early insight stages, through ideation, concept development, positioning, creative execution, and even prototyping.

· At the end of an online community, it’s not uncommon for us to receive a few emails from participants thanking usfor giving them the opportunity to take part and saying how much they enjoyed it! This is surprising, but shows how the right moderator can build extraordinarily high levels of enthusiasm and engagement, and make the participants feel so well-valued that they will go out of their way to be brilliant respondents.


· You can design exercises to get you as close as possible to observing live behaviours – e.g. asking respondents to video themselves using your product, or taking in-the-moment notes and photos in-store. But sometimes the nature of the brief warrants meeting and observing consumers live, and in the relevant context. An online community on its own is unlikely to truly deliver this.

· It can be tricky to encourage your project team to get involved – it’s not a simple invite to watch a focus group for a few hours, but a request to dip in and out of an ever-evolving thing. Regular and informal reporting can help build consumer/client proximity, topic by topic. (Building this into the plan from the start can help avoid this becoming an extra task.)

· Online communities are not necessarily a cost saving over classic face to face research - but can still be great value for what you get.



Choose a great moderator who really cares about encouraging respondents and delights in what they have to say. This will trigger participants’ basic human desire to be helpful to another human who really values their input.

· You’ll make the most of your online community if you get truly creative with your exercises. Don’t just try to run a regular focus group discussion guide in a text format – it’s such a terrible waste!

· Be strict with yourself and your client team – too many questions, repetitiveness, and closed questions are a consumer turn off. They’ll tell you when you are boring them – but by then it’s too late.

· Be wary of trying to run anything too quanty. A few scoring or ranking exercises are fine, but this isn’t quant. Asking for too many numbers can reduce participants’ appetite to give you words.

· Don’t be afraid to remove users who aren’t modeling the behaviours you want to see. There will always be a few respondents who give one-line answers, which can impact other respondents’ motivation. Over-recruit to account for losing a few people along the way – it’s worth it.

· Test every exercise. It might not display how you are expecting it to.

The bottom line:
Would we recommend online forums? Yes, and enthusiastically so.

To discuss whether any of these tools are right for your brief, or explore the other tools in our Sniffer Dog insight suite, drop us a line on


Sparky and playful innovator WLTM brave and curious brands for fun times solving problems, unlocking opportunities, and enjoying the process of delivering great work. Experienced in research, insight, ideation, concept development, brand strategy & positioning, and bad but enthusiastic karaoke (specialising in mid-90s hip hop). Email me