Diving beneath the surface: the psychology of online qualitative research

The tip of the iceberg metaphor is often used in marketing in general and in qualitative research in particular. Indeed, we can only but admit that it is a pretty powerful image that very well symbolizes the mind of the consumer. When interacting with a human being, you get to see his external self which is the tip of the iceberg. But this external part is only a fragment of what that human being is all about: their motivations, needs, perceptions, fears, aspirations, ambitions, etc., i.e. the huge portion beneath the surface, that’s what you’re looking for when trying to understand and predict consumer behavior.

The million dollar question for online qual…

In qualitative market research it is of paramount importance to dig for these roots under the surface, in order to understand why people say what they say or do what they do. In fact it is one of the reasons of existence of the qualitative market research industry and its methodologies in general.
Some 65 years ago the focus group was invented to do just that: dig for the why and the how behind the what and the when. As a result a lot of psycho-analytical techniques found their way into the marketing space: consumers were asked to prepare collages or personify brands rather than to describe them. Projective techniques, where people project rather than auto-reflect, were heavily used and resulted in powerful and deep insights which marketers could then put into practice. These techniques were actually the perfect ally of the marketers’ hunch or instinct. And because of that, little proof was required to showcase the effectiveness of qualitative research.
Consumer Consulting Board bookAt InSites Consulting we believe that the most natural way to do qualitative research in the 21st century is the online way. We so firmly believe in online qual that we wrote a book about it.
But with the shift from offline to online in qual, the million dollar question surfaces, of course: can the online world dig for the roots of human behavior just like offline qualitative can? Can we iceberg like our offline qual colleagues can?

The million dollar answer…

Well, after 5 years+ of experience in online qualitative research overcoming the practical hurdles, the time has come to talk about the psychology of online qualitative. Let’s have a look at a few powerful psychological constructs that are part of the online qual iceberging experience; do have a look at some more elaborate and interesting reading matter on ‘the psychology of cyberspace’, by the way. Although these terms sound academic and feel a bit ‘out of this world’ (for which I plead guilty), chances are you’ll recognize yourself in them. That is, if you have ever accessed an online forum or a Facebook group or participated in any other social online space, really.

    In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order to remain a physically ambiguous figure, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants. This is exactly what happens in an online community where people do not see each other nor the moderator. This ‘you can’t see me’ effect results in people sharing facts and reality about taboo subjects as well as delicate subjects and in social pressure or desirability being minimized drastically. As a result, as researchers, we simply know more and uncover a part of what is below the surface.
    In an online setting people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity; they feel less vulnerable about opening up. This literally means participants in online settings project almost naturally, as they sense that you do not know them personally. The use of online is a projective technique in its own right, you could argue.
    One of the disadvantages of (offline) focus groups is the fact that every participant needs to have an opinion right here, right now. We all know this is a lot to ask from a consumer. We all go through a learning curve when being confronted with something new and this is exactly what online brings to the qualitative table: people have time to reflect upon something for a longer period. They can come back to a discussion raised days, weeks or even months earlier. They can come back to previous statements, rephrase, illustrate, nuance, give more detail, etc. A deeper insight into the topic automatically emerges from that. Also, people step into a ‘see you later’-mode rather than to jump to conclusions.
    Sorry for the academic bullsh*t bingo I’m playing here, but it is definitely a mechanism worth considering: the observation is that, as we never ‘close’ the discussion in an online forum, many online participants carry on the community conversations in their imagination throughout the day. In this ‘introjective space’, where it is safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things they would not in reality. It is all in their mind, really. This is exactly why people always prefer the book over the movie: it is all about opening up a world in your own imagination, rather than being restricted to that one actor who was chosen by the director to be the hero of the story in that particular setting, wearing that particular outfit. Once back on the community after some serious solipsistic introjection, participants share deeper, more emotional and motivational insights with us.
    One of the strongest effects of the Internet in general is the lack of authority and the ‘we are all equals’ feeling. This has always been the reason behind the success of online forums. People are very reluctant to say what they really think when standing before an authority figure. In ancient Greece only the philosophers and scholars dared challenge Socrates’ statements. Today, a 12-year-old can disagree with @BarackObama on Twitter. In online community research everyone on the community has an equal opportunity to voice him- or herself, regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. Instead, the participant is an authority based on posts and online skills, not on status nor material or educational background. Yes, there is a moderator but this is someone who creates structure rather than being the leader of the pack.

Online is the new projective technique

So, although one might assume that going online with qualitative research means a loss of the non-verbal, a loss of the face-to-face physical experience and subsequently a loss of in-depth information about the consumer, we have learned throughout the 5+ years of online qualitative experimenting that we are also reaching out very naturally to the emotional, projective and motivational world of the participant. Even more: powerful mental constructs such as ‘you cannot see me’, ‘you do not know me’, ‘see you later’, ‘it is all in my mind’ and ‘we are all equal’ have no comparison in the offline world.
In the end this means that online itself becomes the new projective technique that organically makes people share inner feelings and emotions. This literally feels like a scuba-diving experience for a qualitative researcher going below sea level, iceberging his or her way through the consumer psyche.
Now where can I go and collect my million dollars? 

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