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The range of techniques available to the online researcher includes all the offline techniques described in earlier chapters, but doing these online has several advantages. Online research is much faster than offline, so surveys can be administered and reported on very quickly. Online offers a global survey universe and surveys can be conducted domestically or internationally via e-mail or through a website very easily. The same caveats discussed in Chapter 5 apply to international online research as apply to offline research. However, if these are taken into account, online research offers access to a global audience very cheaply. Surveys are increasingly conducted using mobile devices, and the increased use of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and third-generation mobile devices means that this type of delivery is becoming more viable as it reaches a wider audience of users.

Online research overall is likely to be cheaper than administering offline surveys, particularly if they are self-administered. In general, the administration of online surveys is carried out more efficiently than offline. Costs will vary according to the type of research that is to be carried out. If the survey is to be supported with an 'e-mail me' or 'call me' button, in order to support the respondent in the completion of the questionnaire, then the cost will be higher. Email surveys usually offer an incentive to respond and the cost of the incentive may be a significant part of the cost of the survey.

Typical costs for an online survey developed in-house, covering 500 respondents including incentives, would be £2000. For an externally developed survey of 2000 respondents the cost would be around £15,000.

The costs of an online focus group would be around £1500 per group, including incentives of £30-50 per respondent. Offline, the costs would be around £3000 with incentives of around £70.

The richness of online media can enhance the execution of research; hypertext mark-up language (HTML), sound and even moving images can be incorporated into research designs and this may boost response and create a richer experience for the interviewee and the researcher. Care has to be taken in using these enhanced online media. Recent estimates are that only 60 per cent of e-mail users can read HTML e-mails.

The online medium is very adaptable, and questionnaires can be targeted at individuals who have viewed a particular page, expressed interest in or bought a particular product, or followed a certain route through a site. This interaction can produce very sensitive systems in which content, including questionnaires, can be delivered according to a developing customer profile. The example in Figure 14.2 shows how interactivity can enhance the interviewing process. In this example, after completing the questionnaire the respondent is given access to a summary of the results to date, showing his responses in the context of the questionnaire as a whole. There are dangers in this approach, but careful management may enhance the quality of responses.

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Figure 14.2: Interactivity and online questionnaires. Source: VNU Business Publications

Various issues need to be taken into account when considering the use of online techniques. The major concern for market research is the representativeness of the sample and therefore the overall validity of the results and reliability. The Internet is developing rapidly, but rather like the telephone 40 years earlier, penetration levels mean that the medium is not representative of the population as a whole. The availability of e-mail lists is still not as good as mailing lists and there is complexity in the fact that most people have more than one email address. A recent rented list of e-mails produced 50 per cent bounceback (i.e. addresses were inaccurate) and a response of less than 1 per cent. Some lists are more reliable, e.g. subscriber lists, but the rule is always to pilot any survey to check the list, questionnaire and the likely response rate.

The identity of the online respondent may be hard to verify at times. The use of online panels provided by ACNielsen and TN Sofres, for example, may overcome these issues in specific markets. A full list of providers of online panels is given in Chapter 4. An example of a highly qualified panel is VNU's web panel. This covers 1000 individuals in each of seven European countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Questionnaires are delivered in the local language and reports covering 1400 responses cost around £15,000.

The most frequently used technique online is quantitative research based on surveys delivered by e-mail or the website. However, many companies use the Internet to administer qualitative research in terms of both depth interviews and focus groups.

Focus groups use the web tools of chat rooms (where a group of people with the same interest can 'talk' to each other using their computers) and bulletin/message boards (where a group of people can exchange information about a specific topic), but create a unique space for the interview or group to take place. Respondents are recruited by e-mail and agree to participate. Each member can read the responses of other members and respond to their comments as if in a group situation (Figure 14.3).

Figure 14.3: Online bulletin board discussions. Source: Research International

Depth interviewees are recruited in the same way, but the communication takes place simply between the respondent and the interviewer.

The web is not the ideal medium to deliver this type of research. It is often hard to recruit suitable respondents; for example, the technical know-how to interact in a chat room is not universal. However, it does allow geographically dispersed respondents, e.g. IT buyers for multinational companies, to be bought together.

Online groups lack several advantages of offline focus groups. It is hard for an online group to go much beyond 45 minutes (especially if the respondent is paying for the online access), simply because of the demands of looking at and concentrating on the screen for so long. It is, however, possible to reconvene the group at a later date and extend the focus group over time. There are also issues over the reliability of the Internet connection, diverse browsers, etc. Respondents may view screens at different speeds, in different frame sizes and so on.

The valuable and productive multiple interaction between focus group members that occurs offline cannot take place online. It is a less creative environment for responders. It is hard or impossible for respondents to comment on the feel or look of a mail piece or the taste or smell of a new product. Equally, it is hard to moderate the contribution of all respondents in a group discussion online. A dominant respondent may be hard to switch off, while a respondent who is contributing less may be hard to draw in. The personal, physical presence of the moderator in offline groups is important in helping to moderate discussion, and this is missing online. It is very hard to read or interpret body language and tone of voice. A sarcastic comment may be interpreted literally without the verbal intonation. This may be moderated by the use of emoticons or symbols that can be clicked on or dragged to provide extra meaning to the printed word. It is also hard to establish who exactly is sitting at the terminal. This can be moderated by careful recruitment and incentivizing the contribution of participants.

Online qualitative research demands technical skills of the moderator. However, for certain customer groups, particularly those who are interacting online in their business, qualitative online research may be useful (see Figure 14.4).

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Figure 14.4: Online focus groups. Source: Research International

Figure 14.4: Online focus groups. Source: Research International

Other qualitative methodologies include website usability studies. These can be administered through networked personal computers. Some companies offer the use of specialist viewing facilities which record the facial expression of the user and can also record the key strokes that the user makes. In a remote viewing facility the researcher can also see the user's screen. These techniques are designed to ensure that the design and feel of the site are acceptable. Jakob Nielsen's web usability studies are a useful starting point in this area.

Web address: http://www.useit.com

Online depth interviews gain some advantage in business-to-business markets where respondents might be dispersed internationally and are hard to reach via the telephone. The use of online techniques may fit more easily with the respondents' work practices. In general, however, the telephone is a more effective remote medium. Online depth interviews can be sustained effectively for eight to 10 minutes, while the telephone can be used successfully for up to 15 minutes.

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