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Why (and How) the Growth of Social Media Has Created Opportunities for Qualitative Research in Organizational Development

Paul Rubenstein
Accelerant Research

In-person methods for qualitative research are no longer the sole means by which investigators can collect their data. Interviews with study participants do not have to be done face to face; instead, Web-based computer-mediated environments can serve as the site where interactions between moderators and participants can ensue, questions can be posed, and answers can be obtained.

The opportunity to migrate qualitative research away from traditional methods and toward the use of online platforms is provided by the confluence of Internet and digital technology, broadband connectivity, and people’s apparently sufficient comfort level with blogging. These factors have resulted in paving the way for a viable, alternative methodology that provides qualitative research professionals with access to human experiences on a scale and with a reach that is currently immeasurable.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to and elaborate on these emergent societal and technological factors that have given rise to the use of online methodology for qualitative research. Effects of these factors are examined in terms of quality, cost, and speed criteria in a discussion of the comparison of qualitative studies that use online and in-person data collection methods.

The Growth of Social Media

Social media may be defined as the Internet-based technologies that individuals use to exchange thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives in many different forms including text, images, audio, and video. Social media sites typically use technologies such as blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis, and vlogs to allow users to interact. Social networks, blogsites, and other online “beehives” appear to be all around us as millions of people adopt social media sites as their primary source of all kinds of information. What’s more is that social media adoption continues to increase tremendously. “Blogging” as a behavior, currently under the scrutiny of many different types of social scientists, has become widespread and continues to grow.

In the beginning of 2009, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, equated Facebook to a nation saying it would be the 8th largest country in the world. As of 2010, it would stand as the third largest country in the world, right behind China and India and ahead of the United States with 700 million users. It was not long ago that social media made big news when it overtook e-mail in terms of online activity. Now, it is the #1 activity online and it continues to grow at a rapid pace both in the United States and around the world.

The Opportunity for Online Methodology in Qualitative Research

The explosive growth of social media usage and blogging behavior suggests that society has become comfortable engaging in these activities. Indeed, a 2010 study by Nielsen showed that Americans spend 25% of their time on social media and blog sites. Our own experiences in conducting online qualitative research in marketing and in human resources management shows us that people are adept at communicating their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and actions, as well as their deepest fears and greatest aspirations, in a “computer-mediated environment.” But what exactly is involved in blogging? What do people do on Facebook that is related, somehow, to research?

In essence, blogging includes obtaining online information (text, video, audio) as well as inputting one’s own information in any of those formats in that medium. Put simply, sometimes it involves viewing videos and images, listening to recordings, and reading text, and others it includes inputting any of those formats of data oneself to some Internet-based location to be shared with others.

Now compare these blogging activities to those involved in qualitative research in which a moderator poses questions to study participants and receives answers to those questions from them. A discussion ensues between the moderator and participant fueled by a series of questions and responses between parties. Sometimes the moderator shows participants some “things” and has them provide their attitudes and opinions. Other times the moderator might require the participants to provide “things” to be seen, heard, and/or discussed. Thus, there is parity between the typical activities involved in blogging and in qualitative research, and nowadays, the personal computer and Internet can facilitate the activities involved in qualitative research.

Imagine a shift from the traditional, face-to-face (F2F) methodology, which has dominated qualitative research for decades, to the Internet. This shift should be a safe one given people’s general comfort level communicating within this medium. But, would some part of the human condition be lost in the process?

Taking a balanced perspective, we see that, on the one hand, the social space of computer-mediated communications was once considered lean, cold, and superficial. Relative to in-person communications, online communicators were presumed to suffer from a reduction in social cues and unable to transmit nonverbal information such as voice inflection, accents, facial expressions, posture, body language, and touching. On the other hand, society has adapted and developed ways to express these nonverbal cues in written form. To do so, society uses new symbols and electronic paralanguage such as emoticons, special character strings, intentional misspellings, absence or presence of corrections, capitalizations, as well as with images and sounds.
 
Strengths and Weaknesses of In-Person Qualitative Research

Qualitative research professionals have used focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs) as their primary study design for the past several decades. The techniques used in these studies serve a variety of purposes. From an organizational development standpoint, traditional qualitative research using in-person methods (group or individual) may be conducted to advance organizational effectiveness by studying employees’ experiences with the organization, its other employees, workplace conditions, compensation policies and practices, or any of the other aspects relevant to obtaining a deeper understanding of the employer–employee relationship. Qualitative research may also be used to gauge employees’ reactions and opinions of general or specific communications to and from its leadership and its rank and file. Another frequent purpose for traditional qualitative research is to solicit team members’ ideas to be used to develop innovations in the way work teams are structured to optimally perform.

The common thread in all these reasons for OD-related qualitative research is to explore individuals’ thoughts, opinions, feelings, and behaviors. These techniques are useful for exploring peoples’ ideas and concepts, as they provide a window into participants’ internal thinking where in-depth information can be obtained and where probing of answers by interviewers can be facilitated.

However, these tried-and-true qualitative methods, although effective for what they are designed to produce, do have their inherent flaws. They are artificial and contrived because they require the respondent to be removed from the actual behavior and relevant situational characteristics under study during interviewing; that is, data are collected in a decontextualized setting. As such, the common byproduct of in-person qualitative research designs attenuates the researcher’s ability to gather data in a natural setting.

In addition, moderators and interviewers are obtrusive because they are in person and their presence may alter respondents’ answers to study-related questions. Whether interviews are conducted in-person or via telephone, moderators pose their questions and (hope to) get honest answers while limiting exposure of respondents to the data-biasing influences of their presence (e.g., social desirability). They also rely heavily on the memory capacity of respondents because most studies require respondents to travel back in time in their minds, recall relevant experiences, and provide their input and perspectives based on those memories.

Distinct Advantages of Online Qualitative Research

Several of the flaws and inherent drawbacks of in-person methods of qualitative research can be reduced or eliminated whereas other aspects can be enhanced through the use of online, blog-based research. It is conceivable that a Web site can be designed to have a similar look and feel to social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn so that the general population can easily navigate within it and respondents can fulfill their study-related responsibilities (and receive their incentive for doing so). The moderator can post content from the question guide that was developed for the study to the site, and participants recruited to the study can enter, see the moderator’s posted questions, and respond accordingly.

What makes online qualitative research such a viable method is seen when one adds the widespread penetration of broadband connectivity and pervasiveness of digital technology to the existing comfort level and alacrity that society has developed for computer-mediated interpersonal communication. A vision starts to emerge that shows distinct advantages of Internet-based methods over those that use in-person interviewing.

Imagine online qualitative studies that encroach upon the most in-depth form of qualitative research, namely the ethnography. For example, in focus groups, only verbal and nonverbal data are collected. In ethnographies, verbal and nonverbal data are collected, but this input is augmented and synergized with artifacts and objects representing symbols of the culture of the behavior under study. In this way, the ethnography is arguably the most in-depth form of qualitative research.

Instead, an online “blognography” can be conducted in which participants are required to snap photos and create videos to document and represent the subject under study. They would be instructed to upload these multimedia data to the online research platform along with text-based responses to questions and other instructions posted by the online moderator/blognographer. These multimedia data would serve as ethnographic artifacts and contain all the complementary characteristics of data that augment the insights obtainable by text alone.

Surely, we’re in a state of technology-ready conditions by which we can provide to respondents images, photos, videos, and other types of stimuli for them to use as the basis for their attitudes and opinions. Likewise, respondents are usually equipped to provide the same types of stimuli to us researchers when they can upload their content onto research sites, as they do in Facebook or YouTube, to be viewed and analyzed by the qualitative researcher. Even more importantly, we are in a state of “people-ready” conditions, too. Most of us are simply comfortable and inclined to pull out our cell phones, snap photos, shoot videos, and send them as electronic attachments to friends, social media sites, and blogsites, and then go to those sites and opine on some subject using our home PCs or through text-messaging with our smart phones.

In addition, the Internet affords a stronger sense of anonymity among study participants and typical response biases such as social desirability and other faking strategies are virtually eliminated online. Qualitative data collected online tend to be brutally honest in nature as respondents feel wrapped in a cocoon of privacy and facelessness and have no apprehension about telling a moderator anything. As such, these data may be more valid than what is collected in focus group facilities that heavily utilize F2F interactions. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the study, respondents’ homes may actually be the place where the behavior under study takes place naturally and be the optimal site for data collection, yielding a high level of ecological validity.

In contrast, standard facilities used for focus groups or in-depth individual interviews (IDIs) are contrived and artificial settings, and do not necessarily foster conditions for people to speak up and be heard. These conditions amount to a special room with video and audio recording equipment and a one-way mirror behind which observers are seated. Essentially, respondents are completely removed from the site at which the behavior under study occurs in nature.

With regard to the quantity of data produced, an online study will, by design, allow all participants to speak at the same time because question guide content is posted on the site and awaits the participant’s login during some time period communicated during recruitment. In contrast, focus groups and IDIs, by design, only allow one person to speak at a time. Based on our preliminary work, we believe the typical respondent has only about 10 minutes to provide his/her input during a 2-hour focus group, but that participant’s online counterpart has about 10 times that amount of input time.

What is more, transcriptions are automatically procured and are integrated with quantitative data collected during recruitment or previously warehoused on a database, which enables sorting of text and other data into subgroups for comparative purposes. Of course, traveling, scheduling, arranging, coordinating, and all the logistics involved in all parties’ participation in in-person methods are eliminated. As such, no time is lost on travel as it means time out of the office, being away from home and family, nor is there any carbon footprint produced.

But of major importance is the fact that study costs can be sharply reduced by using an online method for qualitative research. In the table below, relative to six focus groups, each with nine participants and lasting 2 hours, an online qualitative method requires one-third the cost, 40% less time, and will yield more than twice the data. Please note that total study time includes recruitment, data collection, data analysis, and delivery of a comprehensive report on the results of the study that includes a summary, set of recommendations, and detailed findings. The data presented in this table represents our experience-based estimates.

Study Characteristics Focus Groups In-depth Interviews Online
# Respondents 54 30 20
# Minutes per respondent 13 50 100
# Total input minutes generated by method 720 1,500 2,000
Total study time 5 weeks 6 weeks 3 weeks
Total cost of study $48,000 $30,000 $15,000
Cost per minute per respondent $66.00 $20.00 $7.50


The distinct advantages of the online method of qualitative research over in-person include:

• Computer-mediated interactions foster candidness, thoughtfulness, and essay-type responses
• Time is used efficiently and more data are collected
• Biasing effects due to the physical presence of others are eliminated
• Data can be collected in a naturalistic setting and at the time of the event under study
• Multimedia and text-based data are collected and integrated
• Data are better organized and easily sortable for subgroup analyses
• Automatic transcription
• Logistics are minimized
• Expenses are lower
• Travel, time out of the office, and carbon footprint are eliminated

For a balanced perspective on this subject, there are certain disadvantages of using online methods of qualitative research, including:

• There is no way in which any given study respondent can be authenticated other than by examining the data collected for what seems reasonable to the study investigator
• There is the potential that confidential, proprietary information that needs to be shown to study participants on screen can be photographed or videotaped by them and used at the expense and/or the detriment of the sponsoring organization
• The computer-mediated environment may not be comfortable for all types of study respondents as some may not be acquainted with different aspects of the technology or the electronic components, for example, keyboard, mouse
• Target population of study participants may be underrepresented online

An Example of Online Qualitative Research Among Employees

A study we conducted in 2011, entitled “Job Attitudes in a Post-Recession Economy,” was an attempt to test the viability of online methods for qualitative research on employees in the U.S. In this study, 97 participants provided both quantitative and qualitative data (both text based and photos) in response to questions designed to draw out their job-related experiences in 2009 compared to 2011. They were asked to rate their current job compared to “the best job they ever had” and to “other jobs available in the market that they believed they could have.” Based on their ratings, participants were placed into one of four categories shown in the quadrant map below, along with respondent proportions for each of the four categories:



As part of this study, participants were asked to upload any photo of their choice that best represented their feelings about their current job and provide detailed explanations for the photo selected and how it represents their feelings. Examples of data collected from participant members in each of the four categories are shown below, including their photo and corresponding text-based explanations.



What is of particular interest in this study is that respondents’ classifications into the four groups, based on their quantitative ratings, matched their text-based and photo-based input, as seen above. Moreover, the self-disclosure in much of the group’s input was quite deep and expressed in poignant terms.
 
Leveraging Technology Has Been Done Many Times Before

Embracing new technologies to improve social research for marketing and human resource management purposes has a long history. From a review of the history of market research, for example, it is immediately apparent that advances in technology have created a number of improved study conditions in efficiency, cost, and control.

When market research began, the sole method for data collection was in person. Eventually, the advent of computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) gave rise to enhancements in key study dimensions. This new technology provided greater control of data collection and systematic treatment of respondents, more precise measurement, improved sample usage and quota structure management, flawless execution of skip patterns embedded in surveys, closer representation of a sample to a target population, and faster data delivery. Of course, CATI was considerably less expensive than in person, too, all things being equal. Then, online research became a revolution for the market industry, bringing with it even better improvements along these lines and, again, drastically drove down study costs.

So, the idea of leveraging technology to improve conditions for research is about as old as the industry itself. As such, one might argue that it behooves the professional social researcher to be vigilant in seeking opportunities to leverage technology to improve quality, reduce time spent, and reduce associated costs. However, while history shows that technology improvements have provided distinct benefits for quantitative research, perhaps the time is upon us for qualitative research to reap similar benefits. Surely, online focus groups have been around for quite some time, typically done as a substitute for standard, facility-based ones when the target population is geographically dispersed. But the convergence of conditions that have turned millions of people into “professional bloggers” and the current status of Internet connectivity and digital technology has made the notion of conducting (asynchronous) online ethnographies, IDIs, and group discussions very plausible, if not compelling.

In Conclusion

As it is, ever-increasing numbers of consumers are becoming comfortable and adept at blogging their opinions each day. With the advancement in digital technology and broadband connectivity consumers are able to view research stimuli that are sent to them, and also upload images and video they send in to studies that serve as important data and are tied to their text-based input. In these exchanges, the qualitative researcher can obtain rich, symbolic data, create field notes, and collect the artifacts that would otherwise be provided in a traditional ethnography. More to the point, that researcher does so without the obtrusiveness of being on site, eliminates the cost and logistical restrictions of traveling and scheduling, and yet is still able to immerse him or herself in the culture of the behavior under study.

Social researchers have long known that in achieving certain objectives of any given study certain trade-off decisions need to be made in setting an appropriate course of action to proceed. These tradeoffs are typically a matter of balancing quality, speed, and cost (e.g., a study needs to be high quality and completed quickly, therefore it will be expensive). Rarely can market researchers offer a scenario without any tradeoffs but rather obtain something better, faster, and less expensive. Yet, these are exactly the benefits that can be enjoyed by using blogspace as the data collection medium for qualitative research as opposed to in-person, in-home, or other forms of on-site, in-person, F2F research methods. In essence, today’s technology-enhanced online qualitative studies enable researchers to have their cake and the opportunity to eat it, too.