In-person or remote? How to answer the question

Offices and meetings are not the only thing that moved online during the pandemic. So did much of the qualitative market research being conducted. Since March 2020, our firm conducted one study that utilized in-person research (masked focus groups), and everything else was carried out online or by phone.

While online focus groups, bulletin boards, interviews and journals can offer distinct benefits, such as cost efficiencies and quicker turnaround, they also have known weaknesses and should be used only when they make sense for your research goals. A recent Wall Street Journal article (May 2021) cautioned companies to not abandon in-person research, relaying the story of how in-person focus groups helped LEGO reverse a downward trend in sales to the dominant position it enjoys today. It offered insights that could only have been revealed by observing and talking to children using their product.

Advisors to start-up entrepreneurs typically advise innovators to begin their process by holding customer discovery interviews — and in person, whenever possible. Not only does interviewing a participant in person provide a better sense of the sentiments behind that person’s responses, but it also makes a deeper connection between the interviewer and interviewee, which — for entrepreneurs — may be a bond necessary to visit again in the future.

In-person qualitative research conducted provides several advantages, including:

  • Greater ability for the moderator to perceive participants’ emotions
  • Greater/full participant engagement (they can multi-task if online or on phone)
  • Observing people in their environment (e.g., observing farmers on their farm)
  • Easier to establish trust/rapport (people need to feel comfortable to reveal themselves)
  • Greater engagement between participants (building on others’ comments)
  • Focus groups can be larger (10-12, as opposed to online dyads and triads)
  • Less technological/equipment barriers
  • Furthermore, there are many topics you would not want to investigate solely in a virtual format. Topics related to health, finance, family and political issues are just a few that often benefit greatly from the researcher and participant(s) being in the room together.

When does remote make sense?

While in-person is often the better choice for qualitative research, it can sometimes be more practical or preferred to conduct qualitative research online or by phone. This can be the case in the following types of situations:

  • Your target audience is very busy, hard to recruit (e.g., CEOs, doctors)
  • Participants have transportation or mobility issues
  • Your target audience is locationally diverse
  • You need results on an accelerated timeline
  • Your research topic is better suited to online or phone interviews (e.g., highly sensitive topic)

Get the most from in-person or remote

While the choice of in-person versus remote qualitative research will vary by situation, the factors that contribute to successful research outcomes are the same in both cases. With qualitative research, the three keys to success are recruitment, moderation and proper analysis.

While a full explanation of these keys to success would fill a book, here are a few tips to ensure your research reveals its own “aha” moments:

  • Invest time carefully thinking about the type of people who should (and should not) be in your research
  • If you are using groups, decide the best way to compose those groups so the participants feel comfortable sharing
  • A carefully designed screening survey is important to obtaining the right mix of participants
  • Moderation is critical to generating unbiased, fresh and actionable findings; make sure your moderator or interviewer has strong experience and skills
  • Give careful thought to the progression of questions — move from icebreakers to focused questions, then finally to more sensitive topics
  • Consider the best way to introduce concepts
  • Organize activities to maximize engagement and understanding
  • Always have qualitative research transcribed; analyzing from notes or memory is error-prone
  • To greatly minimize bias and error, it is wise to utilize professionals trained in qualitative analysis, not people already employed by your organization

As a people person, I am excited to get back to in-person meetings, business lunches, and, yes, research. When you are faced with deciding whether research should be in person or remote, consider which option meets all or most of your research goals, capabilities and needs.

Linda Kuster is president at Vernon Research Group, based in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at (319) 364-7278, ext. 7104 or