It’s been a good ten years or more since the first online qualitative tools entered the market.  In that time we’ve seen this method innovate and change constantly as participants’ level of comfort communicating online has increased. Whilst initial adoption of the methodology was slow (at least in Australia), the introduction of MySpace, then Facebook saw a dramatic shift in the way people communicated online and this had a knock on positive effect for the acceptance of online qualitative research.  Many software providers are now incorporating social networking logic and design into their own platforms – making the experience for the user and the moderator much more intuitive and user friendly.

Still, recently I’ve had increasing requests from my clients to tap into new channels for reaching and interacting with my participants.  Whilst online qualitative platforms have evolved and have great functionality, I’ve see clients and researchers alike looking at the functionality available in existing social media sites (for free!) and asking – why can’t we just use these instead?  Never one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to give this a shot.  Rather than dismissing the platforms in preference for their paid counterparts, I wanted to get in and see how a project would work.  Find the advantages, the pitfalls understand what other researchers need to look out for.  To do this I’ve looked at using one of the biggest social media platforms to collect run an online qualitative project, Facebook.

Where Facebook works well….

  1. It’s free! (or is it?) You can’t deny that this makes Facebook an attractive alternative to other online qual platforms, particularly for smaller projects / budgets or to use as a pre-group homework task.
    !!! Just remember that everything that is posted to Facebook is ultimately owned by Facebook. ‘If you’re not paying, you’re the product’.  In a practical sense, the data and information gathered is probably pretty safe and confidential – but for highly commercially sensitive work, this may not be the best platform to use.  This is a limitation worth raising and discussing with your client before using this platform.
  2. It’s what people are already using.  What’s great about Facebook is that it is a tool that people are already using.  Rather than asking them to log on and create accounts in a new platform, most people will already have a Facebook account.  We are bringing the research to them, rather than asking them to come to the research. 
  3. Familiar user interface means less barriers to completion. Depending on your audience of course, most participants these days know Facebook and how it works.  Tasks and requests such as uploading photos or adding location are easier, as people have generally done this in the past. 
  4. Mobile app and functionality. The mobile app is probably one of the biggest plusses for using Facebook rather than a traditional qualitative tool. 
    • Ubiquitous: The app is free, most smartphone users already have it downloaded, and know how to use it.  There are free Facebook apps for all the major mobile operating systems, meaning that you are not limited to iPhone only or Android only users.
    • Functionality. The Mobile app has some great features which I’m yet to see as seamlessly integrated in other online qual platforms (I look forward to be proven wrong on this – if it’s out there, please let me know!!).  The ability to and ease with which you can upload photos means that your participants are able to easily capture photos of behaviour ‘in the moment’ and share them with the project.  They can upload them easily on the go, which means you generally get a real feel for when these behaviours are occurring as well. Depending on the project, the location tagging can also be a big plus – if you are looking to understand where behaviours occur.
    • Engagement. The push notifications, which participants generally will have already accepted on the mobile app means that participants remain engaged.  They have regular reminders prompting them to check back and see what other participants have posted, prompting them to remember to post their own comments.
    • Moderation on the go. The mobile app works well for the moderator too.  Firstly the app means that you can easily keep an eye on the project wherever you are.  You also receive notifications whenever people post, so you can monitor the content and address any issues or concerns quickly.  The mobile app has almost all the functionality of the desktop site, meaning you’re not tied to your desk whilst your online project runs.  This is great if you travel a lot or have face-to-face fieldwork running in the same week.
    • It’s private (sort of). Privacy concerns are one of the main concerns with using Facebook, and I agree – this is something worth giving a little thought to.    BUT closed Facebook groups do create a closed / private forum for sharing information.  For the user, the closed group format does allow for the private sharing of information between participants.  Information shared in the groups does not appear in participants’ newsfeeds, it is not shared with their friends.  Only people who are approved members of the group can see the content within.  For the moderator, similarly, your own news feed does not become cluttered with post from the groups and your friends will not be able to see that you are moderating a group through your account. 

However, there are compromises you will be making if you choose to go with Facebook, rather than a traditional online qualitative platform.  Some of the potential pitfalls include:

  1. Not everyone has Facebook / Not everyone wants to link their Facebook profile to a market research project!  Believe it or not, some people don’t want to share their personal Facebook profile with a bunch of strange market researchers.  Like them, I needed to have a good think about whether I was happy to link my Facebook profile with a project.  However, as long as your privacy settings are set to ‘high’, group members will only be able to see the information in your profile you make publicly available.  Putting together an instruction sheet to tell people how to set their privacy settings on high can be one tactic for helping allay these fears.  The vital thing is to make sure that you are clear with your participants at recruitment about the following:
    1. The mechanics of the group. E.g. The research will be conducted in a closed Facebook group.  This means that the information shared in the group can only be seen by group members.  The information and posts will also not be shared with your friends / clog up your newsfeed.
    2. How you will use their information.   What will you do with the information and media/ what information will you use?  It’s important to refer to local privacy laws for this.!!! Ensuring you clearly communicate the approach with your participants at recruitment will lead to better participant acceptance of the methodology and platform.
  2. It’s not for every research audience.  Using Facebook places limitations on your sample.  You are getting participants who are engaged with Social Media (to some extent), you are likely also getting participants who are smartphone users.  It’s important to think about whether these limitations are appropriate for the types of people you need to reach for your research.  I believe the strengths of this approach lie with more general consumer research as the tone of Facebook is fairly informal, but I’m looking forward to trialling it with other audiences.!!! So think, will my audience be comfortable interacting online / via Facebook?
  3. Anonymity and observation is sacrificed. There’s no ‘client view’ in a Facebook group; no ‘observer’ mode.   If people want to see what’s going on in the group, they need to become members.  So you need to think, ‘is it appropriate for the client / other researchers to join the group?’ (It would be important to also consult local privacy guidelines and codes of professional behaviour).  You may instead choose to create a ‘John Doe’ account that your observers can access through.  It will also be important to set guidelines with your ‘observers’, to tell them what they can and cannot do in the group.  Also think if it is appropriate to have that person join the group (eg. A male observer joining a group of all females may change the dynamic).  Depending on the number of ‘observers’ you have, you will need to think about how (if) they are introduced to the group to explain their presence.!!! There’s no hiding in a Facebook group.  If you’re a member, everyone can see who you are.  Consider the implications of this for your project.
  4. It’s not a straightforward process to invite members to join the group. Inviting participants to join the group is not as seamless as you’d like.  It is not simply a matter to sending invites from the group, but instead you must send invites from your own email with the group address and tell the participants to join the group and this process can be time consuming.  In this way, current paid qualitative research platforms clearly have the edge.!!! Clear communication between you, the recruiters and the participants is key.  Make sure everyone understands the process and technical issues will be minimal.
  5. Analysis.  This is the major weakness of Facebook for market research, and where the traditional platforms come into the fore.  There is no ‘back end’ to a Facebook group, no easy way of sorting the data.  You cannot download a transcript, you cannot easily or quickly download all the multi-media content (If you’ve found a way, please let me know!).  So this does lead to extra hours of copying and pasting to create your own transcript and slowly downloading all the pictures / video content that has been uploaded.  So whilst the platform is free, there is additional time costs involved in getting this information out of the platform in a way that you can easily manipulate it for analysis or store it for records.!!! Cost savings gained by using a free platform may be lost through the time costs involved in downloading the content and creating a transcript. 
  6. Structure. What I really like about the traditional online qual platforms is the ability to place a little structure around the tasks that participants are set.  You can set multiple activities / taking multiple formats throughout the study.  This is harder to do in Facebook.  I find that Facebook works very well for diary style tasks, where you’re looking to understand where and when behaviours occur and the context around this.  So far, I’ve been setting one additional task a day (one question or set one task a day, like a YouTube video upload) – but any more than this and it is hard for everyone to keep track of the tasks that they need to complete.!!! If you need to set multiple tasks, or use multiple question formats, a paid online qualitative platform will be much easier for both you and your participants.

After using Facebook to run three qualitative projects now, I am actually surprised at how well Facebook does work for our needs.  The ease of use, participant familiarity and functionality that Facebook provides has worked well for these small-scale, simple diary projects.  However, and I can’t stress how big a caveat this is, I would not recommend using Facebook for a more detailed or larger scale project.  The lack of administrative functions, that come in-built in current online qualitative platforms, could cause nightmares for researchers.  I can only encourage platform developers to look more closely at what social media platforms are offering – particularly with regards to mobile UI and media functionality, and try and reflect this in future updates to their own platforms.


So, have you dabbled with Facebook or another SM platform for your online qual needs?  What were your experiences?  Or do you think that professional platforms have the edge?  There are a lot of different perspectives on this debate, and I would love to hear what your thoughts are…

Meanwhile, hope you’re having a great 2013 so far (where did the first half of the year go???)

Keep smiling


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