How Flexible Can Online Market Research Be?

Annette Smith

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"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know" - Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

One of the most widely-reported benefits of online research is its speed and, moreover, economy - it is seen by many as a way of generating quick, cheap and plentiful insights; "the growth of online technology has enabled researchers to offer clients a fast and cost effective method for reaching their target audiences (The MRS, 2007). However, at FlexMR, we would argue that whilst online research can be quicker, and might be cheaper, this is to miss one of the major benefits of this approach.

Traditionally, research was a one-shot effort. The client would brief an agency, the agency would submit a research proposal, design and sample plan, carry out the research then report it.

If the research raised new research questions, or the product or the initial concept was rethought during the course of the study, then it would be time to start the whole process again.
Online research, especially in research communities or research panel based form, however, allows new ways for clients and agencies to work together. Due to the combination of a database of participants and tools to connect with them, whether the online panel or community is continuous or ad hoc, there is scope for instantaneous reaction.

What Kind of Flexibility is on Offer?

Has the research raised a new question you want a quick response to? Pop up a poll and start a debate on the subject. Realised you need more specific feedback from one particular group of people? Target them with a new research activity.

Need to know what people are saying about a particular topic? Search and filter the conversations that have been taking place, then contact those community members who have been most vocal on the issue to conduct a one to one interview or focus group.

As Tim Britton points out, longer term ways of interacting with both clients and participants mean that over time, we can build up a big picture of customers' lives, preferences and habits (Research Live). This means that we can follow the customer over time through their interaction with a brand, and follow up on interesting experiences.

The main advantage of online research, therefore, may well be the ability to discover unknown unknowns - the factors of key importance to a customer that we had just not thought to ask about - had never considered might be a big deal. 

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