With the ongoing success of online qualitative research – magnified by the Covid-19 crisis – why should we still bother with face-to-face? By Alex Culshaw.

Apprentice taking notes

“You can’t beat face-to-face, though.”

A familiar refrain from myself and countless other qualitative researchers. I can recite without hesitation countless times face-to-face has given us insight I couldn’t have dreamt of or articulated as richly as by our respondents. But at the same time, is it maybe also a parry designed to fend off the creeping omnipresence of online and protect one of our areas of exclusive expertise?

I readily confess that online is our friend – indeed it’s one of the go-to tools in our insight armamentarium – but deep down I always felt that you just couldn’t beat the ‘gold standard’ of face-to-face. After all, if you put any kind of barrier – a desk, a phone, a screen – between two people, then rapport and subsequent insight can only be diminished.

However, imagine that some force majeure drove us blinking and scurrying into the welcoming arms of the online converts and preachers. And there we reflected and wondered – is online ‘better’ after all? Have we been kidding ourselves all along? Step forward, of course, Covid-19.

Manoeuvring us online without choice, Covid has magnified the attraction and quality of output of online qual. Although even pre-Covid we’d experienced how online can provide us with insight that astounds, the enforced modus operandi for much qualitative work in 2020 has doubled down on that. From personal experience, this has included discovering the fears, loneliness and commitment of professional cleaners; learning the cognitive biases that govern nurses’ readiness to adopt new products; and revealing the deeply personal insecurities of breastfeeding mums.

And all of this is even before we consider the time and money that online can save us and our client, plus also the instant increase in research accessibility and respondent reach. Have we not (re)discovered our qualitative Shangri-La?

So now that we are thrust into this brave new world – where we experience clear benefits and demonstrable value – why should we continue to advocate and practice face-to-face research? Are we biting our noses off to spite our face to do so? Are we intransigent Luddites of the highest order? Because, when we come to think about it, not only is online insight high-quality, but face-to-face insight is costly (particularly pertinent in Covid-19 ); awkward logistically (debriefs in a different backroom to the client during a day of interviews anyone?!); time-consuming for everybody involved; and, not that we shirk it, plain hard work.

So why then bother with face-to-face? Because, to borrow a line from a famous lager, it reaches the parts online cannot reach.

At a fundamental insight level, face-to-face gets us up close and personal with respondents in order to understand them – we get to see the ‘whites of their eyes’. At the same time, it provides us with flexibility to explore novel and unanticipated areas of concern and also to adapt our techniques and approach depending on what might work best for different respondents.

Commercially, face-to-face offers benefits too. Chitchats in the backroom over a day and night of interviews offer priceless opportunities for client relationship development, and the buy-in from clients as a result of watching interviews live is often our best friend in the debrief room.

Face-to-face also helps with our own continuing professional development. Those client chats, along with the constant learning curve of recognising and dealing with different respondent types – plus speaking knowledgeably about a rainbow of different topics – make sure that our minds stay sharp and tuned in.

And across all of these, the sense of personal satisfaction and enjoyment that comes from the end of a series of interviews simply cannot be replicated through any online approach.

That is my justification for maintaining and promoting a potentially unfashionable research approach. Face-to-face – first among equals.

Alex Culshaw is director of Allto Market Research.