The Ultimate Guide to Conducting Online Qualitative Research

Emily Smith

Emily Smith

Content Strategist, Remesh

Emily has an eye for all things strategy, spending most of her time spinning data into stories.

Qualitative research is a research method of collecting information about a person’s motivations, thoughts, and attitudes toward a product or ad. Although qual research can be conducted in-person (like interviews or observational research), online qualitative research is sometimes the only option.

In this guide, you'll learn how to conduct online qualitative research methods, and how to transition to this method if it's new to you or your team. 

What is Qualitative Research?

Often thought of through the lens of impressions, opinions, and views, qualitative research brings depth to data collection analysis by providing context and customer insight to confirm a hypothesis.


Qualitative Research Methodology

Due to its open-ended nature, qualitative data may be more complex to analyze than quantitative data. Being agile, innovative, and relevant requires that the modern market researcher practice both quant and qual methods in their projects, especially in transitions to online qualitative research.

Read: The Impact of COVID-19 on Research (Report)

Types of Online Qualitative Research

In general, there are six types of qualitative research. These include the phenomenological model, the ethnographic model, grounded theory, case study, historical model and the narrative model.

In this article, we'll explore subcategories of the ethnographic model and grounded theory, which are the easiest to conduct in an online environment. These online qualitative research methods include one-on-one interviews, observational research, and open-ended surveys. 

One-on-one Interviews

Individual interviews provide the opportunity for detailed one-on-one conversations about a specific topic.

Interviews can be conducted in-person (which provides the added benefit of understanding consumers through audio-visual cues). They can also be conducted onp meeting platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to collect data at home. In a semi-structured interview, you also have the flexibility to adapt and probe into anything interesting interviewees might say.

More formal video-based research tools like Plotto allow asynchronous data collection. A tool like provides the benefits of a survey, while maintaining the essential thoughts and experiences of your target audience.
Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 2.15.16 PM

Plotto interface

Truly unique online qualitative research is also readily available via social media. This is particularly true for video-based platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram Stories. These platforms allow for passive, secondary data collection and tend to act as trend analytics providers. In this case, you might think of the social platforms as a consumer-facing version of Google Trends.

Individual interviews afford an opportunity for you to view your product through a customer’s eyes and understand buying motivation. For researchers in the employee consulting space, data collection in an online environment can provide an enhanced level of privacy that individual employees might desire.

Trying using these prompts for customer interviews:

  1. What solutions did you try before using our product?
  2. What is your favorite feature of our product?
  3. How do you envision incorporating this product into your daily life?

Read: 100 Open-ended Research Questions (Blog)


Focus Groups

Researchers can also extract qualitative data from many consumers or employees by providing a comfortable environment for discussion, aka focus groups.

Effective focus groups stimulate spirited discussion among participants. This enables members to bounce off one another’s ideas and produce new thinking for more in-depth discussions. But how can this same dynamism be translated online? According to our report on The Impact of COVID-19 on Research, a number of market research experts are hesitant that new or online methodologies will not provide output that is as accurate as traditional methodologies. Although this is a valid concern, online research can provide the same quality of data as other more traditional methods. Sometimes, these online methods can even have added benefits, like decreasing the likelihood of groupthink.March 2020 Newsletter_Information Graphics-02Online focus groups are synchronous chat room-style platforms that can easily replace in-person focus groups. Virtual focus groups are unique in that they provide anonymity to participants (in name and face, rather than demographics), which is proven to reduce bias

Remesh is one example of an online focus group, which uses AI to enable a conversation between one moderator and 1,000 participants. 

Online focus groups like this offer the advantage of participant diversity, which would otherwise be excluded from traditional focus groups (e.g. rural or ill residents), and cut the cost of travel. 


Remesh participant interface (mobile)

But, will an online focus group serve your research objective? Some of the pros include:

  • Anonymous participant observations and responses
  • Increased demographic diversity
  • Cost-efficient
  • Increased speed to insights (especially when AI is implemented)

While there are some drawbacks to online focus groups (like inability to observe body language), the choice is largely dependent upon your budget and the needs of your research.

Probe research questions and follow-up discussion questions can include:

  1. When you see our brand logo, what thoughts come to mind?
  2. What do you notice first about this design?
  3. How did you feel when you saw this advertisement?
  4. Would you find Product X useful? Why or why not?
  5. Do you foresee any problems with using Product X?
  6. What do you like best about product X?
  7. If you could add any feature to Product X, what would it be?

Sourcing Your Audience (i.e. Participants)

Maybe you already have an online focus group platform in mind, but your team is scrambling to identify the right audience. Or, you're unsure if participants will show up at all.

If you don't have access to a participant community, we recommend reaching out to panel research providers like NetQuest. These services source audiences and handle incentives. Other resources like ProdegeMR provide unique supplemental quantitative data from participants like shopper receipt data and location tracking.

Read: The Impact of COVID-19 on Research (Report)


Observational Research

While focus groups are a strong research method, decision recall is most potent when a customer is actively purchasing a product. While observational research is more common in consumer sectors, it can also be applied to change management or the employee experience at large.

Observing a customer react to your product at a store allows you to measure their actual shopping behavior first-hand. This is an excellent opportunity to watch a customer compare a competitor product in-store. Or, to witness which product container or ad catches a customer’s eye.Luckily, mobile ethnography is a simple way to reproduce this method from afar.


According to ESOMAR, online qualitative research represented only 2% of global distribution of revenue in market research. This, despite quant research being more cost-effective overall.

One excellent example of this method in action is from strategic insights expert Kelsy Saulsbury, and her work at Hallmark. In the video below, Saulsbury describes a campaign when she asked customers for photos of family traditions involving holiday Hallmark items. Using that user-generated content, she segmented the content through emotion recognition, location, brand logo visibility, image type, and geo-location.


To discover how Saulsbury turned that segmentation into actionable insights, watch the full video.

In addition to mobile ethnography, online observation can be used to understand customers or employees. User session replay tools, for example, can map user and customer behavior on websites or within platforms. FullStory is most applicable for:

  • finance (clarifying UX confusion)
  • retail (pinpointing where sales are made and lost)
  • SaaS (increase stickiness within an app)

Because this method requires little human interaction (in most cases), it's one of the most unobtrusive types of qualitative research methods. However, UX agencies do exist which specialize in this methodology.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is one of the unique cases where a researcher might participate in a study, rather than just observe independently. This type of study is most common in cases of ethnography and is considered field research, although virtual settings can still enable this type of qualitative research.

Although participant observation can provide rich insights into consumer opinions and behavior, market researchers must ensure that all ethical guidelines are followed. Participants must know, for example, that they are involved in a research study. In a virtual setting, they must also be alerted if the study is recorded or if there are additional researchers observing. 

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research

How do quantitative and online qualitative research methods differ? Think of these two types of research as providing different forms of insight at various stages of a product development journey or employee experience.

The advantages of qualitative research include:

  • the ability to understand a complex subject
  • ask open-ended research questions
  • the yield of rich, insightful data with underlying patterns
  • reasonable budget for any team or need
  • quality over quantity 

The disadvantages of qualitative research include:

  • use of longer interviews rather than short surveys
  • extensive pre-planning

While these advantages are true of traditional qual methods, some tools (like Remesh) have made the time-consuming process faster.

Qual Research Applications for Product Innovation

So your company wants to take advantage of qualitative research and leave quant in the dust. Here are a few ways to take advantage of that method type. For even more ideas, check out our qualitative research case studies.

Exploratory Research

Qualitative research helps you discover problems or opportunities on your customer’s mind. Those ideas can become hypotheses to be proven through quantitative research.

NASCAR used Remesh to conduct exploratory research about super-fans across the country after changing the format of the Daytona 500. They spoke to 200 super-fans about the new race structure, and what made fans excited to watch in general.

NASCAR was able to conduct the online focus group during a race, and capture the fan engagement at the same time. That's something that would have been impossible with in-person research considering the geographic constraints.  



Hypotheses Validation

Quantitative market research provides statistically significant variables to validate your hypotheses. Your research will enable you to make decisions about your initial hypotheses, ask open-ended research questions for feedback, and discover whether your thesis applies to your target audience.

Qual is best suited when your customers’ pain points are highly subjective. Even if two customers have exactly the same problem, the underlying cause(s) of that problem could differ greatly., an e-commerce fashion site, used FullStory to accomplish that objective. Particularly, the brand was interested in UX issues that might disrupt a smoother customer experience from discovery to purchase. Using the user experience replay tool, discovered an issue with their password reset workflow. The team realized that’s what was discouraging initially eager customers from viewing their virtual carts.

Pre-launch Product Research

Preparing for your product launch is a great time to gather unbiased feedback on features, usability, and research design. At this juncture, it's crucial to conduct market research to understand any unforeseen drawbacks of a product. That way, issues surrounding the communication, packaging or positioning of your product can be resolved before launch.

Product Research Process Pre Launch

Understanding customer reactions will reveal which benefits are most important to emphasize in marketing and developing your product. 

Zoom, although new as a research tool, is a viable option for collecting qualitative data because of its familiar and cost-effective. It’s also a preferred method for participants compared to in-person interviews, telephone, and other videoconferencing platforms.

Many participants also found Zoom to be useful in forming and maintaining rapport with the researcher, especially when compared to “non-visual” communication mediums such as telephone or e-mail.

Post-launch Product Feedback

You’ve gone through the development process, and now your product’s made it to the market. What can you do to complete the feedback loop with your customers?

After the launch, focus your market research on identifying confusion or issues that might prevent people from buying your product. Link up with sales and support teams to understand questions that are often raised by customers. Or, sit in on sales calls to hear follow-up questions asked after a demo. These constitute pieces of unfiltered qualitative feedback - that include reliability and validity - and are heard first-hand from the customer.

According to Nielsen, 63 percent of customers like it when manufacturers offer new products.

For online quantitative research, SEMRush and BrandWatch can provide insight into how visitors use your site or engage in campaigns and messaging. Work with your research team to conduct user tests of your page. Or, carry out surveys such as customer satisfaction surveys to understand end-users’ reactions to your product.

Read: Transitioning to Online Research (Report)

Summing Up Qualitative Research

Effective market research is often constituted by an intricate hybrid of qualitative and quantitative research at the right moments. Combine the numerical data and statistical significance of quantitative studies with the depth of insight that qualitative research methods provide - and there’s a strong market research strategy.  

Psst.. if you enjoyed this guide, our market research pro-tips are right up your alley! Check out our guide on cutting-edge research methodology and the current state of the market research industry in 2020. The State of A.I. in Market Research (eBook) Download

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