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Bulletin Boards a Tool for B2B Qualitative Research Adam Blunt, NOP World Business & Technology
Introduction and background
Online qualitative research has had both its advocates and critics. While recent years have seen a rapid spread in businesses’ and consumers’ use of the internet, the medium has not been so quick to penetrate qualitative research as a research technique.
A number of approaches have been developed with qualitative research in mind, notably synchronous online focus groups (i.e. where respondents all log on at the same time for two hours, for example, and the discussion takes place in real-time) and asynchronous online bulletin board focus groups, where respondents have the opportunity to post comments at their convenience over the course of a certain number of days.
The aim of this paper is to introduce bulletin boards, explaining how they work, and to demonstrate how online bulletin board groups can be applied as a research technique in the business-to-business environment. The aim is not to compare and contrast different methods of conducting online qualitative research. It is in no way intending to argue that the online approach will become a replacement for face to face qualitative research, but rather that the method can be a viable alternative in certain circumstances.
This paper will begin by looking at how the boards work, and then continue to discuss the advantages and disadvantages bulletin boards present. It will also refer to previous projects, and in particular a project that was commissioned internally to provide input for this paper, and act as a demonstration for our own clients. The paper will conclude with an overview of four case studies, which illustrate the boards in action.
What exactly are bulletin boards and how do they work?
Before considering in more detail how the boards function, it is worth summarising what exactly an online bulletin board focus group is: the technique is based on specialised software which allows respondents to log onto a password protected board - via their browser - where a moderator leads the discussion. Respondents type in and post their comments and can react to other participants’ entries as they wish. The moderator can probe responses and show stimulus material. Those taking part are encouraged to answer questions twice a day, and the discussion takes place over the course of a number of days.
This section gives a non-technical overview of the mechanics of a bulletin board project.
In terms of recruitment, the normal principles apply, in that respondents are recruited via a screening questionnaire. Depending on the nature of the study, and one’s preference, recruitment is mainly conducted in two ways: by email (e.g. those who took part in a quantitative online survey, or are part of an online panel), which is a cost effective method; or by telephone, which is more expensive. Despite the extra cost, telephone recruitment is recommended as a more reliable approach, and has a number of advantages: administering the questionnaire in this way reduces the chances of potential respondents answering the screening questions incorrectly; actually speaking to the target audience will give the recruiter a much better idea that people are who they say they are, and know what they claim to know (as with any type of business to business research incorrectly recruited / fraudulent respondents can normally be spotted quite quickly, once the discussion has begun); and such direct contact is likely to increase participation rates.
However, email correspondence should be included during recruitment, for example confirmation of timing, not only to help with participation rates, but also to check that respondents’ email addresses are correct. This might sound obvious but it is vital to check email addresses in good time to avoid complications when the board starts. Respondents are emailed their logging in details in advance, so it is a good idea to ensure that they acknowledge receipt of the details, and confirm that they can log on to the site. It is also important to check that all respondents have high-speed internet access and, if not already obvious, are reasonably internet savvy. This is not usually an issue for business-to-business research but can, on occasion, pose a problem for consumer studies.
Participation rates tend to be lower than for face-to-face research. There is also the dropout factor, which means some respondents may not make it to the final day’s discussion. As a result, more respondents need to be recruited than for a typical face-to-face focus group. With business-to-business boards, it is important for respondents (especially those at a senior level) to be aware of the purpose of the research upfront, again to help with recruitment and sustain participation levels.
The nature of the research objectives naturally affects the number of respondents recruited, and the number of days the session lasts. A view also needs to be taken on how enthusiastic participants are likely to be about the topics under discussion (and for how long, therefore, they will be likely to participate). Typically, a board may last for three to six days, although the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that respondents will drop out. Views vary as to the optimum number of respondents, although anywhere between 12 and 20 participants recruited is common, to allow for non or partial participation, and also to ensure that rich findings are obtained.
When respondents are emailed a username and password (generated by the software) with which to log on to the bulletin board, they are also given guidance on what to expect when they enter the site, and what they will be required to do.