Steve August

Since qualitative research came online in the late 1990s, one of the more dominant paradigms has been the bulletin board focus group, or BBFGs. BBFGs were themselves inspired by the earliest threaded discussion forums that first emerged in 1994, at the dawn of the World Wide Web. Because the interaction among members in threaded discussion forums maps easily to the group discussion interaction of focus groups, it was a natural leap for researchers to make.

BBFGs aren’t just limited to online qualitative research. If you peel back the layers of many market research online community (MROC) platforms, you will find that the group interactions within MROCS are essentially collections of BBFGs.

There is nothing wrong with BBFGs as a tool for organising people in a discussion. It’s a very straightforward group space where everyone can contribute in a standardised way.

But now, nearly twenty years have passed since forums first emerged in 1994. We’ve seen the first wave of the web with Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Google. We saw Web 2.0 rise from the ashes of the bust and give way to the social web.  We’ve seen Blogger, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest emerge.  We’ve seen Myspace and Friendster come and go (and MySpace come again).

At the same time we’ve gone from brick-sized flip phones to smart phones that pack more connectivity and processing power than the most powerful desktops available back in the day. Mobile internet (which didn’t exist in 1994) is poised to surpass desktop internet as the dominant, offering new possibilities and models for researchers to interact with consumers via the digital medium.

Over the past ten years, three trends have combined to create the digital world we now know:  mobile, social and visual.  The confluence of these trends have not only changed how people interact digitally, it has presented

The rise of mobile + social + visual
According to Mary Meeker of Silicon Valley Venture Firm Keiner Perkins, Morgan Stanley’s data shows that smartphone adoption is happening 9x faster than desktop internet.

Continuing on this thread, it’s predicted that 2013 is the year that mobile Internet users surpass desktop internet users.

At the same time mobile internet has been exploding, the way people interact socially has evolved dramatically as well. Instead of organising people and information into the group spaces of forums, blogs, MySpace and Facebook mainstreamed the idea of personal online spaces that are linked together in engaging ways. Facebook didn’t invent the idea of a feed, but it solidified it as an addictive way to keep up with information from other people and interact socially on the web and mobile.

The final element that moves people from engagement to inspiration is visual sharing. The astounding rise of Pinterest and Instagram has dramatically shown that people are inspired by the intersection of social and visual.  Pinterest especially is a great example of the tremendous community engagement that happens when elegant presentation and social usability are fused.

With its touch/swipe scrolling, smartphone and tablet mobile internet we can quickly scan through a great amount of text and visual information, and interact socially around the things of interest. Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram just reinforce that the Feed, not the Forum, has become the dominant online social interaction for people.

Taking all of this into account, the forum-based BBFGs begin to feel increasingly anachronistic.  The multiple indents required by threaded discussions are less effective on smaller sized screens with constrained horizontal widths.  Also, feed based social sharing enables many more different activities and possibilities than a threaded forum layout supports.

So what? It goes back to the mission.
So what does the confluence of mobile, social and visual mean for qualitative market research and communities? Why does any of this matter? It goes back to the mission of qualitative market research: understand people to answer business questions.

In a sense, the forum based BBFG was a method based approach to adopting new technology for research. The BBFG mimicked focus groups in more or less a not for note fashion.  But at the end of the day, ultimately it’s the mission of qual market research to understand people. If the mission is used as the starting point, then a host of possibilities for the technology start to emerge.

Much like the original web 1.0 dramatically expanded the possibilities for how researchers could engage and gain understanding from consumers, the rise mobile, social and visual enables the next leap forward. These are the interactions that consumers are already using to engage and inspire each other, and it only makes sense for market research to work in the same interaction language that consumers have already embraced.

Mobile gives us in-the-moment access to people’s experiences, and, with the advent of push notifications, enables in the moment engagement as well.  Visual sharing enables more inspiring collaboration and participant-to-participant interactions.

Combined, these new possibilities can be leveraged at different points of the product and brand life cycle.  During discovery and exploration, mobile helps get a truer understanding of customer experiences, the wellspring of opportunities.  Visual sharing enables more inspired co-creation exercises, and ultimately better concepts and ideas.

It is still early days as the online and mobile tools are only just now becoming available to market researchers.  But get ready. The post bulletin-board era of online qual is coming. Things are about to get really interesting.

Steve August is CEO at Revelation and is a member of the programme committee at ESOMAR’s Qualitative 2013 event this November in Valencia, for more information about the event you can visit ESOMAR’s event pages.