• Simon Shaw

Researching Ideas? Why it has to be face-to-face

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

In the past few years, clients have asked me if I would recommend using online research to explore concepts and creative work online.

In particular, they wonder about the suitability of asynchronous methods such as online forums or bulletin boards, where participants log on a few times over the course of a week to view stimulus and answer questions about it.

It's a request that, shall we say, raises eyebrows.

Now, lest I be accused of being a luddite, let me make it clear that I’m a great advocate of online research.

Online forums are a powerful way of seeing into consumers’ daily lives. They are great for recording ‘in the moment’ reactions, and even better when there is a need to track behaviour over time. They are a wonderful way of collating photo and video evidence to bring findings to life. Pre-tasks and diaries can be completed in a much richer and more illuminating way than the was possible in the scrapbooks and PowerPoint documents of old.

In short, when used appropriately, they are an invaluable addition to the researcher’s toolkit.

But when it comes to idea development research – that is to say, when using research as a means of exploring positioning concepts, communications ideas, packaging, brand identities and so on - it has to be face-to-face.

Here’s why:-

1. Spontaneous Reactions are key

In the ‘real world’, many brand ideas live or die in the blink of an eye. Consumers do not spend a great deal of time thinking about them before forming judgements, and much less pondering why they react as they do. This means it is vital to gauge spontaneous responses to an idea.

Face-to-face research allows us to do this, because we are present at the very moment that an idea is revealed. We can see exactly how people react in those vital few seconds, because we are there to experience it.

In asynchronous online research, it is impossible to know whether respondent feedback represents such reactions, or whether it is the product of more considered thinking. Indeed, in many cases, it is likely to be the latter. This doesn't make it invalid, but it certainly makes it less valuable than face-to-face.

2. Non-verbal communication can be critical

While the commonly cited claim that ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ may be something of an exaggeration, it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that non-verbal communication is significant, not least because it gives away what we are really thinking.

This is especially important in research, where participants often try to hide their real feelings – of confusion, distaste, boredom, etc. – for fear of losing face or causing offence.

For example, someone might say they like the new logo you’ve just shown them, but their hesitation before answering, their tone of voice, their facial expressions and posture all make it clear that they mean something quite different.

Equally, a moderator might want to use non-verbal communication herself. Perhaps she wants to gently urge a dominant participant to give way to others without being too direct about it, in which case a slight turning away of the shoulders might be in order. Or perhaps she wants to encourage a shy participant, a which case a reassuring smile can work wonders.

These things can only be done in face-to-face research. Bulletin boards are a much more restricted medium. Even an online video link – as anyone who has ever conversed using one can testify – create a barrier between the participant and moderator, making it much more difficult to ‘taste the atmosphere’. Of course, this is true just as much in the real world as it is in research: why else would people fly halfway across the world to see family and friends, when they can Skype them for a fraction of the cost?

3. The importance of probing

Probing responses is a fundamental tenet of good research.

Participants are prone to ‘path of least resistance’ behaviour, offering short, ‘easy’ answers. Having the ability to ask them to elaborate is vital.

Being able to ask participants why they respond as they do is also vital. If we are to provide meaningful guidance for the development of ideas, we must be able to identify what specific features of an idea cause consumers to react as they do.

This requires careful probing, and face-to-face is by far the most appropriate environment for doing it. Not only can it be done immediately, it can also be done quickly and repeatedly, without annoying participants.

This is much less possible in the online environment. In text-based interaction, there are only so many times you can ask ‘why do you say that?’ and ‘can you tell me more about that?’ before participants get bored, irritated, or simply disengage.

Moreover, in most asynchronous projects, the moderator is likely to drop by no more than a few times a day. This means that by the time probing takes place, the participant may have forgotten what was going through their minds at the time of their original response.

4. Projective Techniques

Many of the ideas we research are expected to work – either partly or wholly – in an emotional or image-related way. And this means using projective techniques to access consumer responses.

Projective techniques, as any researcher knows, need to be handled with care.

Sometimes they work perfectly. You ask participant to imagine a ‘world of brand x’, as they understand the task perfectly. They answer exactly as you intended them to, expressing their feelings through well-chosen images and metaphors. And they spontaneously explain the sources of their reactions, connecting them back to salient aspects of the brand’s imagery.

But sometimes projective techniques work less well. Some participants may struggle to understand the exercise. Others understand it, but find it hard to express their feelings using the technique you’ve chosen. Others still can express their feelings, but find it hard to link them back to the brand.

When this happens, the researcher needs to have the freedom and flexibility to respond appropriately. He might want to explain the task in more detail, and then perhaps re-explain it in a different way. He might wish to give one or two hints or examples to push people along. Or he might even want to ditch the technique altogether and replace it with something else.

In these situations, face-to-face research gives the moderator the flexibility to respond in whatever way is appropriate in the specific circumstances. He is not locked into a set of pre-defined instructions. He can chop, change, move on, come back, prod, probe, repeat, try something else…in short, he can do whatever is necessary to get the feedback he needs.

In asynchronous online research this is much more difficult to achieve. The researcher is working in a much less flexible environment. He cannot move the conversation on and come back to the exercise later. And, as we have seen, he can only prod and probe so many times. He simply doesn't have the same degree of freedom and flexibility.

5. Controlling the stimulus

Good idea development research is, as the name suggests, essentially about ideas. Whether you’re exploring positionings, communications, or packaging, the focus has to be on the ideas themselves.

In practice, this means using stimulus to convey the ideas: written statements and mood boards for positioning concepts, key frames and narratives for TV ads, 2D mock-ups for packaging ideas, and so on.

Usually this stimulus is in a fairly rough-and-ready format. It might not have had a lot of time devoted to it. It might contain one or two spelling mistakes. Some of the images may not have been especially well chosen. And that, of course, can be fine. Consumers reactions to these idiosyncrasies can be useful in helping us to guide the future development of the ideas.

But very often they don't help. They just get in the way of the idea. Perhaps one participant can’t stop focusing on a spelling mistake in a positioning concept. Perhaps another keeps getting hold of the wrong end of the stick thanks to a poorly-chosen turn of phrase in a voice-over. Perhaps another doesn’t like the hairstyle of that guy in the third key frame – it’s so unrealistic.

The researcher knows these things can be changed, and she just wants to move on and focus on the idea. But the participants can't let go. The stimulus is acting as a hindrance, not a help.

In these situations, the moderator needs to be able to control the stimulus. She has to be able to put that poorly-worded positioning concept down for a moment, and explain the idea herself, in her own words. She has to be able to hide that key frame with the distracting hairstyle. She has to be able to remove that new logo from view, so that she can follow up a lead without everyone’s attention being drawn back to the logo.


This is not to say that ideas should never be explored using asynchronous methods. In some unusual circumstances, there may be good reason to do so. For example, certain types of respondent, such as teenagers, can easily clam up in face-to-face interviews or discussions. Some sensitive subject matters such as embarrassing medical conditions can be best discussed in the more anonymous setting that bulletin boards provide.

But these are exceptions. Under normal circumstances, when researching ideas, it simply has to be face-to-face.