Let’s Get Personal! When In-Person Research is Right and When it’s Time to Go Online

As purveyors of agile online qualitative research, you may be surprised to learn that at GutCheck, we believe in in-person work too. We really do! Many of us at GutCheck are former focus group fans from a brand management or agency perspective, and are moderators and ethnographers ourselves. We are converts to mostly online research because of the agility it enables and the benefits of online that are both obvious, and not so obvious.

From our experience, in-person is essential when people need to taste a product, or interact with a prototype or package. How could a quick service restaurant truly understand how consumers interact with their store layout without watching people walk through the process? We also believe in the in-person ethnographic or observational work that helps lend an important layer to foundational consumer understanding.

We hear from a lot of our clients about a move away from in-person research generally, and focus groups in particular due to the obvious drivers: time and cost.

So, when you let go of some of your in-person work, what will you gain?


Time (away from your desk), and Cost.

  • You fly somewhere, or maybe two places, to sit in a back room for 2 days, costing you 3 days away from your desk and $30,000 of your budget.
  • The right online qualitative provider can spin up a group for a fraction of the cost in the time it takes you to order lunch for your colleagues in the back room of the Focus Group facility.


  • Sometimes, as a focus group moderator you might start hearing responses and know you need to adjust your line of questioning. You can certainly pivot the guide for the next group, but what about the folks you have in the room right now? And what about being consistent across groups?
  • With Instant Research Groups, having time and cost on your side, you can be iterative. Because we can be in field 24 hours after we get the word from you, ongoing learning is possible and if there are surprises, you won’t miss learning about them. You can talk to 30 respondents in round one, learn, iterate and go back in with a fresh set of 30 pairs of eyes, for half the price of your $30K focus group road show.


Many of our clients do their in-person work in their own back yard, or in the same several cities time and again. Of course, they intend their product or creative execution to eventually appeal to a much broader geographic audience.

  • When you go online for your research, with the right tools, you enable a geographically diverse audience that isn’t limited by the confines of one or several chosen research cities.
  • The right online platform can also help you reach similar audiences in multiple markets across the globe in their own languages, simultaneously, with the in-country resources that understand the culture to make sure that the questions and findings are relevant.


Respondent Equality.

It may seem as though a 2 hours focus group gives you more feedback with respondents than an online research group would. But let’s explore that a little bit further.

  • Let’s say you have 3 focus groups with 8 focus group respondents each in the room for 2 hours. Some people will talk more on some questions and hang back on others. Some people will dominate the conversation, while you’ll hear from others much less overall. Inevitably, you are hearing from some people more than others, both on individual questions and in total.
  • With Instant Research Groups, you get 30 respondents for 30 minutes per day over 2-3 days. In this venue, you hear from everyone equally, on every question. There’s no hiding or dominating.

Depth? Let’s Talk About Focus.

  • The depth of in-person versus online is debatable. What we aim to achieve at GutCheck is not depth. It is focus. Focusing on a set of specific objectives does not yield an 80-page deck and 18 hours of video. It yields an executive summary like this that can be easily shared with your team, with the insights needed to make a decision.
  • Depth does not equate to more data. Depth is asking the right questions or engaging respondents in the right activities (image uploads, personal photo sharing, shopping missions, website visits) to get to the feedback that yields not just consumer observations, but to arrive at the insights that give you direction to help you move forward.


Online, respondents are more apt to disagree, as they are anonymous, have the comfort of interacting through text rather than face-to-face and they are constantly providing their own response before interacting with others. This is particularly important in some cultures, such as some Asian markets, where young respondents are not comfortable disagreeing with older respondents out of respect, or where cultural gender norms can inhibit honesty.Sometimes you have a sensitive topic. Maybe it’s about incontinence or weight issues or manscaping or why someone likes their dog more than their children. Maybe people don’t want to talk about that in person and maybe if they do, they aren’t really your typical consumer.

The anonymity of a well-executed online group allows people to speak freely among like-minded peers. Surprisingly so. Can you imagine a respondent saying this in-person, to your face, about her bikini area?

I typically shave this area about once a week and mostly in the inner thigh area. I don’t shave anything that would be hidden by my bathing suit or underwear. So, it’s mostly maintenance of the groin area and shaving the very upper parts of the thighs.

Jennifer C., KY

So what does it all mean?

Is in-person research dead? Heck, no! Go ahead and get in there when you need people to try your product or you want to see the way customers interact with your store. But when you don’t, kick back and login as the magic unfolds online. Not only will you win back time and your budget, you’ll gain flexibility, access to audiences, respondent quality, focus and honesty. And that all ladders up to the clear insight that helps you lead your team in the right direction.

To learn more about how online research can play a pivotal role in your market research strategies, download our Agile Market Research ebook today!

Would you like to learn more about when an online Instant Research Group might be the right tactic for your specific research needs? Join us for a short demo discussion today!