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  • Writer's pictureBruce Crandall

“To Webcam Or Not To Webcam?” That Is A Great Question For Businesses Wanting To Talk To Consumers

If I‘d asked you five years ago to “hop on Zoom,” 90% would have looked at me only quizzically. If I asked you now, 90% would understand immediately and could easily join a meeting on your phone or other devices. The word, “zoom,” has new meaning now.

The pandemic has largely relegated face-to-face interaction to computer and phone screens. But webcam platforms aren’t new. Webex, for instance, has been available to the public for more than two decades. I’ve used several platforms to conduct hundreds of qualitative sessions over the years (including Webex and Zoom). I’ve had my share of stumbles, learning, and convincing clients of its worth, and I muse now at the same platforms suddenly skyrocketing in popularity.

As a purely qualitative research tool, only a small portion of moderators have felt confident enough to exploit the platform until just a few weeks ago. The pandemic has forced the qualitative hand, with many compelled to try real-time webcam interviewing until respondents and facilities can unmask again.

While webcam interviewing might be new to some or the only option to others right now, there’s a lot to be said for it, pandemic or no pandemic:

  • Convenience. What’s not to like about eliminating travel expenses and time. Heck, you don’t even have to dress up or shower or pack your suitcase for your next flight. And that goes for all clients and observers who only have to watch secretly behind the virtual mirror.

  • Geographic reach. Be it Oshkosh, San Bernardino, Myrtle Beach, or Zurich, everyone can easily join the session at the same time from almost anywhere in the world. Compare that to looking for a parking spot or waiting for another Uber to downtown Chicago, Manhattan, or Los Angeles.

  • Lower cost. Travel, notwithstanding, facility costs do add up, too.

  • Higher group participation. Sometimes quieter participants can hide during an 8- or 10-person focus group and let extroverts take over. Not so in smaller webcam groups (typical max of 3-4 participants, plus the moderator). Because of the smaller group size and sequential nature of asking questions (see “Free-flowing discussion” below), every attendee fully participates.

  • Ease of sharing stimulus. As long as you can create concepts, ads, positioning statements, etc. digitally, it’s no contest between the ease of sharing stimulus online versus sorting stacks of handouts or grappling with foreign AV equipment in the focus-group room.

  • Recording. MP4 (video) or MP3 (audio) files are yours within 30 minutes after your session. And if you don’t want to wait for standard transcriptions, you can opt for immediate speech-to-text transcriptions (not perfect, but getting much better).

  • Seamless quantitative validation. Webcam sessions can be easily combined with quick quantitative validation that’s often lacking in pure qualitative work. I’ve utilized an iterative research approach we brand “RapiCrowd™,” which combines rapid-fire qualitative sessions with a short survey that validates (or not) key findings among all participants just interviewed. And RapiCrowd™ projects are typically turned around within days, not weeks.

Of course, webcam interviewing has limitations, too:

  • Free-flowing discussion. While moderators manage free discourse during in-person focus groups, discussion during webcam groups should be thought of more as “sequential exchange.” The moderator directs each participant, in turn, to respond rather than let respondents freely talk over each other or become overly polite, waiting in long silences until another participant decides to speak up.

  • Limited group size. Because webcam sessions are necessarily limited to 3-4 participants each (among other things, the pacing for groups larger than 4 tends to be too slow and not engaging enough for participants and observers alike), more sessions must be conducted to get an adequate read on the learnings.

  • Technology issues. Despite the ease of using platforms like Zoom (and despite the best of intentions and pre-session training), a few participants may simply have problems with bandwidth, faulty cameras, or audio settings and will have to be rescheduled or replaced.

Whether or not webcam qualitative interviewing might be new to some of you (or the only option right now), it’s a terrific approach that should be considered any time.

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