An Eye on Asynchronous Online Qualitative Research

Jennifer Berktold

Asynchronous online qualitative research—where participants engage in focus groups on their own time via social media-style interaction—is an increasingly popular research method, particularly for testing communication materials or for research on sensitive topics. “Now with the pandemic, its use has grown even more important,” according to Jennifer Berktold, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director and expert in focus group research.

“This method is well-suited for discussing delicate topics, such information related to someone’s medical history, or for testing complex or lengthy materials, such as videos and fact sheets. It is also ideal for research with highly targeted, hard-to-reach populations that can be difficult to bring together for a group discussion,” Dr. Berktold says. She notes other benefits of asynchronous focus groups, including:

  • Scalability—number of participants and timing can be adjusted easily to meet the needs of the project
  • Recruitment—no geographic or time zone limitations
  • Cost and time savings—no travel time and cost involved
  • Ease of use—smartphone apps accommodate people’s different levels of internet access
  • Anonymity—helpful to participants who shy away from sharing views, feelings, or aspects of themselves in front of others
  • Flexibility—participants can engage in the focus group process at their convenience

Previously, Westat used an asynchronous qualitative platform to test informational videos about early onset breast cancer with 2 audiences: younger women between the ages of 20 and 40 at risk for the disease, and health care professionals who treat women in this age group. The study gathered the reactions of health care professionals to a 12-minute informational video on early onset of breast cancer and reactions of younger women to 3 short videos explaining the risk factors.

“The nice thing about this methodology was that the moderator didn’t have to spend time during the focus groups to watch the videos with the participants. They could do that on their own time over a 5-day period,” she explains. “By keeping the platform open for a few days, we could build rapport with participants by asking personalized followup questions. It showed we were listening. The platform was also easy for our participants because they could join when it was convenient for them, rather than having to set aside a couple hours at a specified time for an online group discussion.”

Asynchronous online focus groups do require special planning, says Dr. Berktold. This includes ensuring that open- and closed-ended questions are crafted in a way that prompts thoughtful feedback. Also, it is key that participants are comfortable in a digital environment, willing to provide detailed answers, and complete all the research tasks.

“Although asynchronous focus groups may yield less detailed information than in-person focus groups or personal interview methods, they are a valuable addition to the qualitative researcher’s toolbox,” concludes Dr. Berktold. “Their many advantages, particularly now during this pandemic, allow us to continue to gather critical and good quality data.”

Read other Feature Stories in this series on qualitative research:

Although asynchronous focus groups may yield less detailed information than in-person focus groups or personal interview methods, they are a valuable addition to the qualitative researcher’s toolbox.

- Jennifer Berktold, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director, Social Policy & Economics Research

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