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Five reasons charities should try online research

6 March 2015

Nothing beats having a proper chat with your audiences, but online methods are now allowing charities to understand the thoughts and behaviour of supporters and beneficiaries in far more immediate, and often revelatory, ways.

Here are five reasons why you should try online research:

1. Time to reflect

Allowing participants to reply to questions in their own time, from their own PCs, tablets or mobiles, allows for a much greater degree of reflection than most standard research techniques. The richness of insights generated can be impressive, and participants really appreciate the time and space to explore important ideas.

2. ‘Safe’ spaces

Anonymous, private online spaces can be an empowering environment for participants – and one where many people feel increasingly comfortable. The anonymity of much online interaction works especially well when exploring sensitive or personal topics.  These insights can address important gaps in offline work.

3. Reaching ‘time poor’ respondents

In practical terms, online research enables us to engage participants who might not be prepared to take part in ‘standard’ research sessions. In a recent project exploring messaging for a development charity, we were able to access the viewpoints from very specific typologies within their supporter-base. The flexibility of the online space allowed the charity to target these niche groups in a cost-effective way.

4. It’s not all work, work, work

Increasingly, online techniques aren’t just about typing text into reply boxes. Sharing videos or pictures, creating online picture montages, annotating documents with virtual ‘sticky notes’, co-creating and ranking other people’s ideas – the social side of online research means participants enjoy taking part. And when people are having fun they are often more honest and more prepared to give their time. 

5. Building relationships

Online Communities – where participants engage for a number of months with a series of questions and topics – allow for a shift in the relationship between researcher, client and participant. Participants become more involved in the topics and start to proactively share information. They reflect on their behaviour and opinions, creating a very different type, and level, of insight.

Examples of when to use online research:

  • To understand individual behaviours or responses – whether that’s to a new campaign, approach or tool. It's easy to set up questions so participants don't see others' responses until they have posted their thoughts, so you can feel confident all responses are undiluted.
  • To brainstorm ideas and solutions – we worked with a health charity to explore content ideas for a new support service for new parents. They were able to build on ideas to develop content themes and share experiences at a very deep level.
  • To get a better understanding of your supporters or users – asking for photos, blogs, even video uploads can help you get dramatically closer to your audiences.
  • To explore the experiences of service users – both understanding users' current usage patterns and reasons, and also generating ideas for improvement

We can’t see a time soon when we’ll turn our back on traditional research methods – nearly all our projects still involve a high amount of offline interaction. But an increasing number of charities are starting to see the benefits of online research.

RandallFox specialises in helping charities get more impact from their communications spend.

Ali Percy

research associate, Randall Fox

The last 12 years have found Ali moderating groups and interviews with a range of audiences, from women with health problems, to high court judges and benefit defrauders.

Ali believes in the power of qualitative research to better understand public attitudes, shape communications strategies and inform public policy, and she has conducted major studies for The Electoral Commission, The Countryside Agency (now Natural England), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and The Churches Conservation Trust.

Sam Neill

research associate, Randall Fox

Sam has worked in qualitative research for over 20 years. Her experience is broad, but she has particular experience in brand development and communications research across a wide range of media, from strategy to final evaluation.  In recent years, Sam has worked extensively in digital media – both using research tools in an online environment (including live online groups, extended research communities, bulletin boards and photo/pinterest tasks) and also working on digital strategy, web and app development.

Sam’s sector experience is wide, but she especially enjoys working with public bodies and NGOs, including recent projects with Economic and Social Research Council, Life Study, Best Beginnings and Royal United Hospital, Bath.