While having a Zoom happy hour with my parents recently, we lamented about the fact that seeing each other virtually “just wasn’t the same” as being together in person.  That probably seems obvious to most people.  But what is it about being in the presence of someone versus seeing them over video?  And why does this matter when thinking about how many of us will conduct our qualitative research moving forward?


Since I began my research career about 25 years ago, technology has fundamentally changed the way market research is conducted.  Today, I routinely conduct qualitative interviews via web-enabled video chats instead of face-to-face in a focus group facility.  While there are many advantages to video interviews (lower cost structure, broader geographic recruiting, flexibility on dates/times, and ease of finding “hard to reach” respondents), there are many disadvantages, too.  For me, the biggest one is experiencing the aura of the respondent in the same room.


Aura is defined as “the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.”  I hadn’t much thought of it until that Zoom call with my parents.  While we were grateful that technology enabled us to see each other somewhat frequently online, humans thrive on contact – and we have for millennia.  It is part of the essence of being human.  Seeing people on video lacks the intimacy we want – and need – to truly be connected.


As a researcher, I also thrive on connecting with the respondent in the room.  Not only can I ensure that we are focused on each other and the conversation (e.g. – phones are off, eyes are on the speaker, and everyone is “in the moment”), but I’ve also noticed that more meaningful connections are made.  Our eyes meet and lock, I can reach my hand across the table or lean in to get closer, and empathy is more easily communicated.  For focus groups, it’s easier to signal directly to the respondent my interest and curiosity, and to signal to others when I want them to engage (or not).


For the client, the debrief in the back room is often when the magic happens.  We build better team relationships, read each other’s body language, and do our work in real-time when the information is hot off the presses and fresh in our minds.


So, how to we do a better job of getting closer to ‘aura’ while doing research online? I believe there are two key ways to make that happen.


First, we’ll need to find more creative and unique ways to tap into the essence of aura through online platforms so that we can build trust and rapport.  Some of the things we’ve been doing at The Connell Group include…

1. Longer introductions so that we can spend more time upfront getting to know someone;

2. “Pre-calls” with respondents to get to know them prior to the actual interview so that rapport and trust has already been established, like reaching out to an old friend;

3. Spending more time talking about the respondents’ personal lives and details to truly make a connection beyond “just” our product or idea.  Once rapport has been established, then you can get on to the business of interviewing.


Secondly, once you are comfortable, consider returning to in-person for those particularly important and/or personal topics.  Facilities are already opening and going to great lengths to maintain safe working environments.  Group sizes may be smaller, but my company prefers smaller group sizes, anyway.


So, continue to focus on what really matters – developing rapport, confidence, and trust with your respondents so that you can continue to have productive interactions and successful research.  Experiencing their aura will only improve your chances of success.