Tricks to Boost Participant Engagement in Qualitative and Ethnographic Research

Tricks to Boost Participant Engagement in Qualitative and Ethnographic Research Banner Image

The sleeping giant of online qualitative research methods has awakened. There’s no denying how much the world has changed recently. The global pandemic has forced qualitative and ethnographic research into the mainstream. The result can be a double whammy of complicated processes and underwhelming insights for market research vendors that aren’t well-versed in its intricacies. This complication doesn’t stop the need for concrete insights that drive business decisions. So what does this mean for the future of gathering insights?

Though many research tools claim to make research “automated,” “plug and play,” or even “unmoderated,” online qualitative research requires creativity and nuance from your team. Most virtual research tools today are imperfect. Our job as researchers is in adapting to gain the most from what we have at our disposal. When approached as a powerful, flexible tool, some research platforms can go beyond being a mere complement to in-person research to a robust site for all ethnographic workflows. We want to share the keys to our success in maintaining quality insights when moving our ethnographic research studies online.

When sitting across from a participant, we have plenty of resources at our disposal — gestures, body language, shared space, objects, and movement help us connect with our participants that produce elicit, powerful stories and observations. How do we approach the challenge of conducting rich ethnography when all of that is gone? How do we get juicy discoveries that lead to powerful realizations when we can only interact through a screen? We must embrace authenticity and creativity as guiding principles to create compelling and honest engagement in our qualitative research methods.

How to Implement Authenticity and Creativity in Qualitative and Ethnographic Research:


Create a Sense of Purpose

When people understand the “why” behind something, they can get behind whatever action it requires. So when respondents show up for a focus group, virtually or in person, they need to know WHY they are there. During the first interaction with respondents, it’s important to provide the “why” to lay the groundwork for engagement. Set the vision and give participants a sense of purpose during the onboarding process. As researchers, we help them understand that their contribution is essential and will influence change, such as:

  • Development of an Exciting New Brand
  • Creating New Product Innovations
  • Perfecting a New Product That Will Be on Shelves Next Year
  • Inspiring Marketing Campaigns and Messaging
  • Charting a Course for the Future of an Industry
  • Driving Better Consumer Experiences

When respondents know they can impact a future creation, it can be a more personal and powerful incentive than just money. By offering a purpose-driven answer to “Why are we here?” you can lower the barriers between respondent and researcher, providing energy and motivation for their participation in the study.

Always Be Human

Just because we are using a machine doesn’t mean we should act like one. As we have all learned from constantly being on Zoom, it’s easy to develop a sense of distance or detachment from the people you are communicating with remotely. If your participants feel this way, it will show in your data. Conifer’s team uses digital facilitation and communication techniques to keep the humanity present in our research from start to end.

As a moderator, you can help participants frame their experiences naturally and authentically through respondent instructions, follow-up questions and reminder messages. These all can reinforce informal conversations, playful words, and in a sense, just a normal human interaction. Even small changes in terminology — such as calling evaluated objects “gifts” instead of “stimuli” — creates a tone aligned with authentic human experiences. “Gifts” connect; “stimuli” creates detachment.

Gift and Lab Stimuli

Creating authentic humanity into online qualitative research will create sticky, impactful data, so you avoid responses that feel like survey, box-checking bots.


The Art of Provocation

Triggering participants' creativity is another great way to deepen participant engagement and create an avenue for them to shed new light on their lives, all while you listen and observe. The power of creativity rests in asking interesting questions — instead of the obvious ones. Rather than asking static questions, activities and missions can provoke participants’ creative thinking to develop deeper insights. 

You can find opportunities to insert creativity by simply reviewing the questions in your qualitative research guide:

  • Need to tap into the “why” behind brand loyalty?
    Consider having respondents write a love letter to a brand, product, or service.
  • Need to understand initial brand assumptions and associations?
    Have participants create a mood board with whatever is most top-of-mind for a brand or product.
  • Need to understand consumer usage and associated triggers?
    Have participants complete a mad-lib activity to fill in blanks based on key scenarios.
  • Need to uncover consumer feelings of brand or product abandonment?
    Let them start a letter with "Dear John" and see how they explain the brand break-up in their own words.

There are many ways to stoke the creativity of participants. Collages and MadLib, fill-in-the-blank exercises offer familiar structures through which to share and draw from. Like unboxing, these are fun and liberating ways to push the respondent beyond System-1 reactions to a more analytical reflection.


Use Journeys as Narrative Tools

Though often considered a research output, customer journey maps are just one form of human-universal storytelling. With some examples and guidance, participants can visually illustrate what they did and how they felt along the way. Let them sketch, layer and title their journey along with any text.


Encourage a Good Tantrum

Lastly, do not underestimate the power of a rant during qualitative and ethnographic research. Nothing unites people more than a communal griping. Yes, you read that right. Encouraging venting or even creating a space for adult “tantrums” can be a fun way to give adults permission to share their most honest opinion. Any creative device that breaks mental and emotional barriers helps participants broker a deeper honesty — not just in their responses but in the responses of others.

Whether you are conducting quantitative, qualitative or ethnographic research, Conifer believes in embracing creativity and engagement in all our work to gain perspective-shifting insights. Let’s work together..




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