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WEB RESEARCH COMES OF AGE
INTERNET IS LEGITIMATE MEDIUM / FARMING THE WEB FOR RESEARCH
It is safe to say that the time of Web-based research in production agriculture has arrived. The Web has become mainstream for farmers, the functionality expanding dramatically, the online populations of desirable target farmers exploding. However, there is no escaping the fundamentals of good research design and execution.

GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT

Let's face it. Poorly designed or executed research is bad research, regardless of the medium used to interact with the respondents.

Success in online research depends much more on the quality of the name list used. High-quality e-mail lists are in huge demand today. As the stakes have grown higher, so has the need for ethical treatment of these lists. Misuse, or inappropriate use of e-mail addresses can lead to disasters, potentially worse than any privacy-related dispute our industry has seen to date. A good foundation of permission-based names is a keystone of any successful online research effort.

The Web has matured to the point where you can execute elaborate research designs with relative ease. Software code has progressed markedly and increased modem speed has made it more palatable for respondents. Online research was impossible not long ago, despite what some may tell you. Elaborate skip patterns, range checks, and experimental designs were simply beyond the practical reach of broadly available software. I emphasize the word "practical," because some of them actually had it, but to see it executed was, believe me, a painful experience.

Successful online research with farmers requires attention to process detail unfamiliar to many offline researchers. It is very easy, even with a careful researcher, to miss simple, fundamental processes that can doom online studies.

For example, online focus groups can yield insights not seen in offline groups. But if you recruit online focus groups using telephone screening, you might expect to run into people not fully comfortable with handling things online. Failing to foresee this possibility and accounting for it can lead to weak responses and suspect results.

EXPANSIVE ONLINE POSSIBILITIES

While a full range of qualitative and quantitative research is possible online, the medium opens the door to offering more combinations and permutations of design and execution. One new twist with enormous promise is a form of extended focus groups. This operates much like a moderated discussion thread, lasting a few days, or even weeks. Participants contribute to the threads on their own schedule, so it is very convenient.

This format can generate incredible volume of in-depth comments. Respondents feed off each other in ways unseen in more traditional focus groups. Where a person might feel inhibited or intimidated in a face-to-face discussion, they are able to share their thoughts and feelings in an online focus group in an environment of total privacy and comfort.

With quantitative techniques, visual and audio stimuli can be used and controlled in ways that were impractical in offline research. These interviews can be loaded with visual stimuli, limited largely by the imagination of the research team.

One of the most frequent questions raised by clients has been the representativeness of the online respondent. For most clients, it is their target customer that is online. It is the operator they want and need for building the future of their business. As far as response rates, the days of a free ride are generally over. Response rates online are not very different from those of offline research, better in some situations.

With online research, we make it easier and more convenient than ever for participants to cooperate on studies. Other advantages: potential for huge scale economies; access to targets not available offline; depth of answers; self-coded answers; interviewer bias removed.

The medium clearly offers new possibilities for success and abuse. Careful design and execution, with the right tools and knowledge base, are essential elements to conducting successful online research within the agricultural industry. AM


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