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6 Practical steps to manage client expectations

Tom Woodnutt

Tom Woodnutt

Feeling Mutual

Tom Woodnutt is a planner and qualitative researcher with over 16 years in the industry. He works at the intersection of digital, insight and strategy. Tom has helped many agencies learn how to design research that is more inspiring for both clients and participants. He has also been digital skills trainer for the AQR (Association of Qualitative Researchers). 

All too often the old adage ‘under promise, over deliver’ only comes to mind in hindsight, by which point it’s too late! However, with a bit of foresight and these six tips, you will be perfectly placed to sell through online qual projects that meet everyone’s expectations. Leaving you with happier clients, participants and moderators.

One of the greatest challenges of online qual, but also one of its biggest benefits, is that you are not constrained by space or time. Occasionally clients will ask you to include more questions, tasks or stimulus than you had originally planned. Technically, it’s all too easy to upload another question or task, but if you fall into this trap you will end up doing more work than you costed for in your proposal. This is different from face-to-face research in which participants attend a time-limited session – there is a more obvious limit to the number of questions that a client can reasonably request.

These six tips will help you set out the scope of your online qual project in more detail so you don’t end up doing more than you had originally planned and costed for:

1. Clearly state how many questions you will be asking in your proposal

Your proposal is a contract between researcher and client. To avoid a situation in which you are being pressured into asking more questions than you can reasonably manage, you should state the approximate number of questions and days that your costing allows for. This means that any demands for additional questions or tasks can be easily deflected because you have already agreed a limit in writing.

As a rule of thumb, three questions a day is a reasonable number to expect participants to complete.

2. Set limits to how much participant time is available

Time is money. Not just the researcher’s but also the participants’. In your proposal (or subsequent client conversations) you should lay out how much of each participant’s time you have available. Once the trade-off between their time and the cost is made clear, it is much easier to arrive at a compromise on how much you can reasonably expect people to do.

A maximum of 30 minutes of participant time a day (across a five day project) is a fair level of activity to expect in return for a £50 incentive.

3. Outline the level of probing you have planned to do

In theory, every comment that a participant makes in online qual could be probed, but you would end up working non-stop to do so. It can be helpful to have an upfront agreement on a limit to the level of probing that you intend to do. Your level of probing needs to strike a balance between keeping people engaged and getting them to open up without expecting them to do more work than is reasonable.

You should be commenting on all participant’s comments on day 1 (since it shows them that you’re listening). After that you should aim to probe about 30% of people’s comments.

4. Limit the level of stimulus you show people

Clients are often placed under pressure to test an ever growing number of ideas (perhaps more than the study design can bear). However, there is rarely enough time in the day (or money in the budget) to do so. Therefore, you should try and limit the number of different ideas you put in front of people by stating how many you have allowed for in your costing.

Any more than five ideas can start to get too complex for participants to keep track.

5. Cap the number of videos you request

Online video is extremely powerful because hearing participants’ stories in their own words is often more evocative than any written quote or piece of analysis. However, it takes time, money (in terms of incentives), management, analysis and of course editing. So rather than over-promising mobile video at the proposal stage, you should set the terms clearly. This means stating how many videos you will be asking from people and limiting the scope of what you ask them to do.

You could factor in an additional incentive for video as it reduces drop-out and maximises participation.

6. Use mobile video to illustrate rather than discover insights

When considering the investment necessary to create mobile video versus the high value of its visual impact, it can be sensible to use it to illustrate insights rather than uncover insights.

You might only ask particular people to create a mobile video based on their answers to earlier questions in the study. That way you end up with less video to process, but the video is more likely to be relevant.

These tips will help you manage client (and participant) expectations and get more value out of online qual. If you’re interested in more ways to master online qual then please email Tom@feelingmutual.com to find out about our Masterminds course which runs each month…


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