The pros and cons of email interviews

07 August 2017 - BY Kath McNiff

The pros and cons of email interviews

Your email inbox is like a ‘second brain’ – it knows where you’ve been, what you’ve learned and what you need to do next.

It’s a time-stamped repository of useful discussions, meeting notes, feedback from stakeholders and advice from mentors – not to mention an archive of ‘must-read’ presentations and reports.

So, in a sense, it’s already a goldmine of ‘qualitative’ data.

But what about its place in your data collection strategy? Can you gather sound qualitative data using email-based interviews?

This post looks at the main pros and cons of taking such an approach.

What is an email interview?

First off, what do we mean by an email interview?

This description is a good starting point:

 “…online, asynchronous, in-depth interviewing, which is usually conducted via e-mail, is, unlike e-mail surveys, semi-structured in nature and involves multiple e-mail exchanges between the interviewer and interviewee over an extended period of time.” (Meho, 2006, p.1284)

It’s not just a matter of putting a few questions in an email and awaiting the response.

An email interview is more like an asynchronous conversation - you need to build rapport and follow-up with questions that help participants to expand on their ideas.

For example, your plan for email interviewing might include:

  • Time boxing the interview process (for example, 3 months)
  • Setting expectations for length of responses (2 or 3 paragraphs)
  • Setting the context and explaining your approach
  • Starting with 3 or 4 broad questions derived from your research design or framework
  • Developing further questions based on initial responses

First, let’s take a look at the reasons you might choose to conduct email interviews:

Pro 1. Save on travel costs

If you’re on a limited budget, email interviews offer an inexpensive way to avoid the costs associated with travel – which can be significant when your participants are geographically dispersed.

A team of Czech researchers, who studied women experiencing perinatal loss, cited travel as a key reason for conducting email interviews:

“The women involved in our research lived in different parts of the Czech Republic and the cost of traveling was significant.” (Ratislavová & Ratislav, 2014, p.453)

If you’re struggling with limited access to local research participants, email interviews can help to broaden your scope.

Pro 2. Avoid transcription

Transcribing interviews is a hurdle for many researchers, it can be labour intensive and expensive to outsource.

Email interviews relieve this pressure because participants do the transcribing for you.

Of course, your data collection methods shouldn't be driven by issues of transcription, but where time and money are barriers to investigation, they are worth considering.

Pro 3. Give people time to think

In a face-to-face interview, participants are put on the spot. They need to come up with responses in real time and, while this may promote authenticity, it can also hinder deeper reflexivity and thought.

Email interviews provide more opportunity for participants to consider their responses and use their own (carefully chosen) words to express them.

As the researcher, you also benefit from the luxury of time – you can review the responses closely before following up with more targeted or probing questions.

Pro 4. Capture events as they unfold

If you’re looking to engage with the daily lives of your participants, then email interviewing could be the way to go.  

This is particularly true if you’re working with respondents who already use email as a key communication tool in their day-to-day lives.

For example, in her study on middle manager’s work place experiences, Dr Melissa Parris was attracted to email interviews because they offered a way to “capture stories of workplace experiences as they occurred while, at the same time, allow respondents time to reflect on these experiences and their effects.” (Parris, 2008, p. 4)

Pro 5. Deal with sensitive issues

If your area of study is sensitive or emotionally demanding, respondents may be reluctant to participate in face-to-face interviews.

An email exchange offers more privacy and puts respondents in control of the interview. They can answer questions in the comfort of their own home and may feel safer about sharing personal stories.

Interestingly, email interviews can also have a therapeutic effect on respndents in certain situations:

“The participants’ written responses helped them make sense of their situation and writing their thoughts down may have helped them achieve closure and let go of the past.” (Ratislavová & Ratislav, 2014, p.45)

Now, let’s review the disadvantages of email interviewing:

Con 1. Frustrating delays

Email interviews allow participants to respond in their own time – convenient for them but a potential nightmare for you.

Continually prompting participants for a response can be a frustrating waste of time and cause damage to the researcher/participant relationship.

The time lag can also increase the likelihood of losing participants at various stages of a project.

To mitigate the problem, you’ll need to develop a good rapport and provide very clear guidelines about expected time frames.

Con 2. Missing the non-verbal clues

A face-to-face interview is more than just words.

There are all sorts of social clues going on during this kind of interaction; body language, pauses, inflection and tone - all of which is missing in an email interview.

This can be a big stumbling block for many researchers – it is difficult to demonstrate empathy and ‘active listening’ via email.

There’s some research to suggest that encouraging participants to use emoticons and acronyms can lessen the loss of non-verbal clues and add depth to the data (Meho, 2006). This makes sense given that emojis have become an acceptable part of our digital lexicon.

Con 3. Light-weight responses

In theory, email interviews give participants time to formulate detailed responses.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so straightforward in practice.

Interviewees can get tired of typing out detailed responses and might cut corners – particularly if they are time-poor or uncomfortable with writing.

You’ll need to ask questions that inspire meaty descriptions and provide clear guidelines about your expectations.

It might pay to run a few pilot email interviews to see if you’re getting enough detail to support your research objectives.

Analyze Emails in NVivo

If you decide to include email interviews as part of your data collection strategy, you can bring them into NVivo for analysis.

You can code the content by theme and use queries and visualizations to find patterns and connections.

This video gives you a heads-up on how it all works:

Have you had experience with email interviews? How did they work out? Share your wisdom in the comments below.

References

Meho, L. I. (2006), E-mail interviewing in qualitative research: A methodological discussion. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci., 57: 1284–1295. doi:10.1002/asi.20416

Parris, Melissa (2008), Email correspondence: a qualitative data collection tool for organisational researchers, in ANZAM 2008 : Managing in the Pacific century, Promaco Conventions, [Canning Bridge, W.A.], pp. 1-13. 

Ratislavová, K. & Ratislav, J. Humaff (2014) 24: 452. https://doi.org/10.2478/s13374-014-0240-y