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Paul Hudson
Paul Hudson CEO of Intersperience
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What are the benefits of online focus groups?

We all think we know what a focus group looks like. It’s a bunch of people sat in a room above a shop on the high street, being plied with cups of tea and Roses chocolates, whilst a moderator asks them questions and a gaggle of clients gawp at them and drink wine behind a piece of mirrored glass.

But when it comes to online groups, there is far more variation in what is promoted as an online focus group. For some, it’s half a dozen respondents on the phone and/or webcam, responding to slides posted by a moderator. For others, it’s an asynchronous discussion forum with a limited number of customers over a short period of time (aka a bulletin board focus group).

What we call an online focus group, however, is 6 to 10 participants engaged in a real time online chat, with questions posed by a moderator in a special, closed, invite-only chat environment, perhaps with clients watching in their own online ‘client room’, attended to by an online host.

Online focus groups like this have many advantages:

  • They’re great in getting detailed feedback on copy, marketing concepts, adverts and packaging.
  • They’re relatively quick and easy to convene, especially if you already have participants engaged in an online community.
  • It means that customers from a broad geographical region (or even different countries) can join together to share their views.
  • It is more convenient for customers to take part – which is especially important for groups such as professionals and those with young families.
  • Researchers and clients don’t have to travel.
  • Moderators can show visual, audio and video stimuli.
  • Participants are more likely to be disinhibited by a degree of anonymity.
  • Transcripts are already in text format and ready to analyse.

There are, of course, downsides:

  • Depending on the number and type of participants the chat can be fast and therefore it can be difficult to follow up points raised and generate debate.
  • Less technologically literate participants less used to chat formats may feel disenfranchised by online groups (though pre-group practice sessions may help these users).
  • It’s harder to gauge meaning from facial expression and body language (though both participants and moderators are increasingly using chat and social networking as a first choice for communication, and so feel at home with strategies for conveying meaning online, such as text speak and use of emoticons).
  • There are no chocolates on the table in the middle!

A final ‘word to the wise’ - although online focus groups score highly on convenience, cost effectiveness and afford flexibility, they shouldn’t be seen as ‘quick and dirty’ research. They still require thought and time to go into design, sampling, recruitment, writing the topic guide – and, most of all, with a typical transcript running to 23 sides of A4, interpretation!

Also, they are not a replacement for face-to-face groups, but rather an additional technique in the researcher’s toolkit. It is best to combine both face-to-face and online groups, or to combine with other qualitative and/or quantitative research methods.

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