focusgroups1Let’s start with a little background.  Market research is usually divided into two types based on the methodological approach used: qualitative and quantitative research. Both of these approaches have their key advantages and disadvantages. As such, some types of data can be easily obtained from one type, while it may be downright impossible to identify from the other.

With quantitative research, a person can easily obtain data from a large sample group and focus their inquiries to get very objective responses. Thus, conclusions based from quantitative research have a high degree of probability and often hold true to the entire population. However, there are also several downsides to quantitative research. These can be classified into three general areas: complexity, cost, and time. Conducting quantitative research often requires a high degree of proficiency, as well as costly and time-consuming data gathering methods. Moreover, because of the objectivity of the responses required in quantitative research, the participant can often feel constricted in the answers he can give. Take a simple survey for example. In a question where a participant must check off one or more reasons why he dislikes a particular product, what if the participant’s reason is not provided in the given check list?

Open-endedness is the primary advantage of qualitative over quantitative research.  If you’ve ever been interviewed for a job, then you’ve participated in qualitative research. Moreover, this type of research is also much cheaper and can also be conducted much faster than its more rigid counterpart. However, the precision of the data gathered through qualitative research rests largely on the ability of the conductor. In a job interview for example, the interviewer will often base his conclusions on not only the interviewee’s answers, but also on how he says them, his body language, and other nonverbal cues.

The traditional focus group

A focus group is form of qualitative research that essentially functions like a group interview. The participants are often asked open-ended questions on their opinions on a product, service, marketing campaign, or any other company concern. According to Lindlof and Tylor, authors of Qualitative Communication Research Methods, one of effects of group discussions is that it produces data and insights that would be less accessible without interaction found in a group setting—listening to others’ verbalized experiences stimulates memories, ideas, and experiences in participants. This is also known as the group effect where group members engage in “a kind of ‘chaining’ or ‘cascading’ effect; talk links to, or tumbles out of, the topics and expressions preceding it.”

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The online focus group

Thanks to recent advances in technology, conducting online focus groups has been a growing trend in market research.  These online group discussions work by inviting a random sample from a large group of pre-screened individuals that represent the target market to log into a web conference with a focus group moderator. Once the group has assembled, the moderator then guides the flow of discussion using a set of prepared questions and unscripted ones. Meetings usually last from around sixty to ninety minutes, and are often viewed from a virtual backroom by other company representatives acting as observers. If the market research was outsourced, the research company’s clients would act as the observers. The observers in the virtual backroom are invisible to the participants of the web conference.

The benefits

There are several benefits online focus groups have over traditional (face-to-face) ones. Here are a few:

  • Cost. Online focus groups are often much cheaper since it eliminates the need to transport, lodge, and feed participants. Savings are most significant when company’s actually need to a focus group of participants from different parts of the country.
  • Time and convenience. Since everything is done in front of a computer screen, the researcher and participants will no longer need to travel to the research venue. They can, therefore, avoid a lot of wasted time and inconvenience involved in travelling. Moreover, this also makes the research much faster to conduct. Time saved from research can often mean a strong competitive advantage for the client if he gets to introduce a new product or service to the market before his competitors.
  • Suitable for some products and services. Conducting interviews via computer can easily help you get closer to a specific market demographic: technology-savvy individuals. If you want to conduct market research for a website or other online service, online focus groups can help you get very accurate results.  Participants are even known to answer personal questions more freely when in an online focus group. This has mainly been attributed to the anonymity participants often feel when they’re behind a computer screen.

The downside

However, because of the limited interaction of online focus groups, moderators will often find it harder to interpret nonverbal cues from the participants. This is especially true when trying to interpret body language. Unlike traditional focus groups where the moderator can easily identify cues like seating position (whether laid back or listening in) and hand gestures (whether crossed or open armed),  he is only confined to facial expressions and speech patterns.

Pro Tip: Usertesting.com

At Redstage, we have had a very high level of success with this variant of online focus grouping.  For only $49 each, you receive video and audio of a live person combing through your website and discussing any problems they face.  You can provide questions and scenarios to guide the test and even narrow down the users who will perform the tests based on demographic information.

We advise that you purchase at least 10 users for the test, which puts the entry cost for online focus grouping at a very low $500.   Visit usertesting.com here.