Should You Consider Online Focus Groups?

Online focus groups (whether chat rooms or bulletin boards) should not be considered a substitute for all traditional face-to-face focus groups. There are situations when online groups are not recommended. Use this guide to help determine if online focus groups are an appropriate option to consider.

Online Focus Groups Are Feasible Only if These Four Conditions are Met:

The penetration of PCs with internet access continues to increase, but it is by no means universal. Teens, young adults, dual-income professional households, and technology decision-makers are examples of market segments that are most likely to have used and have easy access to the internet; they are suitable for online groups. In contrast, the elderly and those in lower income households are less likely to have access to the internet for personal use; online focus groups should not be considered for them.

Some focus groups involve concept testing of some sort. In face-to-face focus groups, it is easy to expose respondents to concepts: we pass out printed concept statements or present concept boards, we show TV ads cued up on a VCR, we play audio cassette recordings of potential radio spots, or we distribute product samples to taste or product prototypes to try out. It is not this easy with online focus groups.

If online groups are being considered and concept evaluations are called for, the concepts must be as simple as possible. Simple concepts include those that the moderator can easily describe in a few sentences, or those that are easily accessed by the respondent (e.g., by going to a password protected web site to view concept materials).

Not all of those with internet access have the capability of viewing full motion video or listening to audio on their systems; thus, TV and radio ads are not suitable for online groups at this time. Unless the client is willing to mail product samples to respondents beforehand, situations where sharing product samples is key to the discussion should be reserved for in-person groups.

When concepts are evaluated in face-to-face groups, we typically retrieve all concept materials and notes taken by respondents before adjourning. We do this to minimize the risk that proprietary ideas are leaked to the competition. We don't have this level of control with online groups. Anything we expose to respondents is theirs to keep. Thus, clients must feel comfortable with the risks involved if respondents "walk away with" concepts.

A skilled online group moderator can compensate for our inability to see respondents and the body language they exhibit during groups. Still, some clients are not willing to forego the in-person focus group experience; they feel they must see the respondent first hand. If this is the case, online groups are not recommended.

If the client's organization has done little qualitative research in the past, we recommend that their qualitative research program begin with traditional (in-person) focus groups; the added value of being exposed to one's (potential) customers for the first time is immeasurable. Also, if key members of the client team have had no previous experience with qualitative research, they should be introduced to the process by observing in-person groups.


In Addition, Online Focus Groups are Recommended When:

If the feasibility of getting representatives of the target population to convene for an in-person focus group is low, consider online focus groups, where geography is not an obstacle. Rather than being limited to a sample pool from one market, the pool can be enlarged to encompass an entire state, region, country, or even the world.

For example, senior executives are notorious for being difficult to recruit. Because online groups would put less of a demand on their time than face to face groups and because they are typically at ease with communications on corporate intranets and/or the internet, recruitment should be easier.

Topics pertaining to the internet (e.g., web site evaluations, web ad testing) or other high tech subjects (e.g., perceptions of high tech companies, identification of new product needs) are a "natural" for online focus groups.

Not to be reprinted without permission. © QualCore.com Inc. 1998

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