Online Focus Groups: Can They Work for You?

By: Debbie Liberty

As marketing budgets become tighter and more consumers go online, businesses are looking to online focus groups to provide a new tool for market research. Focus groups have been used successfully for years to bring together consumers to evaluate a product or service. As a tool for qualitative research, they help businesses determine why something works (or doesn't) as well as provide insights into new approaches.

Online focus groups do some things very well. They are especially effective in reaching certain demographic groups and are often an effective alternative to traditional face-to-face groups. In deciding whether to use online focus groups instead of traditional focus groups, you need to consider the pros and cons.

Advantages of online focus groups

  • There are no geographic restrictions. You can reach national and international populations and respondents who are hard to reach in traditional focus groups, such as rural consumers.
  • The sample size can be larger. As many as 100 people can be invited to an online focus group, while a traditional focus group consists of only 8 to 12 people.
  • Participants are anonymous to each other, which may encourage more open and honest feedback. Participants who are uncomfortable with face-to-face interaction or who are very comfortable with online communication (such as teenagers and young adults) will respond better in this environment.
  • More clients can be involved since travel expenses are eliminated.
  • In an online environment, it's less likely that one person will dominate the discussion or influence other's reactions.
  • If your product is based online, you'll have the opportunity to observe how it will be used in an interactive environment. This approach is especially relevant if you are interested in online behavior (such as online shopping patterns or the effectiveness of your Web site).
  • Results can be determined quickly since transcripts of online groups are immediately available and highly accurate.

Disadvantages of online focus groups

  • The role of the moderator is limited. In a traditional focus group, an effective moderator can be sure that everyone participates and can use the reactions of the group to direct the discussion.
  • Participants get no visual or auditory cues from other participants or the moderator. These cues are often more important than verbal or written comments, so it becomes harder to gauge the emotional reactions of consumers.
  • The information you get may be relatively superficial because of this difficulty in gauging emotional reactions online.
  • Certain populations may not be represented (lower income, older, people who do not have easy access to a computer).
  • The anonymity of the online group may lead to dishonesty or misrepresentation.
  • It's harder to screen participants, making it easier for imposters to enter the discussion.
  • The client has limited involvement in the actual group - there is no one-way mirror, and it's harder for the client and moderator to discuss the progress of the session and make adjustments in real time.
  • The client is unable to see and hear respondents' expressions, an important benefit of traditional focus groups.
  • The computer screen is a two-dimensional environment, and the size and quality of monitors used by participants will vary widely.

The nature of your product, your research objectives and your target market will drive your decision on whether to conduct online or traditional focus groups. If your research objectives call for interaction among the participants or you need to see and hear participants' reactions to stimuli first-hand, you may be better served by traditional focus groups. But if your objective calls for an audience that is comfortable with the online environment or if you are researching a sensitive or personal topic, an online group can give you insight into consumer preferences.

Research Inc. is an Atlanta, Georgia full service market research firm offering a wide variety of research services, including focus group moderation, telephone interviewing, online surveys, and website usability studies.

Related: market research, Atlanta focus group research, professional focus group moderators.