Many qual practitioners entertain prejudices when it comes to conducting focus groups online – that’s certainly the case in Europe.
One of the most common fears about this digital option: superficiality, due to a lack of direct interaction between participants.
We’ve lots of digital tools that work really well – online insight communities, mobile ethnographies for example have proven their worth many times over. But over the years we’ve always found that online focus groups weren’t quite up to comparison with their face-to-face counterpart.
So – drum roll – to all of the sceptics out there (I was one of them) I can say: it’s not really about good or bad, the question is rather: WHEN it is good or bad? Or put another way: what role can online groups play in the qual tool kit, when can they make sense?
In certain circumstances, online focus groups definitely offer certain benefits and can make sense. But, as is often the case, the best way to find out is when you have no other choice. And let’s be honest, these can actually turn out to be the best moments: when you jump in at the deep end, just try it out, knowing it will be exciting, possibly full of failures but in any case insightful, however the end results turn out.
We had one of these moments recently when we were faced with the task of recruiting users who buy a very little known brand online in 3 different geographies – the incidence levels were well below 1%, a nightmare for recruiters.
Maybe we could have managed to find a handful for a single group, but that was far from enough – we needed at least 4 groups, the project was a packaging test, with two defined sub-targets. And: the budget was extremely tight. You know, a typical project brief.
So we needed a de-centralized group that wouldn’t cost a lot. It quickly became clear that methodologically, a workable solution was online groups – it was in fact the only option we could think of. And to keep within budget, software options were limited too, nothing fancy was possible.
At first the set-up felt rather makeshift, but in the end it turned out to be a workable solution. And we definitely learned a lot. Here are our key take-aways:
- First up: doing online focus groups is very fast and cost-efficient. This makes it especially interesting for smaller companies for whom F2F international market research is often unaffordable. Online groups cut out costs for facilities and travel. It also has a great eco-footprint: do groups all over the planet with zero emissions!
- If you’re now thinking: great, cheaper and no travelling anymore, I am afraid it’s not that easy. The moderator’s task of delving deeper is tough – deep motivational insights are not “explorable” with online groups. However, if you have limited objectives and straightforward stimulus material, it can be an option.
- We found that the real killer for overall dynamics was less the online mode but too little and too vague advance information. An upfront, thorough briefing about the set-up and technical requirements is crucial to make sure that people take it as seriously as a “real group”. Otherwise the online setting can seduce participants into doing something else at the same time e.g. driving the car, babysitting or walking the dog which added an ethnographic aspect but was actually distracting. Plus: much as it sounds like a no-brainer: audio and video settings should be double-checked upfront – many consumers are not at all familiar with the available software options.
- Speaking of dynamics: Yes, online group dynamics are different. Everything takes longer. We all know this from a comparative experience: online/phone conferences. Many people start to talk, followed by a long silence because everyone waits for the others to speak first. This can easily happen in online groups. But it evolves, people get used to the situation and in the end everyone gets to say what they wanted to say. Social interactions tend to regulate themselves – you can count on that even in online settings.
In summary: Online groups can’t replace the atmosphere and range of benefits offered by face-to-face groups. But they can be an appropriate option for straightforward studies with simple stimulus material that are tightly-budgeted, have low incidence audiences and are geographically dispersed.