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Will the online focus group thrive or merely survive?

Online focus groups offer convenience, low cost and eliminate the need for travel whilst still delivering high-quality, in-the-moment qualitative insights, so why haven’t they taken over from traditional focus groups? asks Lisa Boughton, Director at Angelfish Fieldwork.

Originally published February 2015.

When they arrived on to the market research scene, webcam-based online focus groups seemed to offer everything – no geographical restrictions, enhanced engagement, multidimensional feedback, cost savings and easy access to research results. In an article on the GreenBook website back in 2010, one evangelising market researcher wrote: “Virtual focus groups enable us to capture the spirit and energy of traditional focus groups without the traditional limitations.”

As an agency that routinely carries out both types of focus group, we question whether virtual focus groups will ever truly replace a traditional focus group. Will technology limitations always block researchers from reaching the real face to face experience and gaining the same insights as a face to face interview or group discussion? Or will technology thrive and allow video based qualitative research to become the standard?

The gold standard

There’s a reason why the traditional, central location, in-person focus group remains so popular. As a methodology, it takes some beating. Delivering real-time, in-the-moment insights, a traditional focus group allows a skilled moderator to control the conversation and ensure participants interact to create a highly dynamic environment. It also allows researchers to capture both verbal and non-verbal cues, which a moderator can use to guide an in-depth discussion. A focus group also allows a client to be fully involved, observing in person and sharing their thoughts and providing direction to the moderator to help ensure positive outcomes. Taken altogether, the face-to-face focus group packs a powerful research punch. However, like so many ‘gold standards’, a focus group can be expensive, difficult to organise and rely on participants’ willingness to travel, as well as removing them from their natural environment. But do these negatives matter or outweigh the positives? The continued use of focus groups suggests they do not, but what about virtual focus groups? What are their current pros and cons?

It’s not all about cost savings

Online focus groups have been around for a while, moving from early adoption phase to the mainstream as broadband speeds quicken and online research platforms come into their own. The number one advantage of virtual, webcam-mediated focus groups is well known – they are lower in cost and easier to organise, plain and simple. The use of an online platform is usually less than the cost of renting a research suite and that’s before you start to figure in additional costs for travel, catering, logistics, etc. What’s more, incentive levels are lower to reflect the convenience of participating from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

However, the benefits go beyond cost savings. Without geographical restrictions, virtual focus groups have greater reach, attracting rural and international participants as well as other hard-to-reach groups, such as top experts who may be too busy to travel to a location.  Clients can also view the feed from their own offices, allowing more people to be involved in real-time. What’s more, new technologies such as ‘screen share’ allow researchers to capture high-resolution experiential data by observing participants as they navigate websites in the moment. This also enables researchers to demonstrate any type of software from their computers or show almost any type of digital materials for feedback during the group, this can sometimes be limited in a venue setting.

Of course, there are disadvantages. Interaction between participants can be challenging and the power of the moderator is weaker as they lack some of the auditory or visual cues needed to guide the conversation. As with all rapidly evolving technologies, sometimes there can be glitches, especially when slow broadband speeds create a time lag. As many researchers know, one bad experience of the technology can sour the experience of the methodology for participant or researcher. Finally, due to the difficulty gauging emotional reaction, there is also a danger that the information captured will not be as rich as the in person alternative.

Balancing the options

Choosing the right methodology for a project is a challenge researchers routinely face. A range of factors must be taken into consideration when producing a package that is tailored to fit the desired outcomes, budget and client’s preferences, to mention but three areas to consider.

Looking forwards, the technology involved in virtual focus groups is changing fast; broadband is speeding up, new tools are emerging, and both software and hardware are improving. On top of that, participants are growing ever more tech-savvy as they use digital channels in other areas of their lives, especially the coveted and challenging 18-24 demographic for whom video chat over FaceTime or Google Hangouts is fast becoming a normal part of their day.

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