Online focus groups are a highly effective market research tool. My clients love them. They save the time and cost of travel while making it easier for participants and observers.
Most importantly, these benefits don’t require you to tradeoff for lower quality research. Online focus groups still facilitate the “brainstorming” dynamic that you get at an in-person focus group, where one participant’s comment sparks a comment by another participant and so on. The brainstorming dynamic enables the group to dig deep into an issue, so that the client can get a very clear picture of market acceptance of their product and of any issues they need to deal with.
Participants love online focus groups too, because they give them an opportunity to listen to the feedback of others in the industry. This is an important benefit for participants, especially in customer advisory boards, which encourages them to join.
Online focus groups are conducted using conference calls and Web-based meeting technology such as WebEx, GotoMeeting, etc. In many ways they’re similar to traditional face-to-face focus groups, except you’re not in one room. We recruit participants in the same way, set a time for the meeting, and prepare a moderator’s guide. If relevant, we can review a presentation with the participants. Just as in a traditional focus group, where the client can listen in through a one-way window, the client can listen to an online focus group on a muted phone line. And we can use Web technology to poll participants similarly to a visual “show of hands” or “nod of heads” in an in-person group.
Despite the many similarities between in-person focus groups and online focus groups, there are also a few differences. The most obvious one is that you don’t get the non-verbal clues from the participants. Because of this, the moderator needs to make an extra effort to draw out all the participants and balance the input. To facilitate this, we typically have a smaller group (4-6 participants per group rather than 6-8 for an in-person group) for the same amount of time. We may do more groups as a result – 5 instead of 4 for example.
Of course, there is also the option of conducting video online focus groups. As technology evolves, these are becoming more common and are easier to set up.
Another major benefit of online focus groups is that they reflect the majority of real-life interactions with customers. When selling to Corporate IT buyers, more and more meetings are being conducted online rather than in person, so online focus groups reflect that same scenario. If your messages work in an online focus group, they will translate well into an online sales call or a Webinar.