Chapter 10 Online Focus Groups

In the past 5 years advances in bandwidth and video-streaming have made one of marketing's most reliable and heavily used research tools, the focus group, even more attractive and user-friendly for conducting on and through the Internet (Nucifora, 2000). Numerous organizations that specialize in qualitative assessment of consumers’ attitudes and perceptions now proffer their services exclusively on the web. Albeit, skeptics remain unconvinced that virtual focus groups can ever fully replace real world face-to face research sessions. However, getting caught up in such arguments misses the point. Online focus groups simply offer researchers another very viable and valuable means to conduct research. It can readily supplement (as opposed to supplant) traditional methods of qualitative consumer studies.

Chapter Objectives

This chapter provides:

  • An understanding of the general nature of focus group research and how to conduct focus groups on & through the Internet.

  • A delineation of the advantages and disadvantages of web based focus groups.

  • A list of Internet based organizations that allow you to participate in online focus groups.

  • A list of Internet based organizations that can be employed to conduct online focus groups.

  • A range of resources that may be used to learn more about online focus groups.

  • Focus Groups

    There are two main data collection methods used in market research: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research is used when researchers use identical questions and structured response alternatives usually collected in numerical form from larger, more representative samples and subjected to empirical analysis. Qualitative research, on the other hand, involves gathering data from free-format responses elicited by open-ended responses to in-depth probing and subjective observation. Qualitative research is often used to measure such things as experiences, emotions, opinions, and other non-quantifiable data. The most popular form of qualitative research is the focus group (Perreault and McCarthy, 2000). Focus groups " consist of 8 to 12 participants who are led by a moderator in an in-depth discussion on one particular topic or concept:"

    The goal of focus group research is to learn and understand what people have to say and why. The emphasis is on getting people to talk at length and in detail about the subject at hand. The intent is to find out how they feel about a product, concept, idea, or organization; how it fits in their lives; and their emotional involvement with it. (McDaniel and Gates, 2002)

    The focus group process had its beginnings in the group therapy method utilized by psychiatrists. It was based on the premise that individuals would be more willing to discuss a problem that was shared by other members of a group. As a market research tool, focus groups are used to elicit information that cannot be gained using traditional question/answer surveys either because it is too complex, ambiguous, or requires further explanation. Focus groups are used for a variety of reasons but are especially popular for gaining consumer reaction to new products or ideas.

    Most market researchers agree that there are three essential elements involved in conducting effective focus group sessions:

  • Skilled moderators,

  • Screened respondents,

  • A suitable interviewing facility.

  • The moderator is the person who will be facilitating the group interaction. Normally he/she needs to prepare or be provided with a discussion/interview guide that outlines the key issues to be addressed. The interview guide lists major areas of inquiry that enable the group to remain focused on the topic being explored.

    It is important to select the most appropriate sample as possible and a screening method is usually implemented for selecting participants. Some researchers claim that it is best if the participants are not previously acquainted, although others argue that this does not affect the quality of information gathered. Focus group interviews are generally agreed to be most effective when the number of group participants ranges from eight to twelve.

    Deciding on the appropriate number of focus groups to run is also an important consideration and depends largely on the scope of the project. However, the objective is to have as few groups as possible while attempting to maximize the amount of information elicited and maintain the focus of discussion for each group. Most focus group interviews last for one to two hours. Two hours is generally accepted as the outside limit as the quality of information elicited tends to deteriorate after this amount of time.

    To assist the assessment of the results of a focus group, the session is usually audio or video taped. The taping of focus group interviews provides an extremely useful means of collecting and analyzing data. Transcripts can be made of the tapes and the responses of participants can be interpreted and categorized in a manner useful to the researcher.

    Online Focus Groups

    As was the case with survey research, many market researchers engaged in focus group studies readily saw the inherent benefits of the Internet: "lack of geographic barriers, lower costs (about half as much), faster turnaround time, and intangibles such as increased openness on the part of respondents when they do not have an interviewer staring them in the face" (McDaniel and Gates, 2002). Yet, despite such demonstrable benefits there are other researchers who maintain that without direct, person-to-person interaction, focus group research will always come up short. After an exhaustive review of the pluses and minuses of online focus groups Silverman (2000) concludes:

    I think that the inevitable conclusion is that online groups, particularly asynchronous bulletin board and list serve groups, have a definite place, but that place is extremely limited and limiting. The usual justifications for online groups, namely, their ability to include difficult-to-recruit, geographically dispersed participants is spurious at best, and dishonest at worst, when compared to telephone groups. That’s why, with the exception of a series of list serve type groups conducted worldwide almost 20 years ago, I have not been able to recommend them in good conscience to clients.

    Indeed, critics of online focus groups go so far as to suggest the research community does itself an injustice by calling qualitative sessions conducted over the Internet "focus groups." To wit, McDaniel and Gates (2002) list seven points of contention:

  • Group dynamics. In cyberspace, it is difficult, if not impossible, to create any real group dynamics, particularly when the participants are reading from computer screens rather than interacting verbally.

  • Nonverbal inputs. Experienced moderators use nonverbal inputs from participants while moderating and analyzing sessions. It is not possible to duplicate the nonverbal input in an online environment.

  • Client involvement. Many organizations use the focus group methodology because it gives clients an opportunity to experience some direct interface with consumers in an objective environment… With online focus groups, clients can only monitor written responses on a computer screen.

  • Security. With a traditional focus group, the moderator and client know who is in the room, assuming that appropriate screening has been done. With online focus groups, there is no way to be sure who is sitting at the computer terminal.

  • Attention to the topic. Another important benefit of the traditional focus group process is that the participants in the group understand that they are expected to stay in the room for the full two hours of the session and contribute to the discussion… However, in an online environment, the moderator can never be sure that the participants are not watching TV, reading a book, or eating dinner while the session is proceeding.

  • Exposure to external stimuli. A key use of focus groups is to present advertising copy, new product concepts, prototypes, or other stimuli to the participants in order to get their reactions. In an online chat situation, it is almost impossible to duplicate the kind of exposure to external stimuli that occurs in the live focus group environment.

  • Role and skill of the moderator. Most marketing professionals agree that the most important factor in the quality of traditional focus group research is the skill of the moderator… The techniques available to a moderator sitting alone at a computer terminal are much more limited because of the lack of face-to-face involvement with participants.

  • To date, such criticisms have remained valid. However, with the advent of broadband interconnections, proliferations of web-cam technology and real-time video-streaming these limitations have begun to fall by the wayside. As Nucifora (2000) reports:

    The advent of video streaming technology now means that focus groups can be observed "live" from the comfort of one's desk. The focus group technique itself remains unchanged. Participants gather at a location to discuss and talk under the guidance of a facilitator. However, observers no longer need to be on site, behind the mirror to view the proceedings. A camera captures all the action close-up, including facial expressions, and broadcasts the action via video streaming to an unlimited number of viewers who can watch real-time from the comfort of their desktop computers at any time, any place. Observers normally require a password to gain access to the proceedings and have the option of commenting on the discussion via text with other observers. Once the focus group session is completed, the data are saved to a server where the client on an on-demand basis can view it. Material can also be indexed for easy retrieval by subject matter and stored on CD-ROM.

    Accordingly, many organizations and market researchers find online focus group sessions a useful technique-- for the following reasons:

    Advantages of Online Focus Groups

    Financial Advantages: A simple cost-benefit analysis reveals that online focus groups possess several economic advantages over their real-world counterparts. Focus groups are often a very costly exercise with the client company having to pay for such expenses as: rental of a suitable facility, catering, incentive payments, transcripts, and video or audiotaping. Sometimes, selecting the most appropriate group members from a large geographic area means that air travel, car rental, and hotel accommodation costs are also incurred. Online focus groups alleviate these expenses to a great extent. Facility costs are virtually non-existent, no catering is required, and transcripts of discussions are available within minutes of completing the session. Incentive payments may also be reduced, as there is less inconvenience to the participant. In addition, people can join the group from any location; hence there are no travel costs involved.

    Efficiency Advantages: The entire online focus group process - from recruitment to data output - can be conducted in a very short period of time. Screening and scheduling via email substantially reduces field time and transcripts and data analysis can be made available much sooner. One online researcher reported "she received 2,700 responses within one day of sending out a so-called screener email to approximately 6,000 users in the company’s database of 500,000 Internet homes" (McDaniel and Gates, 2002). In addition, online focus group participants can communicate in a place and time that is most convenient for them.

    Diversity of Group Participants: Another advantage of online focus groups is that participants can be recruited from diverse geographical locations as well as from different social and demographic groups. For example, some real-world focus groups suffer negative effects when participants of considerably different ages are forced to interact. Similar difficulties may arise when participants of different gender, race, religion, and/or colour are brought together. The electronic medium can substantially reduce such problems as the anonymity of group members is preserved to a large degree. It is also likely that consumers, who are usually averse to participating in focus groups, such as those who are too busy or dislike group interaction, may be persuaded to join in an online discussion. Such difficult-to-reach consumers might include executives and professionals whose opinions are sometimes the most valuable. Taking part in an online focus group may be more convenient as they can remain in their office or at home.

    Other arguments for the practicality and pay-offs of using online focus groups include:

     Advantages of Online Focus Groups

    Participants

    Anyone in the world with a computer and modem can participate.

    Time commitment

    No traveling to a facility... Busy respondents are more likely to be available.

    Openness of respondents

    Lack of face-to-face contact may lead respondents to express true feelings in writing…. Traditional focus groups always include "natural talkers," who dominate the discussion, despite a good moderator's attempt to equalize participant contributions. Other participants will be less comfortable voicing opinions in a group; they may express themselves more freely when not face to face with their peers. The online focus group has a built-in leveling effect, in the sense that shy participants can express themselves as freely as more outgoing participants.

    Transcripts

    Word-for-word transcripts are available almost immediately, allowing capture of complete sentences/thoughts.

    Respondent recruiting

    It is easier to obtain all types of respondents…Online it's possible to reach populations that are traditionally inaccessible because of time or professional constraints--groups such as physicians, lawyers, and senior business executives…they do not need to take time from their busy schedules to visit a focus group facility but, rather, can participate from the privacy of their own homes

    Client travel costs

    None… there are substantial travel savings … Expenditures for round-trip airline tickets to distant cities, meals, hotels, and taxis are avoided. Clients merely log on in their own office, or even at home, to observe the research in progress.

    Communication with moderator

    Observers can communicate privately with moderator on a split screen.

    During the traditional focus group, the client observes the discussion from behind a one-way glass; communication with the moderator is impossible without interfering with the discussion. An online focus group, though, offers a remarkable opportunity for two-way interaction between the moderator and the client. …Rather than sneaking into the room with a note scribbled on a piece of paper, the client can address the moderator directly, clearly, and efficiently, without interrupting the group dynamic.

    Client involvement

    Client can read live dialogue and transcripts

    Online groups easier to moderate.

    Telephone groups are probably the hardest to moderate, followed closely by face-to-face groups. Online groups are the easiest by far because they do not require the moderator to think on his / her feet as quickly.

    Bulletin board style allows for participation on respondents schedule.

    The bulletin board style, as distinct from the chat room style, is where the participants return to the session periodically, often once or twice a day, and participate in an ongoing group anywhere from several days to several weeks or even months…. In this way, participation comes to the participants, rather than having the participant having to remember to visit a particular web site periodically. The basic difference here is that the group is taking place asynchronously, that is, without everyone being online at the same time.

    More available in certain places than telephone conferencing facilities.

    In the few cases where the computer is available but telephone conference calls are not, obviously online groups are the way to go. With respect to participants in telephone groups from many so-called Third World countries... As long as they can get to a phone which can reach the United States, we can conference them…. However, this would be much more expensive than online groups.

    Can be used to corroborate findings from in person groups-done in only 1 or 2 markets.

    Both telephone and online groups can be conducted in as many locations as there are participants. So a group of 9 participants can be from 9 different towns, or even countries. Or, they can be as narrow as from one office building in Los Angeles.

    (Complied from: Silverman (2000) Online vs. face to face vs. telephone groups- and- McDaniel and Gates, Marketing Research: The Impact of the Internet, 2002)

    When Are Online Groups Appropriate?

    It is really up to the researcher to determine when an online focus group should be used. This will, of course, depend upon the research objectives and the type of product or idea being discussed. However, online focus groups appear to be most effective when qualitative feedback is needed quickly, participants are from widely dispersed locations, and/or ideas for questions to be included in a quantitative survey are needed.

    They may be particularly conducive to concept testing, especially of text or images as this information can be either sent to the participants prior to commencement or during the course of the discussion using pop-up style browser windows.

    Conducting focus groups is not as simple as it sounds. Of course, any company can set up a page on its web site where visitors can interact with one another and discuss topics relevant to the firm’s products or services. In fact, this is a very useful tool to gauge market reaction and get new ideas. However, if you are interested in generating more rigorous qualitative data and analysis, it is strongly recommend that one employ the services of a company that has a demonstrated ability to conduct this type of research. Considerable organization is required to set up a focus group and a skilled moderator is usually an important component of any worthwhile discussion.

    Online focus groups are not appropriate for satisfying all qualitative research objectives. However, the potential savings in cost and time make this methodology very appealing to companies with limited research budgets and/or who need to get qualitative information fast. It is ideal for situations where there is little need for face-to-face interaction between participants and the method will satisfy research objectives. Nevertheless, any use of online focus groups should still be preceded by a thorough description of the intended objectives of the research in conjunction with budget and time-cost considerations. In the same way that focus groups are just a tool in the market researcher’s toolbox, so too, online focus groups should be considered yet another tool. They should only be used when appropriate and not as a complete substitute for other methods.

    Conducting Your Own Online Focus Group

    If you feel the need to set up and run your own online focus group, you will need the use of a chat room facility at the very least. If you are thinking about downloading a chat software program to use for your focus group, think twice. If the software must be downloaded and run as a separate application, then all of your group participants must also download the software onto their computers - which is something they may not be very comfortable doing! The following web sites are suggested, as they provide chat room facilities on their server or enable you to host chat on your own site without the use of stand-alone software.

    ParaChat  http://parachat.com/parachat.htm

    Participating In Online Focus Groups

    If you want to actually participate in an online focus group discussion, there are many companies that allow you to do so, and some will even pay you to participate. All you need to do is register with them, and then a group facilitator will lead you through the process - online of course. It may be worthwhile to participate in an online focus group before committing your own organization's resources to such a research project.

    Partial Google listing of Volunteer Focus Groups:

     

      NFO Interactive - http://www.mysurvey.com
    Market research gathered by online surveys.
      GlobalTestMarket - http://www.globaltestmarket.com/
    An online marketplace where consumers from around the world participate in the development of new-to-the-world products and services.
      American Consumer Opinion - http://www.acop.com/
    As a member, you will help evaluate new products, test new advertising, and tell companies what you like, dont like, and want in the future.
      SurveySavvy - http://www.surveysavvy.com
    Surveys members for the opinions on the products and services they use. Payment for member participation and for the participation of those that our members refer.
      iCameo - http://www.icameo.com/
    iCameo provides Internet Market Research for firms, and pays survey participants generously.
      Forum Modalis - http://www.forummodalis.com
    Business and IT professionals sharing their opinions on products, services, and concepts. Participants are rewarded with cash and prizes. All opinions and information offered are strictly confidential.
      MBS Internet Research Center - http://www.mbsinternet.net/
    Earn cash for filling out online surveys! Give your opinion and make money at the same time. Your identity is protected and we never give out your contact information.
      iOpinion - http://www.iopinion.com/
    Participate in online focus group discussion forums and online surveys. Plaza Research.
      SurveyGuy.Com - http://www.surveyguy.com/
    Provides online surveys and polls for businesses, organisations, and market research professionals.
      Onesight - http://www.onesight.com/
    OneSight conducts market research surveys on behalf of leading companies. Consumers who are interested in shaping the products and services offered by these companies have joined our market research panel to take these surveys.

     

    Some Organizations that Conduct Focus Groups

    Greenfield Online (http://www.greenfield.com/)

    Greenfield Online not only conducts online focus groups but also actively recruits participants. If you would like to register with them, simply fill out their online application and you will be added to their database. If they invite you to participate, you will be required to fill out an online survey as part of the screening process. FocusChatTM is Greenfield Online's proprietary qualitative research tool that gives you the ability to conduct focus groups online and learn what consumers think of your products or services, explore consumer attitudes, test new concepts or products, and hear what consumers think about you versus your competitors. Also Greenfield Online has 3D imaging technology "which allows panelists to get up close and personal with your products."

     http://www.greenfield.com/demos/FocusChat.html

    CustomerSat.com http://www.customersat.com/

    CustomerSat.com is a market research firm that takes a unique approach to the focus group paradigm. They believe that conventional focus groups, which are generally of one to two hours in duration and involve eight to twelve participants from the same geographical area, are somewhat limited. CustomerSat’s online focus groups, (branded-WebFocus*) offer an alternative in which the discussion may extend over the course of a week and include up to forty participants spread across the globe. They see the potential for audience diversity as one of the strengths of Internet based research. The site also provides a range of free market research resources such as tutorials, articles, sample surveys, links, and workshops with an emphasis on Internet survey techniques and developments.

    * While conventional focus groups are limited to 8-12 participants from the same metropolitan area, WebFocus Groups include up to 30 participants spanning the globe, eliminating geographical biases. Participants can volunteer their thoughts from the comfort and convenience of their home, office, or anywhere else they choose to use the Internet, rather than having to find an unfamiliar place in rush-hour traffic. And instead of having to start at a fixed time, they can participate whenever they wish – before work, during the day, over lunch, or in the evening – usually for 10-20 minutes per day. WebFocus groups last from four days to a week, so participants can reflect on ideas overnight and provide richer, deeper, and more thoughtful insight.

    CustomerSat’s WebFocus Groups http://www.customersat.com/000svc.html

    SurveySite  http://www.surveysite.com

    SurveySite is an Internet based market research organisation that offers online focus groups as part of its overall research approach. They use experienced moderators and during a focus group discussion, are able to introduce text, graphics, sounds/jingles, video or multimedia for evaluation and testing. The company also uses "pop-up" survey software to collect data on the web. This technique randomly selects web site visitors and pops up a small window asking them if they want to take part in a brief online survey. SurveySite claims that this gives a true random sample of web site visitors.

     SurveySite Online Focus Groups http://www.surveysite.com/newsite/docs/onlinefocus.htm

    NFO Interactive http://www.nfow.com/

    http://www.nfow.com/nfointeractive/customer.asp

    NFO WORLDGROUP is a leading provider of research-based marketing information and counsel. NFO//net.focus is the online equivalent to the conventional focus group:

    NFO//net.focus can incorporate 2-D, 3-D and soon, live motion video for concept testing, package testing, product development - images can even be altered in real time.

    NFO//net.focus http://www.nfow.com/nfointeractive/nfoi_netfocus.asp

    Harrisinteractive http://www.harrisinteractive.com/

    Harrisinteractive has an online panel of more than 7 million with diverse backgrounds, behaviors, and attitudes an its panel members originate from more than 200 countries.

    Meta-Indexes of Market Research Firms

    The GreenBook  http://www.greenbook.org

    The GreenBook is an established print-based directory of market research firms produced by the American Marketing Association. It also is a web site that lists thousands of market research firms throughout the world that are indexed and cross-indexed. The site enables the user to search for companies that conduct specific types of research using such parameters as company name, research services offered, market specialties, industry specialties, computer programs, trade-marked products and services, geographic location and key personnel listings.

    The GreenBook® Volume I, Worldwide Directory of Marketing Research Companies and Services http://www.greenbook.org/index.cfm

    Includes the full range of marketing research companies and services worldwide. It can help you select the best research services for your needs… The GreenBook® Volume II, Worldwide Directory of Focus Group Companies and Services now in its 10th year, offers comprehensive listings of facilities, moderating and more. 

    Other Research Service MetaDexes:

  • ResearchInfo.com http://www.researchinfo.com/

  • A directory of market research firms and resources that can assist one assist in finding the "right" research company. Search by type of research conducted, geographical area (mainly American) and/or type of industry.

  • Quirk’s Marketing Research Review http://www.quirks.com/

  • Contains the Researcher SourceBook™, which has listings of more than 6,500 firms providing marketing research products and services. It has a searchable directory -- by company/contact name and geography/specialty.

  • Zarden’s --Market Research Direct-A-Net -directory of market research companies www.zarden.com:

  • Zarden provides an very robust directory for finding market research companies; Allows searching through its directory by type of service provided, by alphabetical order and by state/country.

  • Volition http://www.volition.com/opinions.html

  • Chapter Summary

    Many research firms are now conducting qualitative research on and through the Internet. Online focus groups often provide a faster and cheaper means of collecting qualitative data than using the real-world equivalent. There are obvious limitations to this type of research:

    Screening Problems: One of the shortcomings of conducting market research over the Internet is that you can never really be sure that respondents are who they say they are. As the old saying goes, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog."

    Technical limitations: There are a number of unique features of focus group discussions that cannot be replicated in an electronic environment. For example, eye-to-eye contact is not possible; hence it may be difficult for the moderator to gauge the feelings of the group and to decide if the discussion should deviate from discussion guide. Retaining the full attention of participants is also a potential problem as other things may distract them when sitting in front of a computer at home or work. In a real-world focus group, the moderator usually has the undivided attention of participants. Interpreting qualitative data is a complex process and involves not only analyzing verbal communications but also nonverbal information such as silences, tone of voice, contradictions, and level of energy. Transcripts of online discussions are usually entirely text-based and the extra information that can be gained from audio or videotaping is not available. If the subject matter is highly emotional it may be difficult to obtain appropriate feedback.

    However, with the advent of broadband interconnections, proliferations of web-cam technology and real-time video-streaming these limitations have begun to fall by the wayside.

    Indeed, the benefits to most organizations far outweigh the costs. Certainly in terms of:

  • The lack of geographic barriers.

  • Lower costs (up to half as much).

  • Faster turnaround time.

  • Worldwide and versatile recruitment.

  • Improved moderator and client interaction and involvement.

  • Increased openness on the part of participants.

  • Discussion Questions

    References

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    An Applied Approach, Prentice-Hall, Sydney.

    McDaniel, Carl and Roger Gates (2002) Marketing Research: The Impact of the Internet (South-Western Publishing) Chapter 5, pages 125, 140-147.

    Neuman, W.L. (1994) Social Research Methods, 2nd Edition, Allyn and Bacon, Sydney.

    Nucifora, Alf (2000), "," Marketing On A Shoestring: Online focus groups bring the action to your desktop, " The Business Journal (Charolette, North Carolina), Week of September 18, 2000 http://charlotte.bcentral.com/charlotte/stories/2000/09/18/smallb3.htm

    Perreault William D. and Jerome McCarthy (2000) Essentials of Marketing (McGraw-Hill, 2000) p.165.

    Rezabek, Roger J. (2000) Online Focus Groups: Electronic Discussions for Research Volume 1, No. 1 – 2000, January http://qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/1-00/1-00rezabek-e.htm

    Silverman, George (2000) "Online vs. face to face vs. telephone groups". http://www.mnav.com/online.htm

    Van Nuys, David (1999) Online focus groups save time, money

    http://sanjose.bcentral.com/sanjose/stories/1999/11/29/smallb4.html