Understanding online focus groups
Online focus groups are a qualitative research tool to gather information from individuals via the Internet. Qualitative research allows for in-depth exploration into people’s feelings and beliefs. However unlike traditional focus groups, online groups offer the advantage of bringing participants together regardless of their geographic location. They are desirable when dealing with participants who are very busy and difficult to recruit (e.g., physicians, attorneys, high-ranking executives and decision-makers) and can be conducted directly from a participant’s office or home computer.
The online process
Online focus groups use a secure website to conduct a focused discussion. Typically eight people are invited to participate in the discussion that is led by a moderator. Somewhat like a chat-room setting, questions are presented to the group and participants are encouraged to respond to the moderator as well as each other. Online focus group facilities are set up to enable viewing of visual stimuli (e.g., storyboards, websites, and commercials).
Typically online focus groups last 90 minutes in length. Clients can view the entire discussion from any location. Once logged in they can communicate with each other and send private notes to the moderator. One advantage of an online focus group is that a transcript of the discussion is created automatically and can be downloaded immediately upon completion of the discussion. The moderator can then hold an online debriefing session with the clients to review significant findings from the group discussion.
When is an online focus group right for me?
Online focus groups should be considered where the concept, service or product being evaluated is related to the Internet or related high-tech industries (e.g., website design, concept testing of new technologies, evaluation of wireless telephone services) and where the target market is experienced using the Internet. An online environment provides some anonymity for participants that can encourage even shy participants to be open and share their honest opinions even on sensitive topics or products. Lastly, online focus groups should be considered only when the client and research staff are confident that the research being conducted will not be seriously compromised because participants’ reactions and non-verbal cues cannot be seen.