The Double-Edged Sword of Online Focus Groups

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  • Online Focus Group

New market research technologies are popping up all the time, a recent one being the online focus group. Several companies host this type of platform, which is essentially a threaded, moderated discussion online. Vivisum has had some experience with this technology, so we'd like to share with you some reasons why one should or should not use an online focus group platform.

Pros:

Convenience: This really rises to the top of reasons to go with an online focus group. Rather than gathering everyone in the same room together, respondents can access from the convenience of their own computers from almost anywhere in the world. They also have the opportunity to spread out their participation over several hours or days.
Candor: People are more likely to say what is on their minds, positive or negative, from the comfort and anonymity of their own space. It can become like writing in a diary, and the insights from an engaged participant can be quite meaningful.
Breadth: Simply put, online focus groups give you an opportunity to broaden the scope of the project and the number of participants.

Cons:

Shallow: More often than not, respondents rush through the questions and prompts as quickly as possible in order to get the incentive. Participants are more likely to, well, participate when they are face-to-face with the researcher, and may feel at least a little guilty about giving curt, one word answers.
Impersonal: You can try and force it as much as you want, but the fact is that if you want a lively discussion and interaction between participants, you usually won't get it in an online forum.
Respondent attrition: The no-show rate for online focus groups is significantly higher than in-person. Whether this ties back to the guilt factor, we couldn't say.

So what's the verdict? Online focus groups offer unprecedented convenience, but often at the cost of depth of insight. It may be best to use the data from the forum as a basis for later, more in-depth phases of research. Remember not to get too caught up in new market research technologies before carefully thinking over how the apply to your project. Sometimes the best way is simply the old fashioned way.

Ellen Hart is an Associate Consultant at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields.

Ellen Hart

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