Online Focus Groups

Suppose a company in Germany wants to interview a customer group in London. What are they more likely to do to save time and cost? A. Fly all the way to London and interview the customer or B. Hold a virtual meeting. No brainer, right? The virtual meeting is an obvious choice. The Internet has completely transformed how companies interact and engage customers. This applies not only to customer service but also to market research and information collection. Let's explore one such application today: Online focus groups. 

Online Focus Groups Online Focus Groups

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Table of contents

    Online Focus Groups Definition

    Online focus groups are a primary research method for collecting qualitative data. They take place online using tools like webcams and audio recorders. Companies use online focus groups to learn about customer behavior, collect feedback, or get new ideas for product development.

    An online focus group is a focus group conducted via the Internet.

    The two main benefits of online focus groups are cheap costs and flexibility. Companies can conduct focus groups using online software anytime, anywhere with no or relatively cheap costs.

    Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Meet allows business to interview people in real-time with the ability to transcribe and record the discussion for later analysis.

    An online focus group consists of a moderator and attendees. The moderator is responsible for asking questions, engaging, and observing the participants. The attendees can interact among themselves or answer questions directly from the moderator.

    Types of Focus Groups

    There are two main types of online focus groups: real-time online focus groups and bulletin board focus groups.

    Online focus group type: Real-time

    Real-time online focus groups take place in real-time with the help of a video-conferencing tool. Such focus groups can last between half to one hour and contain up to 10 participants. A moderator will moderate the group and will ask questions to collect qualitative data.

    The real-time connection allows participants to interact and engage in a deep conversation. It is a highly effective approach for collecting quality data.

    An example of where a real-time online focus group might apply is a company asking for people's feedback on its recent product launch.

    Online focus group type: Bulletin-board

    Bulletin board online focus groups also occur online, but not in real-time. Usually, online users will fill out a survey, or questionnaire, provide video feedback, or post data in an online community.

    Bulletin board online focus groups can take place in intervals (weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly).

    This approach is most effective for idea creation. For example, a company opens a Discord channel for loyal customers and collects people's ideas, opinions, and recommendations from the platform to create a product that matches their needs.

    Online Focus Groups Examples

    An example of online focus groups is an international company collecting customers' opinions about a new marketing campaign. Rather than traveling to the other end of the world to meet a customer, it can hold a virtual meeting and meet participants across the globe. This method is more cost-efficient and convenient than the traditional focus group.

    Another example is an eCommerce store that hosts an online conference with its suppliers. The video conferencing tools allow all the participants to meet and collaborate in real-time. There is no need to travel or set up an appointment that fits everyone's busy schedule.

    Online Focus Groups Advantages and Disadvantages

    Online groups are a perfect way to collect data when researching people's buying intent and motivation. However, along with the advantages, there are also disadvantages to this approach.

    Online focus groups benefits

    Let's first talk about the benefits of online focus groups:

    Flexibility

    Online focus groups are highly flexible. They can be set up anytime, anywhere for all kinds of contexts. For example, a company based in London can interview a customer in Germany without traveling to a physical location. This removes the time and location constraints, allowing the researcher to focus on the content of the interview.

    Cost-effectiveness

    Online focus groups are also relatively cheap. In many cases, they are even free. For example, companies can take advantage of video conferencing tools like Google Meet or Zoom to conduct free video calls within the time limit (around 40 - 60 minutes). Also, online focus groups remove locations from the equation. Companies can save money by not having to book a meeting venue.

    Ability to transcribe the discussion

    Many video conferencing tools come with recording and transcribing features. This relieves the researcher from the task of note-taking and allows them to focus solely on the discussion. Once the discussion is done, they can use the transcription to extract key information and use it for data analysis.

    Online Focus Groups Best Practices

    To make the most out of an online focus group, the moderator should:

    1. Prepare questions in advance — These questions should be open-ended to drive more comprehensive answers from the customers. Sometimes, questions can be replaced by a topic for discussion.

    2. Split a large group — People tend to drift off to other things when they are not given attention. To keep people engaged, the moderator can split a large online group into smaller ones. Group members can discuss first, then share their idea summary with the entire group.

    3. Use a reliable platform — Nothing affects the flow of the meeting more than a service breakdown. Thus, another focus group best practice is to choose a reliable service that can hold the expected number of employees.

    Online Focus Groups' disadvantages

    Here are the main disadvantages of online focus groups:

    Difficulty in management

    Managing an online group is hard, especially when the group size is large and consists of people from different time zones. Suppose you live in the GMT time zone, and some attendees are from the GMT+5 time zone. If the meeting lasts from 3 pm to 7 pm, some attendees may not be able to make it to the end since it's already midnight where they live. The attendees may also skip the online meeting altogether due to personal commitments.

    Service breakdown

    This is one of the most significant challenges when interviewing online groups. Technology is not always reliable. Sometimes a loss of connection or service breakdown can put the meeting to a halt. This can trigger annoyance among some attendees, who may not want to show up another time.

    Distractions

    The final limitation of virtual focus group meetings is distractions. The attendee can participate in a discussion in one tab and check emails in another. When the camera is not on, it's not easy to know what the attendees are doing, and the moderator may lose them halfway through the meeting without knowing. Online appointments can be largely ineffective without a good moderator.

    Online Focus Groups vs Traditional Focus Groups

    How do online focus groups differ from traditional focus groups? Let's find out in the short comparison table below:

    Online focus groups

    Traditional focus group

    Location

    Anywhere around the world

    An exact location

    Pros

    • Interview anyone anywhere

    • Low-cost

    • Ability to record and transcribe interviews

    • A lot of technology is available

    • Watch interviewees' body language

    • Some interviewees are more comfortable talking in person

    Cons

    • Disrupted connection

    • Distraction

    • Difficult to manage a large group

    • Traveling

    • Time zone restriction

    Table 1. Online vs Traditional focus group, StudySmarter Originals

    Both online and traditional focus groups involve interacting with a group of participants. The only difference is that online focus groups occur online while traditional focus groups take place physically. Online focus groups are cheaper, faster, and more convenient than traditional focus groups. It allows people worldwide to meet and interact in real time.

    However, online focus groups may limit body language reading and a deeper connection between the moderator and the participants. Also, it may not be suitable for the older age group who are unfamiliar with online communications tools. There is also the risk of service breakdown, which disrupts the discussion. Moreover, participants are prone to distractions when the focus group is large.

    Overall, online focus groups should be used when the customers are tech-savvy and live in different parts of the world. When body language is required, or there are many older participants, companies should stick to the traditional focus group method.

    Online Focus Groups - Key takeaways

    • An online focus group is a qualitative research method where researchers interview a group of customers via the Internet.
    • The main advantage of the online focus group is low cost and flexibility. The researcher can schedule meetings with anyone worldwide at any time of the day.
    • The limitations of this approach come from service breakdown, attendees' distraction, and difficulty in managing a large group.
    • Researchers should prepare a question list and use reliable software to conduct a successful online focus group meeting.
    • When researching non-tech-savvy groups, the traditional focus group method may be more suited than virtual interviews.

    References

    1. Maggie Tillman, What is Zoom and how does it work? Plus tips and tricks, https://www.pocket-lint.com/apps/news/151426-what-is-zoom-and-how-does-it-work-plus-tips-and-tricks, 2022.
    2. Google Workspace, Video conferencing with Google Meet, https://workspace.google.com/intl/en/resources/video-conferencing/, 2022.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Online Focus Groups

    How do traditional focus groups differ from online focus groups?

    An online focus group is a focus group that takes place online, while traditional focus groups require the moderator to meet face-to-face with a group of participants. Online focus groups are cheaper and more convenient to execute than traditional focus groups. 

    What's a major disadvantage of an online focus group?

    The major disadvantage of an online focus group comes from the risk of service breakdown and difficulty managing a large group online. 

    Are online focus groups legit?

    Online focus groups are a legit qualitative method to collect data from customers. 

    What are some of the advantages of conducting online focus groups?

    Conducting online focus groups comes with many advantages, such as: 

    • Flexibility in terms of time and location,
    • Low costs, 
    • Ability to transcribe data for analysis. 

    What are the two types of online focus groups?

    The two types of online focus groups are: 


    1. Real-time online focus groups - take place in real-time using a webcam and audio recording tools. 
    2. Bulletin-board online focus groups - occur during a spaced period (weekly, monthly, yearly) where the participants are asked to fill out a questionnaire, survey, or provide video feedback. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    An online focus group is a ________ data collection method. 

    Virtual meetings allow people to meet up anytime, anywhere. This is an example of what online focus groups benefit?

    Online focus groups provide a quick and convenient way for marketers to learn more about their customers. 

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