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Written by The Mezzanine Group
on September 28, 2009

There’s lots of industry buzz about online focus groups. They appear to provide a way to get the same wonderful insights that traditional focus groups provide – at a fraction of the cost.

But there are some serious draw backs. Among them -

  • the technology is still nascent and working out the kinks
  • it’s incredibly difficult to moderate online focus groups because so much is happening at once
  • and finally, with so much of human communication happening through body language, it’s incredibly difficult to get into deep and meaningful discussions in an online format.

That’s not to say there aren’t some good benefits. But here are some considerations for using online vs traditional focus groups.

  • Do you expect that the best insights will come from getting participants to discuss issues and ‘play off’ one another? If so (and they usually do), a traditional setting of people together in a room will deliver much better conversations – and therefore insights.
  • Is security or confidentiality an issue? The risks in an online focus group are obvious – you have much less control of who’s listening on the other side, and where the content of the session ends up. This is not true for an in-person session, where you know exactly who is in the room and why they’re there.
  • Is the issue you’re researching contentious? If so, having real live people in front of you discussing their views will be more effective and convincing. Somehow, hearing the same comments via an online session has less impact. And when it’s a tough issue that you’re researching, you usually need very compelling evidence to support the decision.
  • Are you using a number of stimuli? When you have lots of pictures, concept statements or other visuals, it’s much easier to do in an in-person situation. Sure these things can be sent online, but you start running into technology issues, which can bog down the entire session. And you also have the security issues mentioned above.

So, while online focus groups are a great concept, we haven’t found the reality to be as effective. If online is your absolute priority, consider moderated discussions (open for a longer period of time and allow back and forth between individuals and a moderator) as an alternative. But for deep and meaningful insights to your market, traditional moderated focus groups are still the best way to go.

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