Article Number: 0548
©Copyright 1999 Quirk's Marketing Research Review ( All rights reserved.

December, 1999

 Anatomy of an on-line focus group

By: Casey Sweet

Editor's note: Casey Sweet is principal of Quesst Qualitative Research, Brooklyn, N.Y. She is also a board member of the QRCA. She can be reached at 718-783-3237 or at [email protected].

On-line focus groups, also referred to as cyber groups, e-groups, or virtual groups, are gaining popularity as the research marketplace discovers the advantages they offer. In addition to saving time and money spent traveling, they can easily bring together respondents and observers in far-flung locations.

The on-line venue has been used for qualitative research since approximately 1994, when a few research companies began experimenting with discussion groups by borrowing chat room technology. This has evolved into a dimension of qualitative research, aided by customized software, that creates virtual facilities with waiting rooms, client backrooms, and focus group rooms.

Screeners, recruitment, and virtual facilities
Many elements of the on-line qualitative process are familiar to qualitative researchers conducting in-person groups. Every on-line group is initiated by contracting with a virtual facility that usually offers recruitment services as well as virtual rooms. Virtual facilities typically recruit respondents electronically from established panels, compiled on-line lists, targeted Web sites, or client-provided lists. Sometimes, telephone recruiting is used to make the initial recruitment contact or to obtain e-mail addresses. (Independent recruiters specializing in on-line group recruitment are just beginning to appear and this will, undoubtedly, be another area of growth potential.)

Recruiting on-line groups requires specially crafted screeners that are similar in content and depth to those used for in-person groups. Since the screeners are administered electronically, some questions are worded differently to disguise qualifying and disqualifying answers. A professional on-line facility, in combination with a well-written screener, will thank and release all disqualified respondents without them knowing why. This, as well as putting a block on their electronic address, discourages them from re-trying to qualify by logging back in or from sharing information about the specific screener questions with friends. Depending upon the target markets, it is not unusual with high-incidence groups to have an excess of qualified respondents to choose from and the virtual facility and/or the qualitative researcher will select the best. (A project recently conducted by my company received over 1,000 qualified responses for the required 24 respondent spots.)

The time set for an on-line group should accommodate the array of respondents participating. If there are East and West Coast participants, groups can be conducted later in the evening (based on EST) or participants in similar time zones can be grouped together.

Invitations and preparation
Respondents who are invited to the group receive invitations with passwords and passnames, instructions, dates, and times. The invitation requests that they sign on to the site in advance of the group, using the computer they will use during the group, to guarantee that all technology is compatible. If there are any complications or questions, the respondents can contact tech support in advance to resolve them. They can also contact tech support during the group for on-line support, as can the moderator and client observers.

Discussion guide development and design
The content and structure of the inquiry, as outlined in the discussion guide, resembles in-person groups. The major difference is in the actual presentation of questions that are mostly written in full sentence form, in advance. The main topic questions must be written clearly and completely otherwise respondents will have to ask for clarification, which uses up valuable time and diverts the attention of the group.

On-line groups are often shorter (typically 60 to 90 minutes) than in-person groups and the ideal number (30 to 45) of prepared questions depends on the complexity of the subject and the amount of follow-up probes required. Whenever desired, follow-up questions and probing can be interjected to either an individual respondent or the entire group. This enriches the inquiry and uncovers deeper insights. Unfortunately, sometimes research sponsors can insist on an excessive amount of prepared questions that minimize the amount of probing time. The result is a missed opportunity to uncover deeper insights.

Preparation for groups
Fifteen to 30 minutes prior to the group, the moderator and technical assistant sign on to watch as respondents enter the virtual waiting room using their passnames and passcodes. Similar to in-person groups, some respondents arrive very early and others arrive at the last minute. As they arrive, some virtual facilities can administer a rescreener to re-profile them and to assure that the attendee is the person who originally qualified. In addition to a few demographic and product usage questions, the rescreener can include a verification question that refers to a piece of unique, personal info, such as the name of their first teacher or pet, that was subtly asked in the original screener.

Show rates
Show rates can vary dramatically based on a number of factors, including: the origination of the respondent (on-line database, established panel, Web site intercept, etc.), confirmation procedures, respondent comfort and familiarity with the on-line venue in general, and the typical kinds of other personal/business commitments that can inhibit attendance. For eight respondents to show, 10 or 15 may have to be recruited. However, it should be noted that the weather, traffic, and transportation can have less of a negative impact on show rates since the respondents are typically participating from a variety of locations and not encountering the same delays.

Selecting final respondents
Based on the rescreener information and final screener spreadsheet, the moderator and client select the respondents together, similar again to in-person groups.

For a moderator, the excitement and pace of moderating an on-line group can be likened more to a roller coaster ride than an in-person group. Ideally, the discussion guide is downloaded directly onto the site so the moderator can, with one click, enter a question into the dialogue stream. However, another method more frequently available and workable (although requiring more concentration and actions by the moderator) is having the discussion guide document loaded in a separate window behind the virtual room to use for cutting and pasting each question.

To begin a group, the moderator introduces the purpose of the group and lays the ground rules. This includes a personal introduction, purpose, timeline, instructions for entering responses, encouragement to be candid and honest, and instructions for signing back on if they accidentally drop off. Respondents are also encouraged to "feel free to agree, disagree, or ask questions of each other that relate to the subjects being discussed" and told that this interaction will help bring the discussion to life.

On-line groups demand that a moderator possess strong and fast keyboard skills or be willing to hire an assistant who does. There are no unused moments during a group to accommodate slow typists on the moderator side. Respondents can type slower, but most are keyboard proficient and save time by cutting corners on spelling and not worrying about sentence construction. It helps to tell them right in the beginning that "typo's and sentances dont mater."

While a group is underway, there may be technical problems with respondents and clients that require telephone calls back and forth to resolve. Simultaneously, the moderator is reading and interpreting the response stream, responding to client notes, composing probes and entering questions while (potentially) dealing with all kinds of technical issues.

Also, moderating on-line groups requires someone who relates to the on-line venue and recognizes that respondents are adept at developing relationships in this medium. Many respondents participate in chat rooms and feel comfortable relating on-line. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the moderator to help make the respondents who are not as comfortable or experienced feel valuable.

The strategy of on-line moderating resembles in-person moderating. That is, the moderator follows the discussion guide to the extent that it continues obtaining the desired information. If a subject that was supposed to be covered later in the group is brought up earlier by the respondents, those questions can be inserted as the moderator sees fit. In addition, if topics not covered in the guide are introduced, the moderator can choose to interject a new line of questioning.

View for the client observers
If all is going well, most of the moderating elements mentioned above will be transparent to the research sponsor and observers. In fact, it may even seem slow for them as they passively sit in front of their computer watching the interaction. It is important to point out that the optimal way for the client to interact with the moderator is through one designated client liaison. Similar to in-person groups where notes are passed to the moderator, the designated liaison decides what is important to pursue and approves questions given to the moderator. These "notes" may be submitted to the moderator in private message form or entered in the backroom response stream for the moderator to see. The method of communication between the client and moderator depends mostly on the virtual facility being used and their software capabilities.

Technical support
All virtual facilities offer some level of technical assistance. This may be a technician whose role is to help everyone sign-on and to help anyone who gets kicked off and has trouble re-entering. Other technicians perform additional functions including hosting the waiting room and interacting with respondents while they wait.

Another option is for the moderator to hire their own project assistant who greets the respondents and chats with them in the waiting room -- warming them up -- while the moderator takes care of any last-minute details with the clients and facility. This assistant then supports the moderator throughout the group in whatever capacity needed, which could include co-moderating if, by remote chance, the moderator loses her/his connection. This person also has an overview of the project objectives, screening, discussion guide, and the moderator's style, areas that a virtual facility's technical support person would not be privy to.

Soon after the completion of the groups, transcripts are available for analysis and reporting. These transcripts, available within a few hours or the next day, may document all interactions from sign-on to sign-off, or they may be slightly edited (by the facility or moderator) to begin at the first question and end with the last question, eliminating the hellos and good-byes. Inappropriate respondent comments can be easily removed.

Analysis and reporting are similar to in-person groups, with the exception that transcripts are quickly available for every group. The analysis will be very inclusive and reflect the input of most respondents since most of them answer every question. In the absence of visual and verbal cues, analysis of some areas, such as appeal, will be based on an interpretation of respondent statements and the ratings they use to indicate levels of appeal.

Reports are virtually (no pun intended) the same as other qualitative reports covering areas such as objectives, methodology, conclusions, and detailed findings. They can be in topline, executive summary, or full report form. Typically, reports can be turned around more quickly due to the immediate availability of the transcripts.

A qualitative caveat
Results from on-line groups depend on the expertise and qualifications of the professional who is conducting them. The most knowledgeable and qualified professionals to conduct on-line groups are qualitative researchers who have research and marketing expertise and experience managing group interactions. "Techies" sometimes attempt to do groups because they are comfortable with the technology and mechanics and some even have experience with chat groups. However, they often lack research, analysis, moderating, and marketing expertise and the results can suffer from these deficiencies.

Where we are today
Putting all the parts back together, this is where we are today. Enhancements to virtual facilities are ongoing, in an effort to increase the usability and ease for all (moderators, respondents, clients). Researchers are learning how to use this exciting new tool to get at hard-to-reach markets, geographically dispersed customers, and on-line audiences in this fast-paced and shifting marketplace. Expansion of the on-line focus group market will reflect the expansion of the Internet, e-commerce, and technology as the computer information age rolls onward.