Expanding the Qualitative Research Arena: Online Focus Groups

by Casey Sweet -
October, 1999

Qualitative research has become one of the many beneficiaries of the electronic revolution and evolution, specifically in the development of online focus groups. The rapidly increasing number of consumers and business professionals online has made it possible and important for this newer research methodology to progress. Although a few forward thinking companies have been offering virtual facilities and online groups in one form or another since 1994, the extraordinary Internet growth and presence over the past year has generated increased trial and enthusiasm. New research needs are arising out of companies' e-commerce and Web site activities and they are looking for effective and revealing ways to secure qualitative knowledge about their online audiences.

Online groups are not necessarily a welcomed development by qualitative researchers and facilities who are familiar with and expert at successfully moderating and recruiting in-person groups. There can be a fear of the unknown as well as a belief that online groups are not capable of providing actionable insights. Some of the most pointed questions raised about online focus groups include:
* What are online focus groups being used to research?
* Are they going to replace traditional focus groups?
* How is recruitment similar to or different from in-person groups?
* Are respondents who they say they are?
* How are screeners and discussion guides different?
* Do respondents in online groups really interact with each other?
* What is the state of the art?
* What are the potential future opportunities for moderators?
* Who is driving the business and what’s next?
* What are online focus groups being used to research?

Online focus groups are ideal for locating and researching markets that are hard to recruit, low incidence, online based, and geographically dispersed. For instance, high level executives may be willing to participate in an online group, but never consider expending the amount of time required to attend an in-person group. Or, respondents who have certain low incidence characteristics or unusual purchase behavior may be impossible to recruit within a geographic region, but across the U.S. or in a wider regional area they can be found. Lastly, audiences whose relationships and interactions with companies have been strictly online are good candidates for online focus group research.

Some of the topics that are particularly appropriate are: e-commerce inquiries regarding purchase behavior and interest; Web site evaluation, development and offers; sensitive topics allowing for anonymity; and high-tech products and services. In some cases, online groups are used as pre- or post-phases in conjunction with online quantitative research.

A few companies are excited about the possibilities of dovetailing the in-person and online group methodologies and are experimenting with them in combination to gain experience, collect wider geographic input, and develop comparison measures. To date, it is preliminarily suggested that online and in-person results are more similar than dissimilar.

Are they going to replace traditional focus groups?

Not in many situations, because online groups are not appropriate in many traditional research scenarios. Many in-person projects may not be appropriate for online groups because the visual and vocal cues of respondents are critical to the evaluation of the package, product, promotions, or other communications. Additionally, real-time online groups may not always provide the depth of response necessary.

However, in some cases they may be used in conjunction with in-person groups or replace some of the in-person groups. This might be done to obtain a wider geographic representation and uncover similarities/differences of the online point of view.

The demand for online groups is expanding the research arena and adding a tool to the qualitative toolbox, not shrinking the demand for traditional groups. An 8" pie is now growing into a 10" pie and will continue to grow as new applications are created.

How is recruitment similar to or different from in-person groups?

Recruitment for online groups requires and embraces the same high standards as recruitment for in-person groups. Screeners are designed in much the same way with questions on purchase behavior, demographics, security and past participation, and other project specific qualification criteria. Depending on the study, there may be additional requirements regarding online experience, keyboard speed, chat room experience, and basic Internet knowledge.

The actual recruitment can proceed a number of ways. Often, a database is used to preselect a target audience and these individuals are sent an e-mail inviting them to complete a screener. Databases may be supplied by the client, created and accumulated over time by a virtual facility, or rented from an online company. Full service research companies often utilize their panel databases. In certain circumstances, random intercept can be set up on related Web sites or invitations posted on bulletin boards.

Typically, 10 to 12 respondents are recruited for six to eight to participate in a one and one-half hour group. Groups can be conducted with fewer respondents for 60 minutes or extended to two hours if necessary. Fewer respondents, six to eight, is usually more desirable to increase manageability of the group and minimize excessive wait time in question response. Incentives are only slightly less.

Are respondents who they say they are?

If a database is used to recruit, the answers respondents submit can be compared to the database information to confirm their identity. In cases where little is known about the potential, it requires a well written, thorough screener, similar to in-person groups. Just prior to the group, respondents can be rescreened online to verify their identity. Or, rescreening can take place in advance over the phone as an additional check. So far it appears that respondents are who they say they are and the threat of cheaters and repeaters is minimal.

How are screeners and discussion guides different?

From the moderator and client perspective, the project develops in much the same way with the screener and discussion guide developed from the objectives. One difference is the way that screener and guide questions are written. The screener questions are structured so that they mask the qualification/disqualification answers and the discussion guide questions are written in fuller form so that a complete thought is conveyed to respondents. The actual discussion progresses similar to an in-person group by following the guide when appropriate and adding spontaneous probes when elaboration or additional depth is desired.

Do respondents in online groups really interact with each other?

Yes, but it is not exactly the same as in-person groups, mainly because it is perceived, not seen. Many of the individuals who participate in online groups have been online for at least a year and have participated in chat rooms so they are comfortable and adept at creating online relationships quickly. The guided discussion draws participants out and personalities begin to emerge, thereby, creating a dynamic that develops during the group and varies just like in-person groups. Some suggest that the absence of sight and sound strengthens the use of perceptual senses by not relying on subjective visual and vocal judgments and interpretations.

It would be fair to say that, in comparison to in-person groups, the interaction online can be more limited. The amount of interaction between online respondents can vary and may be influenced by the topic and moderator. At the same time, unrelated small talk and long stories are far less likely.

One difference online is that it is difficult for someone to dominate a group. An overbearing respondent does not have the same power or influence, although a fast typist or someone with a high-speed connection or superior modem may be able to input answers more quickly than others may. This may not make a big difference since all of the respondents are composing their responses simultaneously and not waiting for others to respond. Overall, the online environment creates an even playing field and can mitigate other influencing factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, accents, physical appearance or condition, and shyness, not to mention the weather.

What is the state of the art?

The virtual facility technology is in a state of constant evolution. Those sponsoring and conducting groups are providing input to the virtual facilities to assist them in adding bells and whistles that make the technology more moderator, client and respondent friendly.

A few of the capabilities include customizing links that respondents click on and open revealing concept statements, ad copy including graphics, or sample banner ads. Additionally, there is the ability to have respondents simultaneously explore work-in-progress Web sites or take real time tours to active Web sites.

There is usually a technical host to assist with respondents and any technical issues.

Respondents are provided passwords to access the site and the software tracks them, making it difficult for an unwanted participant to join in. And, in the event of an occasional disruptive respondent, they can be immediately removed.

Respondents are asked to test the site prior to the group, to ascertain any issues that might arise relative to their operating systems, firewalls, browsers, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). With technology, there is always a chance of technical incompatibility.

Clients observe the group either from a virtual backroom or are signed into the main room. Moderators can be contacted either through private messaging or by entering a question in the chat stream of the backroom. Either way, respondents never know the communication occurred and there is no disruption to the discussion flow.

What are the potential future opportunities for facilities?

Facilities have the knowledge and experience when it comes to recruiting groups and are very familiar with the demands of qualitative researchers and the factors that influence their requests. Also, facilities have gained the confidence of clients and moderators over time and proven their ability to deliver quality research. Facilities know the process from beginning to end and, if interested in expanding into this new area, could explore ways to transfer this expertise to the recruitment of online groups.

Facilities could investigate software options available and determine if they wanted to develop the capability. Or, perhaps, it might mean partnering with other facilities to pool resources to develop the online capability or creating alliances with research companies to share databases. Offering online groups could attract new business as well as provide clients with a full service qualitative option.

Can any moderator conduct online groups?

Theoretically, yes, because online groups require the same qualitative research skills and expertise to conduct and analyze the groups. However, a moderator must develop a comfort with the technological aspects through experience and be reasonably fast on the keyboard (or willing to hire a typist). Otherwise, the groups could fail as a direct result of inexperience or low keyboard competence and leave clients with an inaccurate perception of the capabilities of the methodology.

The online environment from the moderator's perspective is fast paced and can be very hectic (or exciting depending on your point of view). Clients may be sending requests and messages (it is always a good idea to designate only one client as the message sender) while, at the same time, the guide questions are being input and the moderator is reading respondent answers and submitting additional probes. Sometimes, technical challenges may be occurring at the same time if respondents are having difficulty downloading a link that will show them a particular screen. Flexibility and patience (with everyone involved) are definitely virtues with online groups.

What are the potential future opportunities for moderators?

Many, since clients want the same high level of research ability and analysis presently offered by moderators. Companies interested in exploring the use of online groups will select experienced online moderators and this may not include their usual moderators. For projects combining the in-person and online methodologies, clients will have to decide whether they want to hire two moderators for one project and have two working relationships, one for the online groups and one for the in-person groups, or hire one moderator experienced in both. Clearly, selecting one moderator is likely to be judged as more efficient, lend more consistency to the project, and avoid duplication.

From a professional perspective, some online groups are now being conducted by "techies" who are very comfortable with chat technology, yet have little or no background in qualitative research. These individuals can exhibit technical savvy, but misrepresent qualitative research and leave less knowledgeable research buyers with unfulfilled expectations regarding the ability of qualitative research to collect actionable information.

The time is ripe for professional qualitative researchers--facilities and moderators--to enter the field and participate in its development and integration with other research. There is plenty of room for thought leaders in this arena.

Who is driving the business and what’s next?

Ultimately, the needs and enthusiasm of clients will dictate the speed and growth of online qualitative research. If they find appropriate uses, they will seek out the most experienced providers in the marketplace and conduct groups. It is hard to imagine many Fortune 500 companies that will not get involved in the next three to five years considering the amount of money and resources they are investing in their Web sites and online presence.