The pros and cons of online focus groups

Qualitative research is central to marketing research projects. There are many techniques, tools and methodologies to consider when deciding how to gain insights, especially from consumers. One way that many companies and brands have gathered information is through focus groups. When done right, focus groups can offer in-depth insights from real people. Focus group participants can share their thoughts on a specific product or service and opinions on how to make it better. The following four tips should be taken into consideration when conducting a focus group:

  1. Explain the focus group process.
  2. Introduce participants before the focus group session.
  3. Create an effective questionnaire.
  4. Introduce the technologies.

What is a focus group?

Focus groups bring together individuals with varying backgrounds and experiences, allowing marketing researchers to gain in-depth insights. Focus groups are led by a moderator who, without inserting themselves, guides the conversation with questions that relate to the research topic.

Marketing research focus groups are often held before products or services are launched, allowing companies to make necessary adjustments to do better on the market. Before the focus group process begins, the moderator or research team must create a questionnaire to stay on track while hosting the session.

The Quirk’s article “Five tips for designing a focus group screening questionnaire,” emphasizes the importance of having clear questions and allowing honest feedback from participants. Creating an effective questionnaire will allow for a smooth process regardless of how broad or niche the research subject is.

What is the purpose of a focus group?

The main goal of hosting a focus group is to gain information from the participating individuals. Whether it be their opinions on a new label, thoughts on a new service or general input on how a product can be improved. The individuals who participate in focus groups are carefully selected to ensure that quality data and insights are obtained by the end of the research period.

Online focus groups: The pros and cons

Traditional focus groups bring a small group of individuals to a meeting location to discuss their thoughts, opinions, preferences and needs regarding a product or service. The traditional method has its advantages but many wonder what the pros and cons are when it comes to online focus groups. 

The cons of online focus groups

  • Low engagement levels: Without face-to-face interaction and connection, it may be difficult for individuals to build trust with the moderator, the research team and other participants. There can be a lack of accountability and low engagement if a formal meeting is not held before or during the focus group session.
  • A decrease in comfort level: It may be more difficult to build comfort among research participants during online focus groups. When participants are comfortable, they are more likely to bounce off ideas from each other and offer their honest feedback.
  • Limitations with technology: In a Quirk’s article titled “Online qual: Don’t settle, just adapt,” author Gina Derickson establishes that a challenge with online research is technical fluency or limitations with technology. Some participants may have unreliable internet and others may be learning the technology platforms the focus group requires as they go.

The pros of online focus groups

  • More affordable: Hosting in-person focus groups can make a dent in the research budget. In the article “The advantages of concept testing with surveys,” author Emily Rodgers supports this by stating, “Focus groups, while beneficial for concept testing, can be out of some brands’ budget.” Hosting an online focus group can greatly lower the cost allowing for more of the research budget to be allocated to other areas of the project.
  • Recruiting flexibility: In a Quirk’s article titled “In-moment alternatives to in-person research,” author Zach Mullen says that when hard-to-reach respondents are needed, online research may be the best option. It can be easier to work around schedules, time zones and varying locations when a meeting is held online.

  • No travel requirements: For some participants, travel is the make-or-break factor. Removing the travel aspect from a focus group saves participants time and money. Derickson reinforces this by saying, “The additional cost- and time-savings for not traveling sweetens the deal even more.”

Four tips for conducting online focus groups

1. Explain the focus group process.

Participants should be briefed on what the online focus group will look like before they are fully onboarded. Clearly explain what the rules are, what technologies will be used and what is expected of them. In the article “12 tips for moving qual online,” Sarah Holmes argues that online focus groups can be webcam- or chat-based depending on what the research objectives are. When preparing participants, establish whether video cameras are required or if they can communicate via chat features. During the session, the moderator should restate the process and rules and clear up any confusion among participants. 

2. Introduce participants before the focus group session.

Before beginning the focus group session, the moderator should properly introduce themselves and allow enough time for participants to get to know each other. In the article “Bringing out the best in focus group participants,” author Lisa Boughton encourages moderators to incorporate icebreaker questions to begin building comfort among the individuals in the group. Some platforms offer breakout rooms during meetings allowing participants to have one-on-one conversations before starting.

3. Create an effective questionnaire.

A clear questionnaire helps participants fully understand the questions as they are asked. Asking a single question at a time ensures that it will be fully answered by the participants. While it is important to get through the questionnaire, allow the individuals to offer their input before guiding the conversation back to the original question.

4. Introduce the technologies.

While many participants may have experience with the technologies required, others may be learning as they go. Before the online focus group session, tell them which technologies they will need and offer resources that show them the basics. Many focus groups are held via Zoom, Teams or other virtual meeting platforms, most of which have videos that explain the available features. 

Mullen encourages researchers to offer dedicated time for technology checks before the online focus group session. This helps participants understand the technologies and allows them to test the platform features. Although most participants may be tech savvy, you should not use multiple programs or intricate systems to avoid any technology issues along the way.

Online vs. in-person focus groups

Online focus groups have pros and cons but are often easier to coordinate than in-person focus groups. Taking these four tips into consideration when conducting an online focus group will help participants, moderators and the research team.