Editor’s note: Karla Buhsmer is research analyst at Opinion Dynamics Corporation, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm.

As companies redefine their business strategy to include the Internet, there is a growing demand for market research firms to evaluate user or industry response to the e-commerce or e-services offered on their Web sites. Often, the traditional in-person focus group is not the most appropriate research method for this type of project, given the geographic dispersion that is characteristic among Internet users and clients’ sometimes limited research budgets.

A new research method - the telephone focus group accompanied by the visual aid of an Internet Web site - is gaining popularity among clients who are in the initial stages of designing a Web site, and also among those who are adding new features to enhance an existing site. The tele-Internet focus group method is also appropriate for high-tech firms to test Web technologies with 1) industry representatives, 2) businesses that may incorporate such a technology on their site, or 3) consumers who are the intended users of the technology.

The concept

Logistically, the tele-Internet focus group requires two components: a conference call - usually arranged through a conference call service - and the visual aid of an Internet Web site. Each call is assigned an operator who calls participants at the beginning of the focus group, manages calls from participants who are late joining the group, and provides any necessary technical assistance during the call.

For the conference call, the call service establishes a main “bridge line” between the focus group moderator and participants. Another bridge is often created for the client to have listening-only capability into the focus group, as well as the ability to conduct two-way communication with a representative from the research firm.

Clients work with their Web developers to post new pages on their site for use during the tele-Internet focus group. These pages, which are password-accessible, can demonstrate new Web site technologies, features, and product offerings.

Projects best suited for tele-Internet focus groups

Serving a diverse customer base, the tele-Internet focus group is appropriate for companies from high-tech firms to educational institutions that have developed, or are in the process of developing, their Web sites. Tele-Internet focus groups are commonly used when conducting research for the e-commerce client whose aim is to gain consumer impressions of the virtual shopping experience on their Web site. The method is applicable for financial institutions looking to test-market their on-line banking or electronic stock trading features, and for insurance companies who are interested in testing their customer service sites for services such as 401(k) information and changes.

Universities will find the tele-Internet focus group to be a useful research tool to evaluate the user-friendliness of their electronic course registration feature, as well as other features which enable students to access their academic records or account information.

High-tech firms will find the tele-Internet focus group to be a valuable means of obtaining feedback from industry representatives regarding the feasibility of a prototype Web technology.

The applications of the tele-Internet focus group continue to multiply as the Internet becomes more mainstream among businesses and consumers.

Although the tele-Internet focus group has a wide range of applications, it does not replace the in-person focus group. As with any research method, there are limitations to its application. For example, because a telephone and Internet connection are pre-qualifiers to participation, this method does not lend itself to obtain a representative sample of the general population for those research projects that are not focused on the Internet.

In-person focus groups

Most focus groups are conducted in-person at a focus group facility. The very nature of the in-person focus group - which usually consists of about eight to 12 participants seated around a conference table - helps foster familiarity among participants. As the comfort level within the group increases, participants tend to speak more openly about the research topic. Ideally, this familiarity leads participants to introduce new ideas for discussion. In-person focus groups also enable the moderator to interpret participants’ body language and to elicit responses from quiet participants whose reactions are demonstrated by a simple nod of the head or a shoulder shrug.

Effectiveness of tele-Internet focus groups

The importance of creating a bond among participants and the moderator’s ability to interpret body language are key elements that the tele-Internet focus groups must seek to closely replicate. The use of the Web site is an important visual aid to create a bond among participants. As the moderator guides participants through the Web site and the impressions are shared about the site, participants become more familiar and comfortable with the tele-Internet focus group setting.

Our experience indicates that there are several effective steps the research firm can take to plan and conduct a meaningful tele-Internet focus group. To ensure that participants actively participate, the research firm should limit the focus group size to about six participants. Creating an environment that enables the participants to talk socially among themselves at the beginning of the group is an effective means to overcome the group’s inability to see one another. Participants will feel more comfortable to openly express their opinions once they are familiar with one another.

It is important that the moderator associate each participant’s name with his or her voice. Having participants identify themselves prior to speaking will assist the moderator in drawing conclusions more effectively - both during the group and afterwards, when reviewing the audiotape or transcript - about a participant’s impression of the subject.

A key element to a successful tele-Internet focus group is to keep participants involved throughout the discussion. The moderator should avoid lengthy introductions and demonstrations, as tele-Internet participants will quickly become disinterested and distracted. The moderator should also be prepared to eliminate the dead air that often occurs during the time period when participants are accessing a Web site or page.

At the end of the tele-Internet focus group, the moderator should invite participants to stay on the telephone to continue their discussion or to converse about other topics of interest. Lastly, the moderator needs to provide contact information, such as an e-mail address or telephone number, so that participants can contact the moderator after the group. Several participants have e-mailed me to say they enjoyed participating in the tele-Internet focus groups that I have moderated.

Advantages of a tele-Internet focus group

Based on client and participant reception, tele-Internet focus groups are often recommended in place of an in-person focus group. There are several arguments to support the use of a tele-Internet focus group over the traditional focus group approach. The strongest argument is cost. Tele-Internet focus groups usually cost about 90 percent less than in-person focus groups. A traditional focus group requires renting a room at a focus group facility, whereas the tele-Internet group requires a small investment to establish a conference call with a conference call facility. Also, traditional focus groups that involve the Internet require the rental of computer equipment and an Internet connection.

As most Web sites seek to conveniently sell products and provide services to a geographically disperse group of users, the tele-Internet focus group enables research firms to cost-effectively obtain a representative geographic sample - whether it be from across the U.S. or more focused on a smaller geographic group. To meet these research goals using the traditional in-person focus group, a research firm must conduct several in-person focus groups in different geographic locations at a high cost to the client.

Time is a valued rarity and the tele-Internet focus group requires less of a time commitment than the traditional focus group. Participants can take part in a tele-Internet focus group from their office or home and do not have to travel to a focus group facility. The elimination of travel time to a focus group facility provides greater scheduling flexibility. As a matter of fact, tele-Internet focus groups are often scheduled during participants’ lunch or later in the afternoon.

The convenience of the tele-Internet focus group, coupled with the novelty of the research approach, is likely to encourage participation. With the increasing use of the Internet by the general population, and the popularity of the Internet in the media, consumers are often curious about the research subject and demonstrate a willingness to participate in the group. Not surprising, participants from the high-tech industry are often easy to recruit due to their interest in keeping pace with the changing Internet technology.

Valuable method

The tele-Internet focus group is a valuable research method for the client who seeks user or industry information about their Web site or Web technology. As companies continue to redefine their business strategy to respond to consumers’ demand for e-commerce and e-service features on the Internet, research firms must continue to propose research methods that best meet the research goals of the Internet-focused client.