Advantages of Online/Virtual vs. Traditional Focus Groups

When the first traditional in-person focus groups came on the scene in the 1940s, they were conducted to gain a deeper qualitative understanding beyond what one could get in a survey or questionnaire. Since then, not much has changed about the ove...

When the first traditional in-person focus groups came on the scene in the 1940s, they were conducted to gain a deeper qualitative understanding beyond what one could get in a survey or questionnaire. Since then, not much has changed about the overall structure of focus groups. Typically, these in-person groups include about 8-10 respondents and a moderator guides the discussion. Groups are usually focused on one single topic (hence the “focus”) and both conversations with the moderator and among the group are encouraged.

It’s interesting that focus groups have remained widely used and relatively unchanged for so many years. While focus groups bring tremendous value – gathering deep, qualitative insights through organic conversation and observation – they have always been plagued by inherent issues, biases, and limitations when compared to other, more quantitative data gathering techniques. What makes this even more perplexing is that the advent of technology, most importantly the connective power of the Internet, did little to change this early on. Sure, focus groups were brought online to bring a bit more efficiency to the process, but early online focus groups resembled traditional focus groups in many other ways – small base sizes, more of a “chat” format that didn’t take full advantage of the anonymity gained by the Internet, smaller question sets, etc.

However, the online/virtual focus groups of today (like those we conduct at Invoke) make much fuller use of the technology available. While these groups still rely heavily on open-ended, qualitative lines of questioning to gather deep, emotive responses from participants, these online/virtual focus groups bring a number of advantages over traditional groups, including:

  • Efficiency – Properly running a focus groups requires running multiple sessions across multiple geographies. This creates a good deal of expense (not only research costs, but travel costs as well) and adds time to a project.
  • Large base sizes – Typically, in focus groups, we are listening to a relatively small group of people voice their responses (between 8-10 per group.) Basing decisions and actions on such a small group of people is a risky endeavor. Online/virtual focus groups can handle 100s, even 1000s of respondents, so researchers and stakeholders can feel confident in their analysis of the data.
  • Segment analysis – With larger base sizes comes the opportunity to look at critical sub-groups, segments, and targets within data sets, both in real-time and during back-end analysis.
  • A better chance of consensus – Also, due to the small sample size of traditional of in-person focus groups, researchers and stakeholders are often left focusing on 1 or 2 respondents rather than a majority. This creates a lack of consensus around the data as stakeholders may each be focusing on different respondents in the room. This can create tension and disagreement among researchers and stakeholders. This drawback is eliminated with an online focus group.
  • The elimination of biases inherent to traditional focus groups – because of their conversational nature and group setting, focus groups are conducive to a number of observed biases. Groupthink is a good example of this – when members of a group strive for consensus and set aside their own beliefs or attitudes to achieve this. Dominant voice is another example – when one member of a group dominates the conversation and cripples the open, honest conversation focus groups are supposed to deliver.
  • Anonymity – Along those same lines, conducting online/virtual focus groups affords anonymity on the part of respondents. At its basest, this anonymity can help to make respondents feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. And in ones focused on more “sensitive” research topics, such as on medical issues and conditions, this may actually be a requirement.
  • Combination of qual and quant techniques – In an online/virtual focus group, researchers and stakeholders can (and should) ask a large amount of open-end, qualitative lines of questioning. However, this exploration can be combined with more quantitative-type questions (such as scalars, rankers, choice, and matrix questions) seamlessly.
  • Random rotation of concepts/stimuli – If, in a traditional focus group, the objectives require exposure to concepts or stimuli (new product concepts, advertisements, movie trailers, packaging options, etc.) the moderator is forced to lead the group through these concepts/stim linearly, with everyone seeing them in the same order. This can create what is called “order bias,” where respondents may react differently to concepts based on the order in which they are presented. In online/virtual focus groups, respondents can be exposed to concepts/stimuli randomly so that each one gets an equal amount of looks in each position.
  • Full participation – In traditional in-person focus groups, it’s often difficult to gather feedback from every participant on every question, given the conversational nature of focus groups and array of human personality types that may be participating. In online/virtual groups, questions can be set as required to make sure all respondents provide answers to critical questions.
  • Improved analysis – Not only does the qual/quant combination make the question-asking process more efficient, but this combination makes for easier analysis on the back end, as opposed to connecting disparate sets of data across research endeavors. Additionally, both open and closed-end data can be run through online analysis tools to make sense of structured and unstructured data.

Online/virtual focus groups are a game-changing step in the evolution of qualitative research, harnessing the technology and tools available to build on the strengths of traditional focus groups and add additional benefits and functionality to create a more effective, efficient, and more trustworthy research experience.

Through the use of its proprietary research platform and Big Qual methodology, Invoke brings together the best features of qualitative and quantitative research. Invoke sessions combine capabilities like those described above with proven technology and industry expertise to create a unique, dynamic, and effective research experience.

See a demo of Invoke to learn more!

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