Should Your Next Focus Group Be Online?

Improved technology and software applications have made online qualitative research an option that can save time, increase flexibility and cut costs. Should your next focus group be conducted online? Here are frequently asked questions about online focus groups and bulletin board focus groups.

–Robin Wedewer

What are the advantages of online qualitative research methods?

Online qualitative research allows the researcher to do studies that would be impossible or impractical to do using traditional methods. Since the methods do not try to replicate or, necessarily, imitate a face-to-face group, it also takes the research into new directions that leverage the power and unique nature of the Internet.

In qualitative online research each participant has an equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion. The anonymity of the communications process encourages more open and candid responses than traditional face-to-face qualitative research with less influence from group leaders or others who can dominate a conversation using traditional methods. Special samples or other participants from widely dispersed geographic areas can easily come together for a discussion without incurring time-consuming travel and costs. The dynamics, bias and level of information sharing among participants can also be controlled using the forced setting in the software program when setting up the project. The moderator can also post private or general postings or promptings to any participant.

How does online qualitative research work?

Participants in online qualitative research are screened and recruited in advance to participate in a study. As the names suggest, both bulletin board focus groups and online focus groups require participants to have Internet access, although access can be from home, work, a laptop location or even a public access location, such as a public library. At the scheduled time or during the scheduled time period, participants log into the software at a website with a user name and password. Participants are usually given a “handle” or name other than their true identity. They respond to questions that are posted by a moderator, who can also probe respondents for clarification, prompt for participation and control the flow of discussion. As in traditional research, participants are usually compensated for their participation.

What is the difference between an online focus group and a bulletin board focus group?

The online focus group is similar in some ways to the traditional face-to-face focus group. It typically involves 6 to 8 participants participating at the same time in a moderator-led discussion over a specified one- to two-hour timeframe. A bulletin board focus group typically lasts 3 to 7 days with daily participation, but can last for many months and involve daily, semi-weekly or weekly participation, depending on the demands of the study. Because the bulletin board focus group is an asynchronous, threaded discussion, participants can log on at their convenience to respond to new questions and comments as they are posted. Up to 30 people can participate in a moderator-led bulletin board focus group.

When should I use an online focus group?

The online focus group gathers information very quickly and can provide input or answers within a very short timeframe. This format tends to follow a very tight structure to cover the topic within the given timeframe. The interaction in a synchronous online focus group is in real time and allows for immediate reactions to stimuli, such as images, video, websites and ideas. This method is particularly useful when top-of-mind reactions are wanted, as in concept and creative tests.

When should I use a bulletin board focus group?

The bulletin board focus group offers more flexibility than the online focus group and there is less technical impact because of the asynchronous nature of the discussion. Because participants’ responses can influence the subsequent questions, the bulletin board focus group can be adapted more easily than the online focus group, which typically uses a pre-loaded discussion guide to move through questions within the time limits of the group. Bulletin board focus group responses tend to be richer, since there is no waiting for the moderator to post questions and there is more time and flexibility to probe for additional information. The longitudinal capabilities of the bulletin board focus group allow for evolution and development of ideas or concepts over time. Because participants can log on at their convenience, the bulletin board focus group is ideal for busy individuals who may not have one or two hours at a time. They are frequently used for employee research, business-to-business research, dealing with personal or medical issues where anonymity enhances participation and true feelings. Bulletin board focus groups are also excellent for situations where participants enjoy the opportunity to share their views and interact with others in their professions or with similar interests, since they can think through their answers and review them before posting.

Are there special requirements for online research participants?

Online research participants must have access to the Web and have the ability to communicate by typing. Typing proficiency is more important with online focus groups since they occur in real-time. Typing speed makes no difference for participation in bulletin board focus groups, since participants respond at their own rate.

It is important to determine how well participants not known to the moderator can communicate their ideas in writing. An open-ended e-mail question is an important screening step. Previous participation in chat rooms, discussion boards, e-mail list-serve groups and overall Internet savvy will help to identify potential respondents who are comfortable using electronic text communication.

What advantages does the software offer to the researcher and the client?

The software used to conduct online focus groups and bulletin board focus groups is compatible with most browsers and firewalls. The interface makes it easy for respondents to catch on quickly and fully participate. While technical glitches can occur with any technology-based product, there is a fully staffed technical support available throughout the duration of a scheduled research project.

In addition to questions and answers, a variety of multi-media stimuli can be built into the discussion, including websites and HTML, JPEG and video files. In interview mode, mini-surveys can be conducted, with forced responses and fill in the blank options.

Clients or others can observe the groups in progress. Both the online focus group and bulletin board focus group methods allow for collaboration, questions and comments between observers and the moderator, unseen by the respondents. Both during and following the groups, immediate transcripts are available, as are various types of reports to determine activity and participation levels of the participants.

To schedule an online demonstration of the online focus group or bulletin board focus group, contact Robin Wedewer at 410.414.5718

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