Introduction to Bulletin Board Focus Groups

What is a bulletin board focus group?
A bulletin board focus group (BBFG) is an asynchronous, threaded discussion typically involving dozens of participants per group over extended periods of time. The participants log in to the software at a URL with a user name and a password to answer questions that are posted and monitored by a moderator, who can also prompt respondents to expand on their responses or provide clarification.  The bulletin board is rapidly growing in use because it offers very flexible and unique ways to gather information that would be difficult or impossible to collect using traditional methods.  The sessions can vary from two days to many months.

Groups can participate simultaneously within a single “room.” Multiple rooms can be set up for each group. Participants can stay in their room or the moderator can combine rooms for a larger group discussion. The BBFG software can also be set up for individual interviews which could include up to hundreds of participants who never see other responses.

BBFGs are a flexible research tool that allows the moderator to post questions manually or automatically at pre-determined times. The respondents can take as much time as they want to respond.

The convenience of being able to log in at any time also makes them ideal for busy individuals or studies across multiple time zones. Any stimuli that can be presented on the internet (web pages, PowerPoint presentations, images, audio and video files) can be presented in a variety of ways.  Responses can be required prior to seeing others’ responses to reduce bias.

Observers can collaborate remotely, unseen by the respondents, and the moderator can post private or general probes to any posting.  Immediate transcripts are available to the moderator and observers and various types of reports are available to see activity and participation levels.  Observers can post private messages to the moderator and to other observers, unseen by the respondents.

How is it different from an online focus group?
The synchronous online focus group tends to replicate the face-to-face version that typically has from six to eight respondents, over a specified one to two hour time frames. In contrast, the bulletin board focus group will last anywhere from three days to many months and can involve daily or weekly participation depending on the study. The synchronous online focus group gathers information very quickly and can provide answers within a very short time frame.  The asynchronous bulletin board group gathers more detailed information over longer periods of time, and allows for probing in greater depth.  The synchronous online group tends to follow a very tight structure to cover the topic within the time frame while the asynchronous bulletin board has greater flexibility to explore topics over extended periods.

Dynamics in a bulletin board are delayed and depend upon the participant logging in to view and respond to new postings. Dynamics and bias can also be controlled using the optional forced settings that are available in the software when setting up the project. In many cases, the responses that occur today will influence the questions that will be asked tomorrow, so the flexibility is greater than with the real-time focus groups, which typically use a pre-loaded discussion guide to get through the questions within the time limit of the group. The longitudinal capabilities of the bulletin board also allow for evolution and development of ideas or concepts over time.

Because participants can log in to participate anytime that is convenient to them, BBFGs are also ideal for busy individuals who may not have a block of two hours to participate in a real-time group but who could fit a few minutes a day into their schedule.

The responses to the moderator questions and probes tend to be far richer with BBFGs since there is no waiting for the moderator questions.  In both online qualitative methods, each participant has an equal opportunity to contribute since they do not have to wait for their turn to speak, and the anonymity of the communication process encourages more open and honest responses and less influence of group leaders or bias.

The interaction in a synchronous online focus group is in real time and allows for immediate reactions to stimuli and responses to each others comments.  The bulletin board group allows the participants to respond to questions and other member’s posts but it will be dependent on how often they log in to participate.  The moderator can send daily reminders to participate and encourage participation or additional postings to specific topics being discussed.

Due to the immense volume of responses, moderators typically log in throughout the day to read, respond to questions and encourage the discussion.

When is the best time to conduct a bulletin board group?
Bulletin board focus groups are conducted anytime it is convenient for all the participants, and will have a range of days rather than an exact time of day. Recruiting should determine availability and willingness to commit to the time frame and any minimum levels of participation that might be required.  Because the group takes place on the internet, it eliminates geographical and time limitations.  Bulletin board groups are much more technically forgiving than real-time focus groups since there will be less impact from internet slowdowns and potential technical disruptions. Since participation can be at any time the respondent chooses, it is possible to conduct groups around the globe simultaneously that offers the researcher some very interesting opportunities and applications.

Why are bulletin board groups appropriate for so many different applications?
A bulletin board group can be used for just about any application that an online focus group could be used.  It may also be easier to involve certain groups of professionals that may have difficulty committing to a two-hour block of time for a real-time group. BBFGs are ideal for employee research, business-to-business studies, dealing with personal or medical issues where anonymity enhances participation and true feelings.  The nature of the bulletin board is also ideal in situations where the participants enjoy the opportunity to share their views and interact with others in their professions since they can think through their answers and review them before posting. The ability to develop concepts, ideas, or products over time is a very powerful technique and allows a rough initial version to be refined over a relatively short time period. The bulletin board group also allows the researcher to do studies that would be impossible or impractical to do using traditional methods. Since the bulletin board does not try to replicate or imitate a face-to-face focus group it also take the research opportunities into new directions that truly leverage the power and unique nature of the internet. They can be used in applications that range from the individual interview to hundreds of people in different qualitative/quantitative hybrids. In some of these, using the interview mode, web-based surveys can be conducted in the whiteboard area of the focus group while the discussion questions serve as open-ended questions.

Many clients like the bulletin board because of the richness of the information being gathered, the greater flexibility they offer, and the convenience of not having to travel.

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