Article Number: 0136
ęCopyright 1995 Quirk's Marketing Research Review (www.quirks.com). All rights reserved.

May, 1995

Focus groups on the Internet: an interesting idea but not a good one

By: Thomas Greenbaum

Editor's note: Tom Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus, a focus group research and consulting firm in Fairfield County, CT.

Surfing the Internet has become one of the hottest topics in boardrooms, lunchrooms and at cocktail parties. It seems that everyone is trying to learn how to use the Internet so they can benefit from the information highway they have heard so much about.

Recently, some corporate executives have been asking their marketing research providers if it's possible to use the Internet for focus groups, as a way to save money and to avoid traveling to various cities to watch behind the one-way mirror. While this may be an emotionally appealing concept, as it uses the hot new trend in computer technology, it is not likely to result in effective focus group research. Here are five very important reasons why:

-- One of the major reasons that the focus group is such a popular research vehicle is that it permits a group of people who were recruited based on common demographics, attitudes or product usage behavior to talk among themselves in a controlled environment about a topic of interest to the client organization. The dynamics that occur in the room between the moderator and the participants, and among the various members of the group provide the energy for the discussion and the ability to understand different views about key areas of interest to marketers.

By using the Internet, one loses several key factors that work so well in the traditional focus group environment, such as the eye-to-eye contact among the various people in the room -- which can be very important to the discussion that occurs-- and the control over the flow of the group which can only be achieved by a trained moderator who understands the importance of group dynamics. This would be very difficult to manage in a focus group conducted on the Internet.

-- Another reason the Internet would not provide effective focus groups is that it would be very difficult to control the recruiting of the people. The qualifications of the people in a focus group are crucial to the entire process. If the right participants are not involved then it will be difficult to place any credence in the information they generate. With the traditional focus group, one has complete control over who is in the group, whereas on the Internet, a respondent could use an alias and false credentials and never be discovered.

-- Effective focus group research occurs because of the moderator's skill at understanding where the tenor of the group is going, and how it might be necessary to deviate from the discussion guide in order to generate the most useful information for the client. The highly trained moderator gets much of his or her direction from instincts that occur because they are in the room with the participants and can feel the need for a change. To understand this phenomenon, compare the experience of watching the focus group live from behind the one-way mirror to listening to an audio tape or watching a stationary video. It just is not the same.

-- Fourth, focus groups are often used to get reactions to new products, advertising ideas or promotional programs. While there are some excellent video capabilities available on the Internet, it's uncertain whether it will be possible in the near term to show concepts to participants over the Net.

-- Finally, in a traditional focus group environment, the participants are sitting around a table for approximately two hours in a controlled environment. Their job for that period is to pay attention to the discussion and to participate. They generally do not have the opportunity to do anything else with this time. If one were to conduct focus groups over the Internet, we would never know what the participant is really doing while they are involved with the groups. They could be listening to music, watching television or fighting with their spouse and it would be impossible to know. In essence, it is impossible to determine if the moderator is really getting the full attention of the participants.

In summary, while the Internet is certainly a very exciting development, we do not believe it is a viable way to conduct focus groups. While it is possible to seek consumer opinions via the Internet, we would rather see researchers use this media for generating information from closed-end quantitative questionnaires, as they are not reliant on the same factors as qualitative research, and therefore could be an effective way to conduct research on this emerging technology.