this article appeared in Marketing News July 29, 1996
The focus group industry has gone through some major changes over the past thirty years, but I do not feel any of them will have the same impact as videoconferences.
While still a big unknown to many clients, facilities and moderators, videoconferences are here to stay and should grow dramatically over the next one to three years. Videoconferences are used for less than 3% of all focus groups today; by the year 2000, it would not be surprising to see one-third, perhaps half, of all groups using them.
Videoconferences broadcast sessions to a remote facility - often the client offices - where people observe the proceedings live over a television monitor. With this technology, the clients observing from afar can move the camera to look at individuals in the group, the moderator, or the entire group. They can also communicate with the moderator through a direct telephone hookup or fax.
One of the significant advantages of videoconferences is client savings. The average cost is $1,200 to $1,400 per session. Travel costs are reduced significantly or eliminated. Currently about half the groups are conducted with no client representation on site, and the balance generally have only one or two people, not four to six.
Another driving force behind videoconferences is their capability to involve more people. While videotaping of groups has been common for several years, experience indicates that few people watch the tapes.
However, with videoconferences it is possible to have a large number of people observe the proceedings and communicate with the moderator to ensure that the right information is explored.
The ability to conduct groups in new markets achieves better representation from the target audience, another important advantage. Many organizations tend to favor markets that are close to the home office or particularly accessible because of the costs and time associated with traveling. With videoconferences, it is possible to use a large variety of markets, as client travel time and expense are reduced dramatically.
It also might be possible for some companies to conduct more focus groups in a series. This could result in higher quality output due to more input or coverage of topics which could not be addressed with fewer, more costly, traditional groups.
There also are several disadvantages to using videoconferences for focus groups, which, if not addressed, can affect seriously the value of the research conducted.
Videoconferences make communication between the moderator and the client more difficult and less effective. This is because the client is often hundreds of miles away. Clients fax or telephone messages to the moderator, which are sent into the room. When client personnel serve as a communications link between the facility and the home office viewing environment, the moderator still may not have the ability to go face-to-face with the key decision makers in the client organization.
In addition, the experience of watching a focus group on a television screen is not the same as observing from behind the one-way mirror. There is often a very different attention span and concentration level among videoconference viewers, making it much more difficult to pick up nuances from the discussions, observe key nonverbal behavior, and generally "feel" the atmosphere in the focus group room.
Videoconferences also make it much more difficult for a client and moderator to develop rapport and function effectively as a research team. Most moderators will agree that some of the most important work that happens in focus group research happens before or after the sessions, between client and moderator.
With the clients many miles away and communications very structured in pre- and post-group videoconference sessions, the ability to develop these relationships is minimized dramatically.
While it is impossible to overcome all the disadvantages associated with videoconferences of focus groups, there definitely are some actions that client organizations can take to help neutralize the problems and produce more effective research.
First, whenever possible, include the home market as one of the cities where groups are held, ideally the first. This enables the interested parties at headquarters to attend some groups without having to travel and should help client personnel get more out of groups they observe through videoconferences, as they will have some sense of the atmosphere in the focus group rooms.
Second, the environment in the home viewing area should be set up to duplicate as closely as possible the experience behind the one-way mirror at the local focus group facility. Establish rules for remote viewing that strongly discourage observers from casual watching of sessions. Serve refreshments to the observers as would be done in a normal back room.
In addition, have adequately large (30 inch or bigger) monitors for viewing the groups, and darken the room, as would be the case in a back room, to encourage the observers to focus on the group.
The one or two client representatives at each location should serve as liaisons to the moderator and the voice of the client on premises. It is important that these be people who are decision-makers rather than simply messengers between the remote location and the moderator.
As with traditional focus groups, establish firm guidelines and controls to limit the amount of "back room" intervention during groups. If the moderator is qualified and has been briefed well, input from the back room should be limited to only the most essential topics.
If researchers are to retain the quality of the work while taking advantage of videoconferences, it is essential that planning neutralize the problems which result from this technique so clients can reap important benefits from videoconferences.
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