as published in Advertising Age, February 14, 200

Focus Groups vs. Online

Clients:  Weigh benefits, liabilities of research types before buying

by Thomas L. Greenbaum

Recently Advertising Age carried a front-page article talking about the trend toward using the Internet to conduct on line focus groups ("Safe at any speed?", AA, Jan 24). This was one of many articles that have appeared in marketing and marketing research publications in recent months as more organizations try to utilize the Internet to save money and increase the speed of getting qualitative research results.

While there may be some benefits to conducting qualitative research online, it is important for marketers to understand what they are losing by using the cyber medium to conduct their study, and specifically why this type of research is not an effective replacement for well conducted focus groups.


Here is an outline of the most important considerations that a marketing professional should consider when making a decision between using online or traditional focus groups. Specifically, it reviews some of the key reasons why traditional focus groups are effective, and how the online version could not overcome its problems by offering somewhat lower costs and faster timing.

* The authority role of the moderator is one of the most important reasons why traditional focus groups are so important. An experienced moderator is in complete charge of the group activities and is able to ensure that everyone participates and that the focus of the discussion remains on target.

It is virtually impossible to establish authority from behind a computer screen.

* One of the major benefits of traditional focus groups is the interaction among the various participants. A well conducted focus group utilizes this interaction to explore topics in more detail and to draw out the feelings of each of the participants based on their reactions to what others in the room have said.

This is not viable in an Internet environment.

* A competent focus group moderator will use non-verbal cues from participants to direct the discussion in the room. Often the non-verbal inputs can be as important as the verbal in determining the reactions to various ideas.

It is impossible to address non-verbal reactions in an online focus group.


* There is dramatically more security in a traditional focus group than in the online version. All participants in the traditional focus group are re-screened at the facility with photo Ids. Thus it is almost impossible to have someone in the session who should not be there.

In the online environment, however, it is impossible to tell who is behind the computer screen.

Further, as identified in the article, it is possible for stimuli from an online session to be left in cyberspace for others to find and utilize to their benefit.

* Online focus groups also lose the very significant benefit of client involvement with the end user.

In traditional focus groups, with client personnel viewing the sessions live behind a one-way mirror (or via remote broadcast locations), the communications of the group are much more convincing than in an online environment.

Further, with the client in the back room, it is easy for them to become part of the overall process as they can talk to the moderator during the session and make suggestions relative to areas that need to be discussed.

* Finally, it is much easier and more effective to show stimuli to the participants in a live setting than in an on-line focus group.

While it definitely is possible to send stimuli, such as pictures or a concept statement, to participants in cyber groups, the full impact of this material is often lost in the two dimensional environment of the computer screen.

The vast differences in the quality of screens and the ability of users to download the materials further exacerbates this situation.

It is essential that the marketing community not become too enthralled with using the Internet to conduct qualitative research. While there may be a role for this vehicle in the very earliest stages of the process, it clearly is not a viable substitute for well-run, traditional focus groups.

Mr. Greenbaum is president, Groups Plus, a focus group research and consulting company. He moderates more than 150 groups per year in a variety of product and service categories.

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