The Case Against Internet Focus Groups

By: Tom Greenbaum

(Published in MRA Alert Newsletter April, 2008)

Editor's Note: Tom Greenbaum is President of Groups Plus, a research firm based in Fairfield County, CT. He can be reached at 203-858-0515 or through the website

Almost everyone in the business community would agree that the Internet has created or been the stimulus for the most significant changes in history, in terms of the way the world economy operates. The Internet has been responsible for being the vehicle whereby some very successful companies (i.e., E-bay, Amazon) have been created, and it also was the instrument that generated the “dot-com” fever in the late 1990's, causing millions of people to lose large amounts of money.

One area where the Internet has been a very positive influence for the world population has been the ease with which information can be gathered. Whether this involves getting data from the most recent U.S. Census, images from museums or galleries, or research about the most economical way to fly to Florida, today the Internet is the most efficient and effective way to collect this type of information. There has even been a reasonably large industry created which utilizes the resources of the Internet to implement different types of surveys among a wide variety of different audiences.

One of the most controversial uses of the Internet for research purposes has been the attempt to conduct focus groups using the Internet. Many research companies claim to conduct Internet focus groups, implying that they represent a cost-effective and time-efficient replacement for the traditional focus group. The purpose of this article is to explain why I have a major problem with the concept of Internet focus groups, both from the designation that is used and the expectations that might result from the exposure of the technique to prospective customers.

To appreciate the reasons why I feel so strongly against the concept of Internet focus groups, it is necessary to understand the major factors that enable traditional focus groups to be such an effective market research methodology. It should then be obvious why we feel it is so important to ensure that any potential confusion or possible relationship between the two approaches be avoided. The following will summarize the key elements that make traditional focus groups so effective and why they do not exist with the “Internet” version of the technique.

The Authority Role Of The Moderator - The authority role of the moderator in a traditional focus group environment is critical to the success of the research. Because the moderator is in the room with the participants, and hopefully has communicated his or her role (verbally or non- verbally), it is possible to control the activities in the room. This relates to such things as who speaks when, for how long and to what extent they are permitted to deviate from the “planned” script. When the moderator is simply another person behind a computer screen, it is impossible to have the same authority role as when everyone in the group is in the same room..

The Ability To Utilize Non-Verbal Inputs - An experienced focus group moderator will use non-verbal inputs from the participants as an integral part of the process of both leading the group and ultimately analyzing the outputs. Needless to say, when the participants are out in cyber space, it is impossible to have any non-verbal behavior impacting on the moderator.



The Case Against Internet Focus Groups


The Capability Of Feeling And Experiencing The Atmosphere Within A Group - One of the many benefits of the traditional focus group process is the ability of the moderator to feel the excitement, boredom or other mood states that are generated as a result of the group discussion. This definitely has an impact on how the group discussion proceeds, and is an impossible input to have in a cyber environment.

The Ability To Use Group Dynamics As An Integral Part of the Overall Process - A significant positive element of the traditional focus group process is the ability of a skilled moderator to encourage the participants to interact with each other relative to the topics being discussed, so they can challenge another person’s ideas or build upon them to provide greater “texture” to the group outputs. This capability simply is not available in the Internet environment.

The Capability To Have Direct Client Involvement In The Research - One of the greatest benefits of traditional focus groups is that it gives client personnel the ability to watch the proceedings live from behind the one-way mirror, so they can really “experience” their customers. Nothing can replace the impact of watching focus groups from behind the one-way mirror, no matter how good the videotapes, remote broadcast facilities, or reports written by moderators. With on-line focus groups, the client personnel only can monitor written responses on a computer screen which hardly would have the same impact as being in the backroom watching the groups live.

Focused Attention On The Topic Being Discussed - In a traditional focus group setting, each of the participants is required to pay attention to the proceedings from beginning to end. However, in an Internet focus group environment, one could never tell if the participant is watching television, talking on the telephone or reading a book while supposedly being an active member of the group.

Important Security Considerations - The need to protect intellectual property has become more of an issue in the past several years than ever before. One of the great benefits of a traditional focus group is the capability of getting a photo ID from the participants, so there is no question who is who. In the Internet environment, it is virtually impossible to really know who is answering the questions, and whether there is another person sitting with the respondent monitoring what is being communicated in the session.

The Ability To Use ”External Stimuli” With The Participants - Another very important benefit of traditional focus groups is the capability of presenting advertising copy, new product concepts, prototypes or other stimuli to the participants in order to get their reactions. In an on-line chat situation, it is almost impossible to duplicate the live focus group environment relative to the participant exposure to external stimuli. As a result, you have to wonder whether the input received is as valuable as it would be in a live environment.



The Case Against Internet Focus Groups


In summary, while I feel strongly that the market research industry should continue to seek new ways to gather information, the methods that are developed must be clear to the end users in terms of the role they play in the overall research structure. In the case of “Internet Focus Groups,” there may be a place for this type of research, however, the technique must not be called focus groups and must not imply that this methodology is a replacement for traditional focus groups. I hope that those companies which are pursuing the “Internet focus group” approach will continue to refine the technique so it can deliver some of the benefits of the traditional approach, but a critical first step in this process must be a change in the name of the methodology to ensure that there is no confusion between this technique and traditional focus groups.