Qualitatively Speaking:

Online focus groups are no substitute for the real thing.

by Thomas L Greenbaum

Despite the major problems that so many "dot coms" have experienced in the past 12-18 months, one aspect of the Internet revolution that does not seem to have disappeared as of yet is the interest in organizations using the Internet to conduct qualitative research. The appeal of this approach is basically due to the low cost of the technique compared to traditional focus groups, the ability to get more than a local sample participating in the sessions, and for some, the speed with which the projects can be completed. Unfortunately, in my opinion, these potential benefits are more than offset by the pitfalls associated with this methodology, particularly when considered as an alternative to traditional focus groups.

The following will review some of the strengths that traditional focus groups offer that are simply not available with the Internet version. If users of research feel these are not important to them when conducting qualitative research, it would be most advisable to consult with some independent consultants who are capable of providing objective advice as to the importance of the various points raised in this article.

• Traditional focus groups offer the benefits of face-to-face interaction among the participants. This enables a skilled moderator to utilize the group dynamics to explore an issue, and importantly, to allow the participants in the session to discuss the topic among themselves, which normally will result in a much more in-depth exploration of the topic.

• An experienced focus group moderator will use non-verbal reactions of the participants both to direct the nature of the discussion but also as a part of the ultimate analysis process. Often, the non-verbal response of a participant in a focus group will be as important as what they say in terms of determining their feelings toward a particular topic under discussion. One does not have to be a highly experienced moderator to identify non-verbal signs from participants that indicate boredom, excitement, confusion, etc. The Internet focus group does not enable the moderator to use this aspect of human communications as an input in the process.

• In traditional focus groups the moderator is an authority figure that can direct the flow of the discussion to ensure that the most productive use of time is made, based on the needs of the client organization. This "authority" role is also very important, as it enables the moderator to elicit comments from all participants in the group, and to minimize the influence that one or more people are trying to have over the others. While the Internet focus group technique is not nearly as encumbered by the problems of one person influencing the other, there also is not the same sense of community and sharing of information in the Internet environment as in a live group discussion. Further, the moderator becomes more of a "traffic cop" in the Internet environment, whereas in a live focus group, this individual is integral to the flow and dynamics of the group setting.

• The security of the Internet focus group is not nearly as tight as it is with live sessions. As a result, you never know who you are really talking to in the Internet environment as opposed to a live situation where participants must have photo identification to be considered for the group.

• The Internet approach to focus group relies on an individual's ability to type effectively in order to be an active participant in the session. This is very problematic, as there is a very wide variety in the typing skills of the population, and probably even greater variation in the ability of people to clearly articulate their ideas on paper. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the Internet environment requires the participant to read the material that is coming to them, and the reading skill levels also are very varied among the U.S. population.

• One of the most important benefits of the traditional focus group is the ability of the clients to be involved in the research real-time by observing from behind the one-way mirror. Not only does this enable them to see what is happening, but it also permits them to communicate with the moderator so their ideas can be considered as the group(s) progress. While it is possible for clients to read the inputs from an Internet session as they come in, it is not the same as being able to see the participants' reactions to specific ideas, and to get a sense of the feelings of the individuals relative to the topic areas being covered.

• Another important benefit of traditional focus groups that does not exist with the Internet version is the ability to show "external stimuli" to the people in the groups in order to obtain their reactions. While it is possible to send images over the Internet to people to obtain their reactions, in the current state of the technology, there can be major problems in terms of both the quality of the ultimate image that is downloaded, and the speed in which it is received. Further, the image is only two dimensional in the Internet world, whereas with real focus groups, it will be the original image and where relevant a three dimensional image.

In summary, while Internet research might have a future, it probably is more appropriate for quantitative studies than qualitative due to the static nature of the questioning vehicle and the lack of a need for moderator/participant reactions. If organizations are accustomed to having high quality focus groups conducted for them, the more they experiment with online focus groups, the greater the likelihood that this technique will fall from favor, as users recognize that the limitations of the methodology far out weigh the benefits.


Thomas L. Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus

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