Internet focus groups are not focus groups - so don't call them that
by Tom Greenbaum
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.
One of the most talked about areas within the marketing
profession is the use of the Internet to conduct marketing research studies. Many research
companies have formed specific units to address the opportunities in this area,
considering both qualitative and quantitative research studies.
One of the most disturbing outcomes of this process has been the attempt to conduct
focus groups using the Internet, implying that they represent a cost-effective and
time-efficient replacement for the traditional focus group. My problem with this comes not
with the concept of trying to col1ect qualitative information on the Internet, but rather
in attempting to imply that qualitative research conducted on the Internet could be a
replacement for the real thing. There probably is some logic to trying to use the Internet
to develop qualitative inputs, but it is absurd to imply that the work which is conducted
would be comparable to the output of traditional, professionally implemented focus groups.
The following will provide a few reasons why I feel very strongly that the research
community is doing itself a real injustice by using the term "focus group" to
refer to qualitative sessions conducted over the Internet. The basic principles that make
focus groups an effective marketing research technique simply are not present in the
Internet environment. Specifically, the following are areas where there are major
differences between the two methodologies:
Group dynamics - One of the key reasons to use traditional
focus groups is to benefit from the interactions between the group participants, as this
can provide excellent insights. In cyberspace, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to
create any real group dynamics, particularly when the participants are reading from
computer screens rather than interacting verbally.
Non-verbal inputs - Experienced moderators will use non-verbal
inputs from the participants while moderating and analyzing sessions. It is not possible
to duplicate the nonverbal input in an on-line environment.
Client involvement - Many organizations use the focus group
methodology because it gives client personnel an opportunity to experience some direct
interface with consumers in an objective environment. 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.
Security - When conducting focus groups, you know who is in the
room, assuming appropriate screening has been conducted. With on-line groups, there is no
way to be sure who is sitting at the computer. If you cannot see the person, how do you
know who he or she really is?
Attention to the topic - Another important benefit of the
traditional focus group process is that the participants in the group understand that they
are expected to stay in the room for the full two hours of the session and contribute to
the discussion. It is very difficult for a participant in a well- moderated focus group to
do something that could distract him or her from the proceedings. However, in an on-line
environment, the moderator never knows if the participants are watching TV, reading a book
or eating dinner while the session is proceeding.
Exposure to external stimuli - A key use of focus groups is to
present 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.
Role and skill of the moderator - Most marketing professionals
agree that the most important factor in the quality of traditional focus group research is
the skill of the moderator. Experienced moderators have developed techniques that involve
more than simply asking questions of participants. A good moderator understands ways to
draw out quiet or shy participants, energize a slow group, and use innovative techniques
that will delve a little deeper into the minds of the participants. The techniques
available to the moderator sitting at the computer are much more limited due to the lack
of face-to-face involvement with the participants.
In summary, I feel the market research industry should continue to look for new ways to
gather information, and clearly the Internet represents the most interesting new
alternative in years. However, as professionals, we should not try to transfer the
excellent credibility of the traditional focus group methodology to the Internet version,
as the limitations of this approach are so extensive that they must be viewed differently
when planning a research project. I hope that those companies which are pursuing the
Internet focus group approach will continue to refine the technique, but the first step
should be to change the name to avoid confusion with the real thing.