Quirk's Marketing Research Review - July 1998


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.

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