Article Number: 0074
©Copyright 1994 Quirk's Marketing Research Review ( All rights reserved.

February, 1994

Don’t let technology take control of focus groups

By: Thomas Greenbaum

Editor's note: Thomas Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus, a research firm located in Fairfield County, Conn.

Focus groups continue to be one of the most popular and fastest-growing market research techniques, as organizations of all types have positive experiences with the methodology. Further, with the pressure to keep research costs as low as possible and generate results in a more timely fashion, many marketers are moving away from quantitative research in order to implement some form of qualitative research to address their questions.
As the use of qualitative research and particularly focus groups grows, there is increasing pressure on the professionals within the qualitative research community to differentiate their services from each other. Most industry experts estimate that there are at least 1,000 people nationwide earning at least half their income doing focus groups or one-on-one in-depth interviews. This represents a lot of different people trying to find that important selling point that will make their service stand out in the crowd.
Enter technology. The advances in computer hardware and software, the introduction of cellular telephone and related personal communication devices, and the innovations in video transmission all have affected the way marketing people operate in the 1990s. These same technologies have also begun to influence the qualitative research industry.
For example, clients can now watch a focus group in Chicago on a "real-time" basis from the comfort of their office in Atlanta, and even communicate with the moderator while the session is in progress. Or you can listen in on a telephone hook-up with eight different executives all over the world, all of whom are led through a discussion by a moderator trained in teleconferencing.
It is also possible to conduct a focus group via video satellite with half the group sitting in new York and the other half in London -- as the client observes from her office in Houston. Finally, you can watch a focus group that uses small hand-held "reaction devices" to record the participants' inputs on a computer, so the information they generate can be collected by the moderator for inclusion in the final report.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the new technologies that are entering the focus group industry, there clearly is a danger that marketers will become so enamored of the technology that they forget about the fundamental elements that make the focus group methodology work so well. Therefore, before you agree to any new technology in your focus group research, review some of the basic building blocks of the focus group technique to ensure that you are not compromising any of them with the new approaches.

The value of interaction
First, focus groups are a valuable technique because of the interaction of the participants, who have been recruited based on common interests, demographics or purchase behaviors. The most common setting for this interaction is a group of people sitting together in the same room, where they can react to each other's verbal and non-verbal responses. The extent to which you take away from this setting via such methods as telephone or video satellite groups will affect the quality and quantity of the interaction that occurs between the participants, and therefore reduces the overall quality of the output from the research.
Second, focus groups represent a unique way for clients to observe the research process first-hand, rather than "experiencing" it after the fact via videotapes, audiotapes or the moderator's report. Almost anybody who has observed a focus group from behind a one-way mirror can appreciate the differences in watching this way, compared with viewing the groups on a videotape or via remote television broadcast. While there definitely are some meaningful cost savings that can be obtained by not having clients travel to observe focus groups from behind the mirror, one has to ask if the experience is really the same, and if the individuals will learn as much from the group session by watching it from their office.
Third, focus groups enable the client organization and the researcher to communicate while the session is in progress, making the research to a dynamic, rather than static, process. While it is technologically feasible to communicate with a moderator from a remote site, there is no effective substitute for the face-to-face interaction between client and moderator that can occur in the back room of a focus group facility before, during and after the groups have been conducted.
Fourth, it is vital that focus group users remember that we are dealing with a qualitative rather than a quantitative methodology. With that in mind, the vast array of hand-held computer devices aimed at "collecting data" during a focus group should be evaluated very carefully, since the concept of generating numbers is not consistent with the overall objective of qualitative research.
In summary, while it is important that the qualitative research industry continue to seek ways to improve the overall effectiveness of focus groups, we must be careful not to compromise the benefits of the methodology for the ''sex appeal" of the various new technologies. Good research still comes from solid strategic thinking, incisive planning and flawless execution, and you should make sure you are not giving up any of these in favor of new approaches that use emerging technologies.