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Are Online Focus Groups the Future?

Kelly Giles
Director of Marketing

What’s the biggest question eating at your mind about focus groups? Is it keeping Batman from derailing them?


Or, are you wondering if online or in-person facilitation is more effective? Most marketers tend to ask the latter. (But if your problem is the former, let’s get coffee sometime. You bring Batman, I’ll bring the donuts.)

EMG conducts both online and face-to-face research. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the dilemma. That becomes even more true when considering the variety of reasons we test perceptions, creative, messaging, etc.

Online Focus Groups

Online focus groups open up the possibilities of recruiting participants who don’t live in your backyard. By taking out the need for participants to transport themselves to your location, you now have a much larger pool from which to draw. That can translate to a more specific demographic breakout, the ability to recruit younger participants (who may not own a car), and a wider geographic representation.

But! I have plenty of other reasons I love facilitating online.

Reduced groupthink! EMG uses as our facilitating tool, and it has worked wonderfully. Within that platform, we ask each participant to respond to each question via chat box, then as appropriate we follow-up with individuals verbally. This is a strategic choice. By allowing participants to only hear pieces of others’ responses (the pieces we choose), we significantly reduce the amount of groupthink in our results. Asking follow-up questions verbally enables us to still build rapport with our participants while getting in-depth feedback on the topic.

Participants feel as if their responses are more anonymous online, leading to very honest thoughts. This phenomenon provides a cleaner read on messaging and creative, along with top-of-mind awareness questions.

Recordings. You can quickly export typed responses, and you have the option to easily record verbal follow-up for later analysis.

Stakeholders have the option to listen in, if they choose. This is a great opportunity to hear input “straight from the high schooler’s mouth.” (That’s how the saying goes, right?)

There are always downfalls to any method, of course. My two “cons” for online facilitation are the cost of incentives and technology issues. Participants unaligned with your organization will need cash, check, or gift card to show up and provide input, thus increasing cost. And, while you can try to anticipate any issues with your platform, you can’t foresee the connection issues that 30-45 individuals on a variety of models of machines trying to use audio and microphones will encounter. We typically have dedicated support to help guide participants through working with their technology.

In-Person Focus Groups

I talk up the online method quite a bit, and for good reason. In-person groups still have their place, though! They are particularly effective for branding efforts, when it’s essential to talk to your own students, staff, faculty, etc. In particular, these work well when your participants are already aligned with your institution, and there’s no need to conduct the research blind.

Of course, the in-person method doesn’t have some of the comparative advantages that online facilitation does. You may see increased groupthink, a limited recruiting area, and difficulty recording responses. But, the face-to-face method does provide the opportunity to read participants’ nonverbal communication. The nuances of inflection, gesticulation, and other nonverbal signals are, for the most part, lost in online facilitation. Participants can build on other responses in-person, and might come to helpful realizations during the focus group.

Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Keep these pros and cons in mind next time you’re planning, though, and you’ll choose the right method for your unique situation.

For more about focus groups, check out the following blogs:

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