Should your organization be using online focus groups?

Posted by Emma Borochoff on April 23, 2018
Emma Borochoff

Focus groups

Everything’s digital these days. And oh boy, do we love our devices.  It’s not uncommon to see a family sitting at a restaurant all on their phones (including the 7 year old), a couple sitting in the park, live-streaming their surroundings, and of course, a train full of quietly zoned out commuters noodling away on their devices.

While it’s easy to dismiss these types of happenings as the end of the era of when-we-actually-looked-at-each-other-and-made-eye-contact-willingly, this type of tuned-in digital environment can actually have some pretty big advantages when it comes to carrying out research.

Of course, there are valid concerns about replacing IRL (in real life) with digital, and not just the well-reasoned concern that future generations will eventually forget how to human properly without a phone in hand.

Speaking specifically about research and focus groups, there is the good and the bad about moving from conducting research with in-person focus groups to online focus groups. Online focus groups have become a popular, cost-efficient, and relatively quicker alternative to the in-person group.  Whether you’re eager to jump on the online train, or very doubtful that the online version can bring reliable results, it’s worth first pondering both sides and thinking about if going the online route is right for you and your organization.

Why Online Focus Groups May Not Be the Best Choice

Can’t Observe Body Language

With a chat-style interface, you can cultivate thought-provoking responses, but you don’t get to see the body language and facial expressions that go alongside it.  Perhaps they are saying something confidently and with conviction, or perhaps they are unsure and are just giving an answer. The two could potentially seem one in the same with an online focus group.  Of course, there are platforms that incorporate video of the participants, as well, but subtle hints from the way they hold themselves or move may still be missed.

Lack of Group Dynamics

A benefit of an in-person focus group is that interaction between participants can help generate additional insights, while an online focus group might not lend to such high interaction between participants.

Misunderstood Questions

When a focus group is in person, it’s easier to tell if participants don’t quite understand a question, even if they don’t explicitly say that they don’t. With an online focus group, it might not be apparent that people are confused until the answers are already collected, potentially making the data for that question invalid.  Also, when you’re working with a large group of people (some platforms for online focus groups make it possible to engage with hundreds of respondents at a time), there isn’t much room for specific questions or ensuring that each individual is on the same page. As with any focus group, work should be done beforehand to make sure that questions are as clear and simple as possible, to avoid confusion in the first place.

Easier to Drop Off

If a participant is losing focus or suddenly remembers they need to run an errand or take care of something- it’s simply much easier to go AWOL when you’re remote and on a laptop than sitting in the middle of a room with a bunch of people. To remedy this, it’s absolutely important to make sure that the platform you use for online focus groups is highly engaging and there isn’t much of a lull in between the questions you ask.

Why Online Focus Groups Could Be Your Research Soulmate

Anonymity → Better Insights

Ah yes, the veil of secrecy.  Nothing loosens tongues like the ability to be anonymous.  As intimate and comfortable as an in-person focus group can seem, you can’t remove the social norms and rules that lay heavily on all who are present.  Removing those social constructs that would exist in person allows people to feel comfortable enough to fully speak their mind, ultimately giving you more honest responses and cleaner, more precise data.


While it is plenty reasonable to expect to gather a diverse group of people - or several diverse segments- for an in-person focus group, the online version allows for a lot more flexibility as far as location and time commitment.  Since all that’s needed to join is a wifi connection, people can participate globally, and from wherever they are - including from work on their lunch break. Busy schedules often stop people from being able to participate- ultimately potentially skewing the types of people who can make it.  Plus, with no location restrictions, you can get a wider sampling of the region or country you’re targeting.


When you remove physical limitations, it can become much easier to organize a focus group and make it happen with very limited resources.  You don’t need to plan ahead to reserve a space, pay for said space, and hope people make it there on time.

Not Time-Intensive

This goes hand in hand with saving money (time is money after all, amiright?)- when you don’t need to plan ahead to book a space and coordinate with participants to make it there, you save a lot of time and energy spent planning and organizing the session.  This is especially impactful when you are carrying out multiple sessions over a period of time. In addition, the incentive amount paid to online focus group participants is typically lower than in-person, since the session is less demanding time and energy-wise.

Technology Advancements

A benefit of using online focus groups is that there are a lot of advancements in the technology you use to run the groups that can increase efficiency, lower costs, and give deeper insights than you would glean from an in-person group. Some research platforms can engage hundreds of participants at once, while still allowing you to converse and ask questions the way you would in a one-on-one situation.  Additionally, in order to segment and analyze that amount of incoming responses in real-time, some online focus group technology implements artificial intelligence and machine learning to help you, as a researcher, pinpoint the best responses that represent the group as well as crucial data points that inform business decisions.

Before you make any decisions about using online focus groups, first make sure you understand what kind of data you want to collect, and how important things like quantity of responses are to the end result you are trying to achieve.  It can also be a great approach to conduct both online and offline focus groups to collect different types of data and see if there is a particular research method that best aligns with your goals.

If you’re thinking of dipping a toe (or two!) into the world of online focus groups and communicating with groups of people at scale, give us a holler here at Remesh, we’d love to give you more information.

Topics: Market Research, Technology