Online Focus Groups vs Traditional Focus Groups (Mini-Guide)

Posted by Emma Borochoff on April 23, 2018
Emma Borochoff

online focus groups

Everything’s digital these days, and online focus groups are no different.
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, or 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 focus group research.

Introduction to Online Focus Groups

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

There are pros and cons to changing your traditional research methods and discussion avenues to more innovative customer interview strategies like online focus groups. The latter has become a popular, cost-efficient, and relatively quicker alternative to the in-person group.

Whether you’re eager to jump on the online train (choo-choo! 🚂), 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 company. But how do online focus groups work, anyway?

Online Focus Groups Cons

Avoiding common market research blunders is often a challenge, even for the most seasoned researcher. By weighing online focus group pros and cons, avoiding those mistakes may be easier to do. 

1. Online Focus Groups Prevent Observation Of 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 an online focus group participant is saying something confidently and with conviction, or perhaps they are unsure and are just giving an answer that's untrue.

Both scenarios could occur with an online focus group.  Of course, there are platforms that incorporate video of the participants, but subtle hints from the way they hold themselves or move may still be missed.

2. Lack of Group Dynamics Limits Discussion

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

online focus group vs traditional focus group
3. Badly-Worded Questions Dilute The Interview

When market research studies occur 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.  

Asking Questions In Big Groups

When you’re working with a large group of people (some platforms 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 in online focus groups or traditional ones are as clear and simple as possible, to avoid confusion in the first place.

4. Online Focus Groups Can Discourage Engaged Discussion

If a participant is losing focus, it’s easier to go AWOL when you’re remote and participating in research via a laptop. To remedy this, it’s vital to ensure that the platform you use for research is highly engaging and there isn’t much of a lull in between the questions you ask.


Online Focus Groups Pros

1. Anonymity → Better Insights

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.

online focus group participant

2. Diversity Is Easier To Obtain Through Qualitative Research

While it is plenty reasonable to expect to gather a diverse group of people - or several diverse segments - for an in-person focus group, online versions allow for 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 in traditional focus groups. But, with no location restrictions, you can get a wider sampling of the region or country you’re targeting and get closed to that elusive qualitative research.

3. Online Focus Groups Are Cost-Efficient

When you remove physical limitations, it can become much easier to organize a focus group and make it happen with very limited resources; an online focus group can also be useful when connecting with a demographic group that's hard to reach.  You don’t need to plan ahead to reserve a space, pay for said space, and hope people make it there on time.

4. Less Time-Intensive Than Traditional Market Research Studies

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.

As a bonus, paid market research studies are typically less expensive than in-person research studies, since the session is less demanding time and energy-wise.

5. Surveys & Traditional Focus Groups Are Outdated Research Methods

A benefit of using online focus groups is that there are a lot of advancements in the technology you use to run the discussion 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.

In order to segment and analyze a large amount of incoming responses in real-time, some market research 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.

online focus groups vs surveys

Continuing Your Market Research Studies

Before you make any decisions final research method decisions, 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 offline and online focus groups to collect different types of data and see if there is a particular research method that best aligns with your goals.

Getting In Touch

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.

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Topics: Technology, Market Research