A growing number of focus groups have migrated from the real to the virtual world over the past two years. Market researchers say the groups are cheaper to conduct online, results can be tallied quickly, and developing technologies, like simultaneous language translation, make them more attractive. But, they are quick to add, online media will never replace face-to-face focus groups, because the two are different animals.
Reviewing Web sites is a natural subject for online focus groups and, not surprisingly, this is the service for which these groups are used most. John Grafton, a market researcher at Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting Systems, used a virtual focus group to find out if the reason one of TBS's Web sites wasn't getting as many hits as expected was that the graphics-heavy site took too long to download. "We used the group as a kind of litmus test to verify what we'd suspected," says Grafton, who adds that conducting the group online was a quick and easy way to get the information he wanted.
When the subject is personal or sensitive-incontinence, for example-online definitely has its advantages. Whereas respondents might feel uncomfortable when speaking candidly face-to-face, virtual groups allow anonymity, says Carol Raffel, vice president of qualitative research, for Cincinnati-based Burke Inc. Adds Scott Spain, a software developer for !Research, a Washington, D.C.-based online market research company, "People hiding behind a keyboard get pretty brave."
Even researchers who prefer traditional methods agree that online groups are extremely effective in bringing together people from different parts of the country, especially those in higher income brackets who cannot spare the time to travel to the site of a conventional group. "If they are geographically dispersed, you'll never get your respondents face-to-face without great expense, so this is the next best way," says Robert Ferguson, vice president and research director of qualitative services at BAIGlobal, a research company in Tarrytown, New York. One group, convened to discuss the airline industry by NFO Interactive, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based research company, was comprised of individuals with mean incomes of $150,000 a year. "You just can't get these kinds of people to come into your office," says Charles Hamlin, NFO's president, "but we can get them online."
Using virtual groups does have its downside. Since only one-third of American adults are online, the sample won't be representative of the general population, says Dan Coates, director of Internet research at Burke. But because this online segment is more technologically savvy than the average consumer, they are a particularly good demographic for researching high-tech products, says Spain.
Another negative, says Coates, is that the "no-show" rate is roughly twice as high for online respondents. "It seems that the easier and more convenient involvement is, the less of a personal investment is made and the more likely respondents are to feel that they can simply skip the group." As a result, Coates recruits more than twice as many people for an online group.
The most significant drawback, however, is that online groups effectively blindfold and earplug the moderator-none of the participants' facial expressions, body language, and nuances of speech are discernible. Though the software Coates uses allows him to identify each respondent by name, track the exact time of response, and even "whisper" to a particular respondent when he doesn't want the rest of the group to listen in, he admits that there's only so much he can glean from words on a screen. Ferguson agrees: "You lose the ability to look at the respondent face-to-face, to read their body language." Coates points out that "emoticons" have been developed to fill this gap, such as typing "LOL" when the respondent is "laughing out loud," but admits that at best they are relatively crude indicators that represent three or four simple emotions. And Spain doesn't think that many respondents use them correctly, anyway. "We haven't figured out how to get a lot of the real emotional stuff online," admits Raffel.
Burke conducts only about 10 percent of its focus groups online now. But given the cheap price tag, speed, and new technologies that will facilitate Web-based communication, Raffel believes the number of virtual focus groups will keep increasing, but will never entirely replace their real world counterparts.
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