A few hours before Universal Studios Online participated in its first online focus group June 18, a gift basket of junk food arrived from Greenfield Online accompanied by a card that said, "The focus group is virtual, but the candy is real."
For marketers who have stood behind one-way mirrors popping M&Ms while scrutinizing the faces of panelists in conventional focus groups, the gesture raises a key question: Can the Internet replace the visceral experience of face-to-face panels?
Many market researchers, such as Greenfield Online, NFO Interactive, Harris Black International and others, believe it can, although they acknowledge online research has limitations.
Others that are moving aggressively into online market research, such as Millward Brown International and Digital Marketing Services, are avoiding online focus groups.
CRITICS CITE LIMITS
For DMS, which conducts online polls through America Online, the issue is pursuing quantitative vs. qualitative research. But MBinteractive, the online division of Millward Brown International, consciously decided to forgo online focus-group research.
"Seeing how people are interacting is a critical part of the focus-group process," said Rex Briggs, VP-interactive at MBinteractive. "[Online] doesn't get you anywhere near the same dimension [as conventional focus groups]."
Other issues raised by critics involve online recruiting methodologies (such as banner ads offering prize money to respondents) and whether Internet panelists represent the U.S. population (a common universe for market research).
PROPONENTS TOUT BENEFITS
But marketers that have used online focus groups, and market researchers conducting them, say benefits far outweigh limitations.
Those benefits include no geographic barriers, much lower costs (about half as much), faster turnaround time and intangibles such as respondents being more open without an interviewer staring them in the face.
"I think [the panelists] were more definite about things they didn't like [on a new Web site] than they'd be in front of a moderator," said Lisa Crane, VP-sales and marketing for Universal Studios Online, which used the online focus group to test a redesigned site it's developing for Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, a brand of its parent company Seagram Co.
Rudy Nadilo, president and CEO of Greenfield Online, which conducted the online focus group for Universal, said they are meant "to complement, not replace" traditional panels.
Greenfield Product Manager Susan Roth said she received 2,700 responses within one day of sending out a so-called screener e-mail to approximately 6,000 users in Greenfield's database of 500,000 Internet homes. She then formed two groups of eight panelists each for the client, which needed to make sure respondents were over 21 and had certain drinking preferences.
KEEPING PANELISTS HONEST
But how do researchers know if panelists give accurate information?
"During the initial screening, we're trusting them," said Ms. Roth. "But everything has to match up," she added, noting that Greenfield cross-checks answers to screening questionnaires against information entered when panelists registered for the database. Greenfield also rescreens panelists just before the focus group begins, and has alternates lined up should anyone not qualify.
During the online focus group, held in a private chat room on Greenfield's site, a moderator fields questions and answers on one side of a split screen, while clients can make suggestions-instantly by typing-on the left side of the screen.
"I loved the way I was able to influence what the moderator said instantly," said Ms. Crane.
Greenfield charges about $6,000 plus incentives for this type of two-group project. A conventional two-group package costs about $10,000.
Another researcher that's been aggressive in online focus groups is NFO Interactive, which conducts research with LiveWorld Productions on a dedicated Talk City site.
NFO Interactive, which charges $3,500 to $4,000 per group, has conducted between 80 and 90 online panels in the past 18 months, said President Charlie Hamlin.
NFO has done extensive ad testing, for online and off-line campaigns, as well as other types of research. Mr. Hamlin said aside from the lack of face-to-face contact with panelists, the only other limitation is quality of graphic presentation. It does not test TV spots because of bandwidth limitations.
Mr. Hamlin said NFO experienced this when testing a campaign for Cisco Systems, which makes networking equipment. "They had a very crisp presentation of product, but it wasn't as good online as it was in person."
Another well-known market researcher, Harris Black International, is recruiting panelists for online focus groups that will involve different illnesses, said George Terhanian, Internet research director at Harris Black.
Through a partnership with Excite, Harris Black is recruiting users with an offer to participate in the Harris Poll Online. Through a partnership with Excite's subsidiary MatchLogic, it is recruiting panelists using a sweepstakes offer.
After sending e-mail screeners to all 700,000 users in its database, Harris Black received about 200,000 back, a 30% response rate.
"It's incredibly difficult to recruit these people [off-line] for research because there are no lists of people who have identified themselves as having certain types of illnesses," said Mr. Terhanian. "People who have HIV who are online are probably not that different from people who have HIV who are not online."