In this article, we look at online focus group advantages and disadvantages compared with face-to-face focus groups.
There are two main types of online focus group. The first is Synchronous, which means real-time or live groups, conducted via video or chat. The second is Asynchronous, which means not in real-time. These are often called Bulletin board focus groups (BBFGs), forums, or research communities, and they usually run over a few days.
We look now at the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Advantages and disadvantages of synchronous online focus groups
These seem appealing because they are the closest online equivalent to face-to-face focus groups. But in practice they often have problems. For example:
- Participants can have technical problems logging in, which can disrupt the whole group
- Moderators do not have time to probe in the way they do in asynchronous groups
- The discussion has to closely follow a detailed preprepared set of questions
- Clients cannot run them without technical support
- They are expensive
In terms of advantages, they are faster and lower cost than face-to-face focus groups on multi-market projects, or with hard-to-find audiences. However, we’d say that even in these circumstances bulletin board focus groups are better.
Disadvantages of asynchronous online focus groups
Misunderstanding of questions
With a face-to-face focus group the moderator can ask a question, and if participants don’t understand it the moderator can immediately re-phrase or explain it. With online groups this is more difficult, because any problem in this regard may only come to light after most of the participants have posted an answer. However, the moderator can easily conduct a pilot study to overcome this, so it is not so much a disadvantage as something to look out for when moderating.
Participant drop out
With online focus groups it is easy for participants to drop out part way through. This could occur if they decide that the research is uninteresting or too demanding. With face-to-face focus groups it is more difficult to get up and leave part way through, in front of all the other participants. Face-to-face group participants will also already have invested time and cost in travelling to the venue. So, you could argue this is not really a disadvantage, because the moderator should be making all focus group research interesting, in order to retain participants’ engagement.
With asynchronous online groups, the moderator cannot pick up non-verbal communications, such as body language or tone of voice, when participants are answering questions. Having said that, in practice such communications in face-to-face focus groups can be difficult to identify and then to interpret correctly, and may be interpreted differently by different researchers or the client. After all, they could be driven or influenced by the group setting or dynamics, rather than the subject matter.
Instant emotional reactions
With a face–to-face group, it could be argued, it is possible to see participants’ instinctive reaction to stimulus materials. Again, however, these are influenced by the group environment, and can, in any case, be collected in a different way online.
In a face–to-face group the skilled moderator can generate interaction among the participants, which can lead to useful insights being generated. This is more difficult with online groups, although it can be achieved.
Seeing and hearing
With a face-to-face group it is possible for the client to be in the room, or in an adjoining room, so they can see and hear the participants. Having said that, with an online group the client can read the transcript, and the results may include video of the participants.
Advantages of asynchronous online focus groups
Asynchronous online focus groups can be run in a fraction of the time required for face-to-face focus groups. Where face-to-face groups might take weeks, online groups can be run within days. That’s partly because they do not require viewing facilities to be booked in advance. But also recruitment can be much faster, because it can be undertaken online. Results are also available immediately.
Asynchronous online focus groups can offer a significant cost advantage over face-to-face groups. For example, there are no travel or accommodation costs, nor rental for viewing facilities.
Quality of participant
With asynchronous online focus groups, participants post their answers whenever they wish each day during the course of the research. They do not have to be available at a particular time on a particular day, and live near a focus group viewing facility. So participants who would be ruled out of face-to-face groups would be able to take part in asynchronous online groups.
In addition, participants who do not answer questions to the moderator’s satisfaction can be replaced, even mid research.
It is possible to have one online group with participants from a diverse geographical area, including regions in which there are no viewing facilities.
Asynchronous online groups lend themselves to personal or sensitive subjects. This is partly because participants cannot see each other, and partly because they can answer privately just to the moderator.
Time to think
In online groups there is arguably less pressure on participants to come up with instant answers. They can think about a subject or come back to it when something else occurs to them.
Client control and involvement
With online groups the client can be given a log in to view answers to questions as they come through. So they can have more control and input into the research. They can send requests to the moderator to explore particular lines of questioning with some or all participants.
Quality of insight
The online environment encourages honesty and engagement by participants. In particular, they can answer questions on a one-to-one basis with the moderator. Or the moderator can choose that all participants answer all questions on a one-to-one basis. Either way, this means participants do not need to be concerned about how their answers make them appear to other participants. And their answers will not be influenced by other participants’ answers.
Different questions to different participants
Another advantage of online groups is that participants can be asked different questions. And these questions do not need to be decided in advance. So if something interesting comes up during the research then this can be explored later on.
Asynchronous online focus groups have strengths and weaknesses, like any other research method. But they are undoubtedly faster and more affordable than face-to-face or synchronous online groups, so the question is whether they can deliver comparable insight, in terms of relevance, depth and integrity. Based on our experience, they can.