3 ways to do packaging research without focus groups

If it is not feasible to do focus groups for a particular piece of packaging research various online research methods can be used instead.


A packaging research project may be designed to elicit feedback on design routes or formats, which could include shelf visibility and impact. It may also include, or be solely devoted to, pack messaging and hierarchy.


Whatever the subject matter, with packaging research it is important that the results include participants’ emotional reactions as well as their considered or rational responses to pack designs and messages.  Such reactions are central to the consumer purchase decision-making process after all.


With face-to-face focus groups the moderator can see participants’ instant reactions through their non-verbal communications, especially the looks on their faces when they are shown different pack shots.  So can such instant reactions be captured online?


Let’s now look at three online methods.


1. Real-time video focus groups

Seemingly the most obvious alternative to face-to-face focus groups is real-time video focus groups.  This method allows participants to visually engage with each other and with the moderator. In addition, the moderator can show pack shots to the group and observe participants’ instant reactions.


There are issues with this method, however. Firstly, video groups are not as spontaneous or informal as face-to-face groups, so the engagement between participants is not as natural or free-flowing.


Secondly, it is very difficult to moderate more than 3-4 participants at a time in a video focus group. This means you need two such groups to replace one face-to-face group with 8 participants. This is expensive, and still does not give the dynamics of an 8 person face-to-face group.


Thirdly, such groups can suffer from practical or technical problems in terms of participants being able to log in, and then their audio and video both working properly throughout. So generally these groups need a support technician on hand to deal with any issues that may arise.


2. Bulletin board focus groups

An alternative to video groups is to undertake so-called asynchronous online focus groups. These are otherwise known as bulletin board focus groups, or BBFGs.


With a BBFG the questions and answers are posted in writing, although images, videos and other types of file can also be included. They run over several days, and, if the moderator so chooses, participants can read each other’s answers, and comment on them. In addition, the moderator can comment on participants’ answers, and probe by asking for more detail or for clarification.


BBFGs would typically have up to 30 participants, and they benefit from the fact that they give participants time to think about the subject in detail and to look at and consider packaging designs without feeling under time pressure.


With BBFGs the moderator cannot see participants’ instant reactions to pack shots, because participants give their responses in writing. In addition, participants will not engage with each other to the same extent as they would in real-time focus groups.


However, it is possible to ask participants to write down their instant reactions. There can be a time control on this, such that they only have a few seconds, and so cannot sit there thinking about what to write.


And in terms of group interaction, it could be argued that this is not required for packaging research. After all, what the research is interested in is people’s own personal reactions to packaging designs or messages. This is not something that needs discussing between group participants.


Bulletin board focus groups are a genuine, proven alternative to focus groups, and they work well for packaging research.  They are also cost-effective and fast to set up and run.


However, there is a third alternative to consider.


3. Qualitative online surveys

A qualitative survey is like any other online survey, except that there are typically more open-ended (and fewer closed) questions in the questionnaire.  Typically the sample sizes would also be smaller than for quantitative research, although large by qualitative research standards.


In addition, qualitative surveys are administered rather than self-administered.  What this means is that the survey software is programmed to control the speed at which (some or all) questions are shown to respondents. With a self-administered survey it is the respondents who decide how quickly or slowly they work through the questionnaire.


Such time controls may be used to encourage respondents to stop and think about their answers, or they may be used to force respondents to give instant answers.


Other programming measures can also be used within the online questionnaire to elicit good quality answers, including, for example, a Virtual Moderator for probing.


Qualitative surveys are fast and inexpensive compared with other forms of packaging research, not least because of the ready availability of sample, without compromising the quality of results.


Whilst with qualitative surveys there is not the visual contact between moderator and participants that comes with face-to-face focus groups, they can nevertheless elicit both emotional and considered reactions to packaging designs.


Another advantage of qualitative surveys is their flexibility in terms of the length of interview.


For example, imagine you want to do some packaging research, but you only want to determine which messages should be on front of pack, and how they compare to each other in relative importance to consumers.  Such research may only take 10 minutes of participants’ time, which is ideal for a survey.


With qualitative surveys it is not possible to see all the respondents in the flesh during the research. However, a subset of respondents can be asked to record and upload videos after the survey. Or they can be invited to take part in depth-interviews, which could be undertaken by video calling through, for example, Whatsapp.



We appreciate the strengths of traditional face-to-face focus groups, and we understand the value that they can bring for clients.


But nowadays there are genuine online alternative methodologies, which have their own particular strengths.


Find out more by reading our page on Packaging research.

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